Watford, Manchester United and a tragic pre-season

Pre-season is a strange time. All sorts of things can happen but their greater significance is unknown; your team’s new striker scoring a brace against Boreham Wood – it’s encouraging, but is he really any good? For Watford fans, the task of assessing new players has been made even more difficult by the recent flood of European imports. Last season, the only opinion you could get on players like Matej Vydra and Christian Battachio was ‘he’s alright on Football Manager’. But, unknown loanees are not a new phenomena for my team. Before Udinese started shipping over players by the dozen, Watford had enjoyed an unlikely relationship with Manchester United, the most recent high profile example being Tom Cleverley, who spent a season on loan at Vicarage Road. There was never any official arrangement in place between the two clubs, but the flow of players seemed to begin when United signed Chris Eagles.

Once a highly sought after youth team player at Watford, the teenage Eagles was sniffed out by United’s scouts, and a compensation package was agreed to take the player to Old Trafford in 2000. A couple of seasons later, as a sign of growing good will between the clubs, United loaned Watford their teenage forward, Danny Webber. Bear in mind this wasn’t that long after United’s golden generation had delivered their ultimate triumph against Bayern Munich, so any youth team graduate from Old Trafford brought a level of expectation. Watford fans wondered how good Webber might be, and it felt like an honour that Alex Ferguson was prepared to grant us access to one of his prized potential stars of the future. During that first spell, Webber was good without being outstanding, but he only had a handful of games. However, the following season Webber returned for a second loan spell, and this time we saw a player worth talking about.

Webber had great movement, plenty of skill and fantastically quick feet, but even more encouragingly, Webber looked like he was really enjoying playing for Watford. He charged about, wilfully chasing hopelessly over hit passes and harassing defenders into mistakes. So, when Watford secured his permanent signature the following summer it felt like we’d really put a move on our rivals in the Football League. Under normal circumstances there’s no way we could have financed the deal. This was post ITV Digital and things were getting bad, as in ‘collection buckets outside the ground’ bad. But, thanks to Chris Eagles, Watford were able to get Webber as part of the final terms of his compensation package.

Not only that, but we managed to bag another young prospect on a season long loan, an attacking midfielder called Jimmy Davis.  I was now convinced that Ferguson really did think highly of us. As had been the case with Webber, I didn’t know much about Davis, but the word among fans and in the local media was that this lad was the real deal – one that Fergie had plans for. Watford weren’t on anyone’s list of promotion favourites for the 2003/04 season, but there was a sense of optimism about pre-season that cut through the financial gloom. And that optimism was entirely generated by the pre-season form of Watford’s attacking play, with Webber and Davis operating as part of a front three. It was Davis in particular who was creating a buzz, and although I didn’t get to see any of Watford’s pre-season games, reports like this one from Matt Rowson had everyone excited:

“Davis looks to be a treat indeed, scurrying this way and that on tiny, frantic legs, plenty of pace, plenty of tricks… but a healthy dose of grit in the mix too, as he revealed when holding off a robust challenge on the halfway line. His was the first breakthrough… Ardley played a fine ball through, and Davis scampered onto it, left the keeper on his backside and flicked the ball into an empty net. It will certainly be no hardship to see more of him.”

You can see why news of gaping holes in the balance sheet were being gleefully ignored as the curtain raiser approached. There’s something special about the atmosphere on the first day of the season, regardless of your team’s prospects. Whatever lies ahead, you feel it will all be that little bit easier if you can get off to a good start. Three points, the crowd go home happy, and the immediate pressure is lifted. Watford were to play Coventry City at Vicarage Road – not an impossible start then, or so you’d have thought. But, it was rendered precisely that at 12.20pm, when a police statement announced that Watford had called the game off.

Jimmy Davis had been involved in a car crash during the early hours of the morning and was pronounced dead at the scene. It later emerged that he was twice over the limit for alcohol, and had most probably fallen asleep at the wheel. There were no other casualties.

Leaving aside personal views on Davis’ decision to drive under the influence, this was a horrible waste of a life. Watford fans hadn’t had long enough to build up a connection with Davis before his death, but even so the news had an immediately draining affect on everyone at the club. Watford lost the first three games without scoring. They were devoid of confidence, and it was immediately obvious that a relegation battle lay ahead. The impact on Webber in particular was significant, he had a lost a friend as well as a team mate, and although he appeared to be trying, his form deserted him.

The fact that Watford ultimately recovered and survived is arguably Ray Lewington’s finest achievement as a coach or manager. And, one of the most pleasing experiences as a fan during that period was to see Webber produce his best form for Watford at the start of the following season. It was his last season at the club, and he never quite lived up to his early promise, but at times the talent that had once secured a contract with United was still there.

As a Watford fan, I’ve become more discerning towards transient players. I’m a realist and I accept my club is not big enough to keep hold of its very best players for long, and there are benefits to using the loan system well, especially when you get a player who really wants to prove themselves. Tom Cleverly was superb for Watford, and so was Ben Foster. There’s no reason why loan players can’t enjoy a great rapport with the fans even if it’s only for a season. Football is littered with moments of what might have been, but it will always be a terrible shame we never got enjoy that season with Jimmy Davis. All we have is that pre-season, which unlike most years, will always have a greater significance than the season that followed.