The Watford squad had an unscheduled meeting in the build-up to the Arsenal game, one outside of the usual fine-tuning of the gameplan, the video session on the opposition and the usual tub-thumping ahead of a matchday.
It was designed to flush out some of the negativity surrounding a run of one in six league games and a return of just two goals. Quique Sanchez Flores wanted to emphasise how the next two matches could define their season. ‘Beat Arsenal and you are in the semi-final of the greatest knockout cup competition in the world. And beat Stoke City, in front of your own fans, and you will confirm, once and for all, the inevitable second consecutive season of Premier League football for this club’. That would have been the gist of it. Part one achieved, thrilling at the Emirates on Sunday. Now for the second part.
“We have exactly the impetus we need for the last part of the season,” said Sanchez Flores. “I felt we worked well against Leicester, against United, against Bournemouth, and the players are fighting a lot, but I felt it was not enough. We can do something more.”
The team delivered big-time on Sunday, knocking out the winners of the FA Cup for the past two seasons and ending their 16-match FA Cup winning streak.
“This [Arsenal] game gives us extra energy, extra belief and we can take that into the Premier League,” said Almen Abdi. “We had a talk together before the Arsenal win about how these two games, to be in the semi final of the FA Cup and to reach 40 points in March, is what we were looking for.”
The search for more is why Sanchez Flores strode purposefully into yesterday’s meeting with the press with no air of a man who is on the brink of setting new ground at a club which already has its fair share of rich history. There was no, ‘Look at me, I’ve got this team into the semi-final of the FA Cup and am about to keep them up in the Premier League for the first time ever’. Not a trace of it.
“Now is not the time to make values about the season,” he said. “We are really happy. The fans are enjoying the experience. We have lots of compliments from the the media but I don’t like compliments in this period as we could relax. We have had reasons to be worried in the last three weeks as we have been in a comfortable zone. Sometimes this happens. Sometimes human beings relax a little bit. We work hard every day and don’t get comfortable. I don’t like to relax. I try to be strong every time.”
This is why Sanchez Flores went home to his Hampstead residence straight from the Emirates and watched a re-run of the game with his teenage sons, partly to check what he witnessed had just happened and partly in the pursuit of perfection.
“Everyone now wants to show me they are able to play,” said Sanchez Flores. “The last match is helping a lot the future of our team. December was the peak [in terms of results], then we were a little bit tired as we played against big teams in December and January. Now we are close to recuperating the best feelings with this kind of impetus. Our season is very good. In June, when I start to build the squad and make our target, people were thinking we are in the bottom and suffering a lot. At the moment we are able to enjoy the experience with the fans. This is how we can mark our success – in how the fans are happy, more than in the points we assume.”
As one of the longest-serving members of a rapidly changing squad, Abdi can provide a sense of perspective at just where this team is taking this club.
“The last ten or 12 games we didn’t do great but we are very close to our target,” he said. “We had 29 points in first 19 games, which is exceptional. It’s never been like that in the history of Watford. We had big expectations after [getting 29 points so soon] but we know the quality in the Premier League and every game is tough. We’ve done so well and were a little bit unlucky against Man United away and Leicester at home. Before the season I would have been delighted with 40 points in March so, so far, so good. We believe in ourselves; we have great quality in the squad. We showed it until now. Watford is a very hard team to beat, very solid, a very organised team. Sometimes we play good football and we are trying to improve the performance.”
Sanchez Flores is still promising to allow his team to play with more freedom once 40 points is achieved. “I’d like to get points so we can try things,” he said. “We have players I’d like to put in the squad to see how they can manage. They are training well and they are ready.”
And so are the fans, for Wembley and a second season in the Premier League.