The FA had designated this as Sir Bobby Robson Day and it was an afternoon where one of his phrases hung heavily in the August air. “If,” said the man who might have won the World Cup for England. “If... biggest word in football, son.”
If is the biggest word in Watford. If they had had played to their potential in the play-off final against Crystal Palace, if Kevin Phillips had not produced an unstoppable penalty, they would be making their final preparations for the Premier League, wondering how the money would be spent and whether the glamour would have taken on a tinsel-like quality come November.
Even had Watford’s owners, the Pozzo family, allowed Gianfranco Zola to spend no money at all in the summer, rather than bring in 13 players, they would have been better prepared than Hull for the season ahead.
As it is, Watford are top of the embryonic table as if Wembley had been a blip and, on this evidence, they can still claim to be the best footballing side in the Championship. This, their first home game of the season, was a statement of naked intent.
When, put through by Almen Abdi, Lewis McGugan fractionally delayed his shot to give him just the angle to drive into the top corner of Ryan Allsop’s net, it was Watford’s fourth and a chant of: “We’re just too good for you” began bouncing around Vicarage Road.
That was, however, a long way from the truth for much of the match. Until they caved in early in the second half, Bournemouth looked at least as good, if not better than Watford.
When Lewis Grabban, who has now scored all three of Bournemouth’s goals in the Championship, slid home Ryan Fraser’s low cross, it was an equaliser they had earned. Bournemouth’s manager, Eddie Howe, grew up in Amersham and Watford were the team he went to watch: “I think they will be the team to beat,” he said. “But I think this will be the same kind of Championship that it was last season, very open and very difficult to read.”
Only after the fourth goal did Howe’s prophesy, delivered before Bournemouth’s opening-day victory against Charlton, that: “this is a league where we shouldn’t really be” sound like a warning.
Towards the end, Bournemouth disintegrated, allowing Troy Deeney, who had scored Watford’s winner at Birmingham the Saturday before, to leave with the match ball stuffed under his shirt grinning at everybody after completing a hat-trick. The last two were a shot from the edge of the area and a penalty after Diego Fabbrini had been hauled wearily down.
The first was more important because the game was then still in the balance with Watford 2-1 up. Both goals had come from corners converted by Gabriele Angella, one of the flood of footballers from the Pozzos’ other club, Udinese, who with Zola, have transformed football on the edge of the M25.
Fernando Forestieri, another of Udinese’s exports, judged his through-ball superbly and Deeney muscled his way through two defenders to place his shot over Allsop’s prostrate figure. Last August, Deeney was serving a sentence for affray after kicking a man in the head. Deeney was released early because of the remorse he had shown. His redemption is rather more important and rather more personal than his club’s failure to make the Premier League but it is a stitch in the same fabric.
Nevertheless, for those clubs looking for a last-minute stopgap striker, Deeney may tick a number of boxes. “He is in a good environment here and maybe we can help him improve,” said Zola. “He has worked a lot on his physical condition. He has power and ability and one of the qualities people don’t see is his intelligence. I hope he stays.”
Then came the fourth, very similar to the third except the pass came from Almen Abdi and the finish was McGugan‘s. It was over.
Nevertheless, Zola emphasised just how far Watford still have to travel and should they win automatic promotion, they will become only the third side since the formation of the Premier League to do so after losing a play-off final.
The first were Sunderland. After losing to Charlton on penalties after a 4-4 draw in 1998, Peter Reid ordered the team bus to stop at a pub outside Peterborough and told his players to get drunk and wash away the taste of defeat.
It must have worked because the following season Sunderland won the league with 105 points. As someone who drinks nothing stronger than espresso, they are tactics that to Zola would seem incomprehensible. But he is travelling, more soberly, to the same destination.
Watford (3-5-2): Almunia; Doyley, Angella, Cassetti; Anya, Faraoni, Abdi, Iriney, McGugan; Forestieri, Deeney.
Substitutes: Bond (g), Ekstrand, Battocchio, Acuna, Pudil, Fabbrini, Smith.
Bournemouth (4-1-4-1): Allsop; Francis, Ward, Cook, Daniels; MacDonald; Fraser, Arter, Surman, Pugh; Grabban.
Substitutes: Flahavan (g), Pitman, Harte, Thomas, Hughes, Stockley, O’Kane
Referee: James Adcock (Nottinghamshire)