Affleck's Angle: Four Good Men
By Kevin Affleck
“Whoever you are, or who you think you are, and whatever you’ve achieved, or think you have achieved, Graham Taylor showed the way to behave, to treat people and to know what's really important in life.”
On the anniversary of the passing of Watford’s greatest-ever manager, it was fitting that four of the best blokes you will find at the club combined to inspire the Hornets to a win that GT would have loved, both in terms of the goals – both from dead balls – and the odds-defying nature of it. Ben Foster kept Watford in it, Craig Cathcart headed in the equaliser, Tom Cleverley slammed in the winner and Javi Gracia, the ring master, was there choreographing it all.
We’ll get onto Foster, Cathcart and Cleverley in a minute, but let's just dwell once more on what a mighty fine individual Gracia is. He's very much cut from the same cloth as Taylor.
So many top-level coaches would have been glad to get out of Woking last Sunday and forget about its shoebox away changing room and its rabbit-warren corridors, but not Gracia. He loved every minute of the experience and he caught the bug to such an extent that he was checking out the Cards’ result against Welling United on Wednesday night. Nice touch.
Then, on Saturday night, as he strode out of the press conference he said “goodbye” to a young lad working behind a serving hatch in the media room. The teenager had been serving up jacket potato and chilli con carne all afternoon and then endless cups of hot drinks to the press. You should have seen the lad’s face after Gracia acknowledged him. It lit up. It made his day. But that’s what Gracia does: he makes time for others, he is humble, courteous and he leaves a lasting impression on you. Sound like anyone else you fondly remember?
On Saturday, the Head Coach also showed he has a ruthless streak, one that all top coaches need. Being nice only gets you so far. Ken Sema, who could already count himself unlucky not to be in the starting-XI after good showings at West Ham and Bournemouth, was only on the field for 49 minutes and there is always that ignominy of a substitute being subbed. No coach likes to do that. You just had to see the reaction of the Chelsea fans at Vicarage Road when that happened to Callum Hudson-Odoi on Boxing Day. But Gracia wasn't interested in winning a popularity contest on Saturday. He wanted the three points so he hauled Sema off.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but, in that moment, I thought I had to do it,” said Gracia. “I am very sorry as I don’t like to do it, but I had to do it.”
Note the sincerity of the public apology. Again, he didn’t need to do that. Most don’t.
Others would have bottled that call and worried about losing the player, but Gracia showed by slinging on Troy Deeney and Abdoulaye Doucouré against Newcastle at home that he’s not worried about losing face.
“For whatever reason, Sema was not at the races,” said Derek Payne on BBC Three Counties Radio. “It was brave by Gracia. It just wasn’t Sema’s day. The manager made the right call.”
Didn't he just. Gracia wasn’t to know Cleverley, good bloke number two, would score six minutes after coming on but what the Head Coach had spotted was Palace’s penchant for conceding second-half goals. They shipped two at home to Southampton, another two at Everton, two more against Arsenal and three at West Ham.
“We spoke about Palace conceding more goals in the second half and it was important to believe,” said Gracia of his half-time instructions. “I was sure we would have chances to win the game – not only to draw. They believed until the end.”
Cleverley has form for popping-up late on to score the winner. He has this natural knack of arriving in the box at the right time, a bit like David Platt. Cleverley did the same against Arsenal in October 2017, which turned out to be his last goal. That’s how long he’s been out. With that one graceful swing of his right leg at Selhurst Park, where he showed exemplary technique to get his hip over the ball, Cleverley exorcised the injury hell of the last 12 painstaking months and the demons of being sent off here last year before the sky fell in.
“It was double sweet,” said Cleverley. “I realise there is a bit of needle between Watford and Palace. The games are always close. We had a bad experience here last season and we turned that round today. I hope the fans enjoyed it.”
There was unbelievably a petition signed by more than 12,500 for Cleverley to be left out of the England squad for the 2014 World Cup. How ridiculous. Gracia now needs to find a way to crowbar Cleverley into his midfield otherwise eyebrows will be raised of a different kind.
“Cleverley gets overlooked sometimes because he just does the simple things well,” said Payne. “He doesn’t try to do what he can’t do. He’s not going to try and drop his shoulder and beat three or four players. That’s not his his game. He pops the ball around corners, gets it back and just keeps the team ticking. You know he's going to give you 100 per cent week in, week out.”
Just like Cathcart, good bloke number three.
“I trust him,” said Gracia. “He always shows a very good level, a good commitment and is a very important player for me.”
Cathcart is another who has battled back from a long recent injury, although he didn’t take a club physio on a family holiday to Barbados with him like Cleverley did. You sometimes forget he only started the last five games of last season so recovering from conceding an own goal was small beer compared to missing 43 games with a hip and groin problem.
“Subconsciously, I was probably thinking that [about making up for the own goal] but fortunately I saw the cross coming all the way, I got it on target and it went in,” Cathcart said.
Despite being one of the funniest men in the dressing room, the Northern Ireland international doesn't give much away in post-match interviews. He very much deploys the forward defensive to most questions. But he did offer a little insight into the psychological approach being used by Gracia when asked about the Hornets' habit of dropping off in the second half of the season.
“That’s the perception,” Cathcart said. “The manager said he doesn’t want those negative feelings around the place.”
Gracia is setting a few records straight. He masterminded the club’s best-ever start to a top-flight season, he has now pocketed more points away from home than they did in the whole of last season, and Saturday was only the second time in 80 Premier League games they have been trailing at half-time and gone on to win.
“They've shown resilience, they’ve shown character and they dig in,” said Payne.
Added Cleverley: “We never know when we are beaten.”
There is no fiercer competitor in the squad than Ben Foster, good bloke number four. We’ve talked already about him at length in this column this season, but his contribution on Saturday should not be forgotten. If he doesn’t make the saves in the second half from Wilfried Zaha and Luka Milivojević then the comeback is over before it has begun. He was apparently in the dressing room afterwards raving about the performance of Troy Deeney, but he was pretty damn good himself.
This is the quality the club now has in its ranks, three players in Cleverley, Cathcart and Foster who spent key years at Manchester United, playing nearly 100 times between them and being imbued with that winning mentality Sir Alex Ferguson fostered. They come from a good stock.
Now they are at a club where another legendary figure is almost single-handedly responsible for its DNA. There was more than a touch of irony about how the two Watford goals on Saturday came neatly either side of the applause on 72 minutes to mark the passing of Graham Taylor.
“Maybe today he was supporting us and I am happy to get this result on this special day,” poignantly said Gracia, the man who in so many ways is following in GT's footsteps.