Lewington looking to pitch out Chelsea

Watford manager believes heavy surface at Vicarage Road can close the gap with Ranieri's side today
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The Independent Online

Were it not for the fear of a heavy frost freezing the pitch, and thus prompting a postponement that would rob Watford of £300,000 in television income, Ray Lewington might have been tempted to get the hosepipe out at Vicarage Road last night.

As it is, the Watford manager has relied on the combination of this week's rain, and Saracens' rugby match on Thursday, to produce the old-fashioned gluepot he hopes will trap Chelsea in today's FA Cup third-round tie.

Lewington believes in his team but is realistic enough to accept they may need more tangible assistance than that offered by the cup's fabled romance. "We played Chelsea in pre-season," he said this week. "We lost 4-1 and it could have been heavier. If we play as we did that day they will tear us to shreds but there are three key differences: it is a competitive match; we will not be so open in our play; and the pitch.

"Our pitch is as poor as I have seen it," he added. "Our players have been complaining about it. The rugby team have been playing on it and the rain has affected the surface very badly. It is playable but very tacky. It is not the type of pitch a Premier League team is used to and it could help us."

Watford made an improbable run to the FA Cup semi-finals last year. Improbable because then, as now, they were a mid-ranking First Division club, but they were also engulfed in a financial crisis which meant many of the team knew they had no future at the club. Although the Cup run earned Watford £1.2m, the club remains in penury.

"A match like this gives you mixed feelings," Lewington admitted. "You would like another run to earn the same kind of money but when you get a draw like this the chance of doing so declines. On the other hand, this game will be a pay-day for us - we could earn about £400,000 with TV rights thrown in.

"That is not to say we don't think we can win. We do. I think Chelsea will win the title this year but they can still be beaten. The good thing about having young players in the team is that they don't look at the logic. They just go out and play."

On Monday, after Southampton's surrender to Arsenal, their manager Gordon Strachan said he could "smell the fear" in his team. "I think there is a fear factor when teams come up against these sides," Lewington conceded. "In the past you would fancy yourself against most teams, even when you came up against the League leaders. Look at when Colchester beat Leeds.

"But the game has moved on. The Premiership has become a two-tier league. Realistically, it is between three teams. So when you go into a game against one of those teams you can be overawed. It is in the back of your mind that if it is their day you could be embarrassed. There is a fear factor and you can see it in the way some teams play against them.

"What happens is the reverse of what should happen. Teams give them too much room, stand back and watch. They are scared to go in in case the guy drops his shoulder and leaves you looking daft. So they are allowed to play. Then you are in trouble."

Lewington's career began with today's opponents 28 years ago. The teenaged midfielder was given a chance in the wake of an FA Cup upset, the fifth-round defeat at Stamford Bridge to then Third Division Crystal Palace.

"We are all envious of Chelsea and the money they have," he said. "Like us they had financial problems and for someone to come in and wipe off all the debts is the stuff of fantasy. Personally, I'm pleased it has happened to them because they were my first club.

After four seasons at Chelsea, Lewington went, via Vancouver Whitecaps and Wimbledon, to Fulham where he spent a dozen years - a season at Sheffield United apart - as player, player-manager and coach. He had a spell as assistant manager at Crystal Palace and another as manager at Brentford.

In all that time he only once reached the FA Cup fifth round, with Chelsea in 1978 - only to be knocked out by Leyton Orient. As a manager, prior to last year, he had not progressed past the third round.

An obvious factor is that, at all these clubs, including mid-1970s Chelsea, money was tight - Lewington left Fulham well before Mohamed Al Fayed arrived. This remains the case at Watford. "The worst thing is that we still don't own our own ground," Lewington said. "When the crisis happened last year the club had to sell Vicarage Road. If they had not done that they could not have kept going.

"When I came in [in August 2002] the first thing they wanted to do was to cut £4m off the wage bill, which we did. But we have to knock another couple of million off this year as well. So we still have had no money to spend. Danny Webber was bought by a couple of the directors, Paul Devlin by a supporter.

"The squad is smaller than last year but potentially better. Once the younger players have matured we will be in a better position. The likes of Jamie Hand and Jack Smith have done well but are very raw."

Watford's season began tragically when Jimmy Davis, on loan from Manchester United, was killed in a car crash on the eve of the opening match. That game against Coventry was postponed but Watford managed just four points from the next 24.

"I think the death of Jim really affected the lads," Lewington said. "We started very, very slowly. The whole place was very subdued for a long time.

"Jimmy was not due to play that day as he was injured. I had allowed him to go home on the Friday to see his mum. But it was sweltering and he decided to come down to spend the night in his hotel room as it was cooler. That was when it happened.

"I got a call at 10am on the morning of the game. We got all the lads in to tell them to their faces. Danny Webber [a former United team-mate] was especially hard hit because Jimmy was his best mate. It affected him badly but it did everyone because Jimmy was a lively, likeable lad. Everyone was attached to him. I certainly was.

"It has not been an easy 18 months here. Last year was, in many ways, a nightmare. But I knew what I was getting into when I took the job, and I wanted to do it."

Lewington is a football man to his core, one who has hewn a respectable management cv from the bleakest of assignments. Today represents a shot at glory, a break from the hard labour of trying to win matches while saving pounds.

It is an opportunity he is relishing. Looking out at the mud, he added: "Somewhere on Saturday there will be a shock. It probably won't be here, but people will turn up on the off-chance that it is. That's why the Cup still has that something about it."

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