Football: Jackett requires the quality of character

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THE WATFORD boss has not been well of late. For that matter, his team have been pretty poorly, too. An attack of influenza kept Graham Taylor away from the dug-out last weekend as the club lost at home to Everton, their 13th straight match without a win.

The bug has also got into the dressing room, something Watford most certainly do not need as, with a daunting list of injuries, they prepare for the holiday run of three games in eight days they hope will arrest a nose dive which has left them next to bottom in the Premiership.

Taylor was not around for training in the Christmas run-up. According to the first-team coach and long-time club servant, Kenny Jackett, "he was told to stay out of the cold for a couple more days", but the manager will be back on restless, pacing, gesticulating duty for the visit to Tottenham today. His inspiring presence is an urgent requirement for a side whose confidence has suffered relentless assault since Chelsea were beaten in mid-September.

Confidence is the key, says Jackett, after the Taylor trademark feat of promotion in successive seasons. "I don't think spirit is a problem. We have had two very successful years here, so it has been easy to be optimistic and to come to work in a happy frame of mind. But the thing that is hard to keep on top of is confidence and belief in themselves when really the biggest thing that gives players confidence is winning games.

"This run is now testing our character. Everybody wanted the opportunity to play at the top level, and rightly so. The difficulty right now is retaining belief in yourself and your ability. You can see at times a lack of confidence in their play but the only way to get out of it is to keep working hard and doing the things you believe in. Then, with some good fortune and perhaps one or two additions from the treatment table, things will start to turn for us."

Watford's immediate commitments are hardly daunting. After Spurs, they are at home to Southampton on Tuesday and then travel to Derby a week tomorrow. Compared to their climax to the season in April (Arsenal, Leeds and Manchester United in succession) there is ground for Jackett's optimism that some of the nine points at stake may finish in his club's barren larder.

"This is an opportunity to turn the season around," he said as a lone bobble-hatted player lapped the perimeter track at Vicarage Road on Thursday afternoon. "Everybody will look differently if we pick up points during this period. We've got to be optimistic and look to win each game, dispense with who you are playing and concentrate on your own performance. You would be a fool not to respect what is coming against you, but the main thing is our capacity to get points from those three games."

Watford's three League wins this season were all by the slimmest of margins, 1-0 over Bradford City and Chelsea at home and Liverpool away. For the rest, the statistics are grim, with goals being leaked at an average of two a game. So did the Hornets, promoted through the play-off route after finishing fifth in the First Division, leap into the Premiership before they were ready? And can they hang on?

"You can say it was a bit early for us, but I wouldn't have taken away last year for anything," said Jackett. "You can't pick and choose when you go up, either. You can gear everything to promotion and then get a load of injuries or suspensions."

Jackett, who played 12 seasons for Watford and, after a brief spell away, has now completed a 20-year connection with the club as coach, agrees that staying in the top section is more difficult than it was in the six years he played under Taylor's managership in the old First Division. "It's a fact that clubs who come through the play-offs find it hard to stay up. Eight of the 11 have got relegated straight away. That tells you something.

"The squads at the leading clubs are now very good and those clubs are getting bigger all the time in terms of fan base around the world because of the explosion that has come from television. For those people, the players are in their front room. They don't need to come to Vicarage Road to watch football and that affects us, of course it does."

Jackett insists money is available "but obviously it is not considerable compared to other teams in this league". Meantime, he says, it is a matter of hard work and sticking to beliefs. "In our industry, the bottom line is winning or losing. One win can give us confidence and belief. Sometimes a draw away from home, whatever, can give you something to build on."

Which sounds like a good cue for Graham Taylor to go out into the cold and wreak some magic.