Compare & Contrast
Jack Ottman looks back at 2014/15 comparing it to the then promotion season of 2020/21
Over the course of a promotion-chasing campaign, you often try to find comparisons between the current year and other successful seasons, to convince yourself that this one will end just as well.
However, for me, this comparison could only be made with our most recent promotion campaign. 1997/98 and 1998/99 were both a few years before my first Watford game and while I was a season ticket holder for 2005/06, my only real memories are from the play-offs, which leaves 2014/15 as the only previous promotion campaign I can remember in its entirety.
Despite the same end result, the differences between the two campaigns come to mind quicker than the similarities.
In August 2014 we were looking for a big improvement on the 13th-place finish the previous year, but Deeney signing a new deal on the back of two consecutive 20-goal hauls and the return of Vydra after his disappointing season in the top tier meant the fans were hopeful of a strong campaign. 2012/13 was as unexpectedly brilliant as 2013/14 was hugely disappointing, and while we certainly weren’t favourites in 2014/15, I remember being confident that we’d learnt our lessons from the mess of the previous year and that this would be the culmination of three years of Pozzo ownership.
This year, however, the feelings in preseason were very different. Five years in the Premier League meant that anything less than promotion would have been considered a failure and there was a certain arrogance amongst fans and players alike, thinking that we were too good to be in this division. In terms of personnel, it was much more about who we could keep, rather than who we were bringing in. A tweet from the club in preseason which announced the squad numbers for the upcoming campaign raised excitement levels, with the likes of Suárez, Estupiñán, Pereyra and Deulofeu all included. By the start of the season, it became apparent that all these players would leave but expectations remained high with Deeney, Sarr, Kiko and Hughes amongst those who stuck around.
There were also huge differences between the styles of play throughout both campaigns. In 2014/15 we seemed to settle on a 3-5-2 formation relatively early, even with several managerial changes, and we would use a 4-1-2-1-2 with four narrow midfielders as our Plan B. We were a superb attacking force with two 20-goal strikers in Deeney and Ighalo and Vydra not far behind on 16. Even after that we had the likes of Forestieri, Abdi and Tőzsér who were all perfectly capable of putting it in the back of the net. The other end of the pitch, however, was not so strong and it was more of a case of ‘if you score three, we’ll score four’, as actually happened away at Bolton in February.
This season has, rather obviously, been much more about our virtually unbreachable defence, and we only settled into our successful 4-3-3 formation in the second half of the season. At the time promotion was secured, we were on 22 clean sheets from 44 games, and are yet to concede more than two in any game, a remarkable achievement when you consider that performances have been split between two goalkeepers and our back four/five were largely rotated until the business end of the season. At the other end, goals haven’t been as free-flowing, but we are still in the top five goalscoring teams in the league, with goals spread more evenly throughout the squad.
All that being said, there are still certain parallels which can be drawn between the two successful campaigns. In both seasons we ended up hiring a largely inexperienced and unknown coach during the season who, after a blip where fans called for their head, managed to galvanise the squad and put together a sensational run to finish the season in glory. In 2014/15 the blip was four straight defeats in December, and this season it was three limp, winless performances before the international break in February – but after emphatic victories over Fulham and Bristol City respectively, we never really looked back. In both seasons we were preparing for the promotion race to go down to the final kick but other teams’ shortcomings meant we were able to secure promotion earlier than expected.
There is, of course, one more monumental difference between the two seasons which can’t be ignored. It is impossible to say how fans would have affected the outcome of this season, but we can be fairly certain in saying that it wouldn’t have improved our home form! Watching a promotion campaign without being able to go to a single game is a new experience for most fans (I was lucky enough to go to Cardiff at home but would rather not mention that) and it definitely does take some shine off the achievement. For the most part, victories weren’t celebrated with such passion and losses didn’t cut as deeply. When I think of 2014/15, I remember brilliant victories against Fulham away and Blackpool at home, and wild celebrations at home to Huddersfield and Birmingham and away at Fulham, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Brighton. This season, however, the only moments I can remember celebrating as passionately as I would if I were in the stands were Masina’s last-gasp free-kick against Cardiff, Gosling’s winner against Norwich and the final whistle against Millwall.
Only time will tell how this season will be viewed compared to others, and missing out on an entire promotion campaign is obviously far from ideal, but considering the situation we found ourselves in, I’m much happier than I would be had it been an uneventful season. At least now when we finally return to the Vic we can pretend relegation never really happened! I would say I’m sure it won’t be too long before we get to experience another promotion campaign, but that would imply another relegation, so I’ll settle for European qualification or another cup run in the meantime.
Finally, I do hope that there will be one more difference between the two campaigns; that this time the Pozzos decide to give the inexperienced coach who got us to the Premier League the chance to keep us there. Whether or not he’s the right man to keep us up next season, the least that Xisco Muñoz deserves is an ovation from a packed Vicarage Road.