Since they last met at Vicarage Road over a quarter of a century ago Swansea and Watford's paths have diverged. However, as they meet again in the second tier it is the visitors who are building an enviable reputation while the hosts look to be suffering a case of post-play-off syndrome. Huw Richards was there
Watford and Swansea are forever linked by the shared experience of the late 1970s and early 1980s when both rose in a few seasons from the fourth level to the upper reaches of what we then called (and still is, whatever its official label may be) Division One. There, though, their paths diverged. Watford stayed on at the upper end of the league and have spent only two of the past 30 seasons outside the top two divisions. Swansea, by contrast, returned whence they had come and have only this year escaped the bottom two.
This is Swansea’s first visit to Vicarage Road since September 1982, so long ago that only one side of the ground remains unchanged. The two ends, Vicarage Road and the Rookery, are seated and covered while the Rous Stand with its executive boxes rises along one touchline. Facing it is the one constant, the decaying, untenanted East Stand, out of bounds on safety grounds to everyone except journalists, presumably deemed expendable. Wedged into the corner between the Rous and the Rookery is an as yet unfinished block branded with the name of West Herts College.
Pre-match indications are that the lines which diverged with Swansea’s relegation from Division One in 1983 may be about to cross again. Watford are this year’s Championship victims of post-play-off syndrome, promotion contenders for almost the whole of last season, down in the relegation places this time round with only one victory in their last seven. They have just exited the FA Cup after seriously worrying Chelsea for 80 minutes and their fans wonder how a club that had the cash from a Premier League season two years ago plus the contingent parachute payments can have financial worries.
Swansea emerged from their FA Cup tie, a home draw with Fulham, as football’s flavour of the moment, extravagantly praised by writers and broadcasters who for most of the previous quarter-century would have struggled to find Swansea on a map, much less contemplate visiting it. The description “best footballing team outside the Premier League” has advanced from tentative proposition to conventional wisdom in the space of a few weeks. It recognises a style of play in the image of manager Roberto Martinez – cool and controlled and with an unmistakeable Spanish accent, but fluently comfortable in British conditions and idiom.
In the league an eight-match run of draws has given way to a succession of resounding victories over a number of rivals for that “best footballing team” title – Burnley, Reading and Ipswich among them – that has propelled the Swans to the edge of the play-offs. The outplaying (though not outscoring) of Fulham in the FA Cup follows a comprehensive Fratton Park dismantling of holders Portsmouth. Those of us who had assumed that the vertiginous ascent of the Toshack years was a once-in-a-lifetime experience suddenly find themselves contemplating the possibility of a repetition.
So the mood among the Swansea fans grouped in one half of the Vicarage Road end, spacious enough to spare them the usual all-seater paradox – the rule that since terraces were abolished in the upper leagues, away fans usually have to stand if they want to see anything – is exuberantly optimistic. But for those looking for bad omens, they are present in abundance. In a season where little else has gone wrong, the Swans have shown a marked aversion to London and its environs. The season began with defeat at Charlton. By some margin the worst performance was at Crystal Palace and the one real hammering, 4-0, came at Reading. And while Watford were beaten 3-1 at the Liberty Stadium in the league, they returned a couple of days later to eject the Swans from the League Cup and claim a quarter-final tie against Spurs. Referee Anthony Taylor was also in charge for the Swans’ last defeat, 15 matches and nearly three months ago at home to Birmingham City. Most of Watford’s best moments had come against teams with footballing and promotion pretensions – Vicarage Road wins over Burnley, Preston, QPR and Ipswich.
The home side run out to the strains of Johnny Todd, a sea shanty generally associated with Everton and, for those of us of a certain age, the TV cop series Z Cars. Both teams huddle pre kick-off. On a mild night by recent standards Watford defenders Lloyd Doyley and Adrian Mariappa still take the precaution of wearing gloves. Johnny Todd is not the last musical incongruity. Watford’s anthem of the moment is a cheerful chorus of Sloop John B, whose refrain of “I want to go home” is not perhaps the most encouraging message to offer in support of a struggling team.
And struggle is what seems likely in the opening minutes as Swansea dominate possession and advance with purpose. But they lack the confident flow of recent games, their movements neat rather than incisive.
If one element in this is the pitch – while Swansea are well used to surfaces also frequented by rugby players, Vicarage Road is rather more rutted than the Liberty Stadium – their real problem is Watford’s intelligent disruption of their system. Diminutive deep-lying midfielder Leon Britton, initiator of many moves, is pressurised while close marking keeps wide men Tommy Butler and Nathan Dyer marginalised. All of this isolates Jason Scotland, a one-man strikeforce who becomes infinitely more dangerous when given effective support from midfield. One consequence is that, while it remains an occasional rather than staple option, the long ball from the back is seen much more than in recent matches.
Swansea threaten seriously once in the first 15 minutes when Britton angles a pass behind the Watford defence and Butler cuts in to fire a low shot that is well saved by keeper Scott Loach, diving to his left. Subdued but solid in the early stages, Watford appear to be roused by a series of marginal decisions against them by referee Taylor. None is outrageous, or ultimately very consequential, but skipper Jay DeMerit initiates a seminar on interpretation with Mr Taylor while their fans are provided with the sense of grievance that raises volume levels.
Watford’s discontent will rumble, on and off the field, for the rest of the first half. But midway through the half it is joined by another emotion, the joy that comes with an unexpected goal. As Brendan Rodgers will point out during post-match press conferences notable for the generosity of spirit of both managers: “If you get possession against a passing team, there’s a good chance there’ll be space.”
So it proved in the 22nd minute. Swansea, showing that even good teams are not immune to deep-seated club traditions, made a pig’s ear of a corner, Watford broke and Jobi McAnuff went away down the left. McAnuff, whose pace and directness troubled Swansea in both attack and offence all evening found Tommy Smith on the edge of the Swansea box. Spotting that Swansea’s defence had been drawn across he slid a subtly angled ball that found Tamas Priskin by himself inside the area. The Hungarian striker drove his shot across and past exposed keeper Dorus de Vries.
Cue ecstasy on the Rookery, disappointment but not yet desperation at the Swansea end. They had, after all, trailed after dominating against Fulham but struck back with their best ten minutes of the afternoon to force an equaliser. Not so here. Another goal comes within ten minutes, but it is Watford’s second – again initiated from long range. Watford midfielder Jack Cork, whose father Alan was both Wimbledon legend and one of Swansea’s less successful managers, intercepts a loose pass in his own half and links with Smith. He sends McAnuff away again down the left. Priskin meets his cross firmly and is denied only by an acrobatic stop by De Vries, who is helpless against Smith’s precisely placed conversion of the rebound.
That, effectively, is that. Swansea come closest to dragging the match back towards its previous course either side of half-time. Before the break Scotland escapes and shows his most dangerous attribute, the ability to unleash a fierce, low shot with minimal backlift, but Loach dives to his right to save. After it Dyer briefly starts to escape his captors and twice threatens. First a low cross skids across the goal with nobody available to finish, then Dyer is chopped on the edge of the box. Scotland’s free-kick would have been admirably fit for purpose had the match been between the two teams’ rugby-playing co-tenants.
After that Watford’s grip is terminal. Swansea’s frustration is evident in gestures of exasperation from the habitually cheerful Scotland. They never stop trying to play football – Martinez has firmly inculcated his belief that while thumping the long ball might rescue the odd match, staying true to footballing principle will produce better results over the medium or long-term. Watford are still more remorseless in stopping them, a highly effective performance in which defensive discipline is complemented by intelligent conservation of possession – where Swansea have enjoyed a huge advantage in possession in most recent matches, Watford have a small edge here – and the constant threat of Smith and McAnuff.
At the end Watford’s players and coaches huddle again in the centre of the field before breaking to receive the justified acclaim of their fans. That praise is echoed by Martinez, one of whose many admirable qualities is the ability to see virtue in opponents, who boggles the press room’s collective mind by using the adjective “perfect” for aspects of Watford’s performance. Rodgers reciprocates in kind and spirit, saying: “Swansea’s football is outstanding. They have an idea of football that I like, and they’re probably a couple of years ahead of us.”
The result hauls Watford out of the bottom three, and the sense of revival implicit in both performance and outcome is underlined by the following weekend’s victory at Blackpool. Swansea’s next result, a 3-1 victory over in-form Doncaster, suggested that Vicarage Road may be blip rather than downturn. But by lifting Watford away from trouble and keeping Swansea among the chasers rather than the holders of play-off places, it greatly increased the likelihood of this fixture being played again next season. Those lines may not cross quite yet.
From WSC 266 April 2009