The phrase ‘a critical friend’ is one of many I’ve heard used when describing how a local newspaper should report upon its football team, and it’s the one I personally think is the most apt.

That’s because being a friend who offers support and wants you to do well, while also being able to point out flaws, errors and good ideas works not only for the local paper, but also for the football club as well.

I’m fortunate, and pretty rare, as I have been a journalist and sports editor that covered a local team, then I worked for two professional football clubs in a role that managed the media, and now I’m pounding my original beat as the man fortunate enough to be reporting on the team he has supported as a fan for 40-odd years.

That has given me an insight into life on both sides of the fence, and from that I am certain that both organisations – the paper and the club – need each other.

Of course, when the local team is in the Premier League then media coverage comes easily, and suddenly weekly press conferences are crowded affairs with national press and TV.

It’s the same on matchdays: every seat in the press box will be full and after the game the local reporters will be cheek by jowl with their national colleagues as they try to ask a question or find their own angle.

However, lose your seat at football’s top table and the national media become far less interested, generally only popping up when the club makes a big signing, changes manager or is live on TV.

In fact, there has been more than one occasion this season when I’ve been the only media representative at the Watford head coach’s pre-match press conference.

Watford Observer: The Hornets' Vicarage Road home. Image: Action ImagesThe Hornets' Vicarage Road home. Image: Action Images

It’s when the club is out of the limelight that they can find greater need for local coverage, and while papers like the Watford Observer can sometimes have its nose put out of joint when the Hornets are in the top flight, it’s important to still do the best professional job you can because there will almost certainly be a time when the club is relying on you.

That’s important for another reason too: the fans. Coverage of the Premier League is ubiquitous and so when Watford are there, supporters don’t have to look far to find column upon column of match reports, transfer news, manager and player quotes, and so on.

However – and perhaps understandably – the national media don’t have the resources or perhaps the appetite to cover the Football League in the same depth, and so often it falls upon the local newspaper to be the main and only conduit between the supporters and the club.

Again, this is a vital link, and it is a two-way channel.

Obviously the paper wants to supply fans with the best reporting they can – but the club also know they have a constant (if sometimes critical) friend in the local paper through which they can communicate with supporters. I wrote not so long ago that the communication from the club to supporters wasn’t as good as it should be. I think it’s improved. It’s not where it could or even should be, but it’s better than it was and any forward steps are to be welcomed.

And, in defence of the club and drawing upon my time working at Watford and also Charlton, you do need to have people within the local media that you can trust. Relationships are key when it comes to writing about professional sport: if you are to be given sensitive information or be able to converse with club officials freely, then they need to know you are not going to throw them under a bus.

That’s not suggesting the paper should do whatever the club wants or asks. It’s a balancing act, and something that becomes easier over time as all parties get to know each other.

Watford Observer:

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question of respect. I know managers, CEOs, chairmen and the like are under pressure, they’re busy and they have to do and say what they believe to be right for the club. I fully respect that.

In return, all I ask is that they respect I have a job to do and that is to report fairly, honestly and accurately on what I see and hear. You can’t describe a bad performance as anything other than bad, if you think a transfer is odd you have to say so, and if there is a difficult set of questions to be asked then so be it.

That is what the Watford Observer has done for 160 years. Sometimes we’ve got it absolutely spot on, and on other occasions there have been mistakes. Most of the time, our coverage of Watford Football Club has landed comfortably between those two extremes.

Of course, if I were assessing the running of the football club, I could just as easily say the same. In fact, fans have seen those extremes in just the last few years.

One key thing, I believe, is not to get too carried away at either end of the scale. Don’t be over-indulgent of the successes and don’t go in too hard on the failures.

Indeed, in some ways covering a club of the size, stature and history of Watford is perhaps easier than to do the same for bigger, more successful teams like Manchester United or Liverpool. They generally only know one thing – success. Indeed, their measure of failure would probably constitute a good and enjoyable season for most other clubs.

Think about it: beating the seemingly unbeatable Liverpool in 2020, playing in Europe, finishing second in the old First Division, countless cup giant-killings – all great highlights of life as a Watford fan and moments when the Watford Observer could truly relish being part of the occasion.

Yet would those writing about or supporting any of the big six be able to enjoy and enthuse about such moments? I doubt it.

Watford Observer: Hornets legends John Barnes and Luther Blissett. Image: Watford ObserverHornets legends John Barnes and Luther Blissett. Image: Watford Observer

The key thing for a paper like the Watford Observer is to be a constant in the life of the club, and particularly the supporters. Owners, managers, players and seasons come and go. Some are great, some are average and some you wish had never happened. But the local paper will always be there through all of them, trying to reflect what they see in a way that both the fans and the club can view as accurate, fair, enjoyable and thought provoking.

Just like that friend you have who you know is always there, ready to share a beer or a coffee, happy to look at your holiday photos and hear about what your family have been up to, but who will also tell you that the top you’re wearing doesn’t suit you and let you cry on their shoulder if it helps.

The Watford Observer wants Watford Football Club to succeed, to thrive, to achieve, and to be part of that. But it will also hold the club to account and ask questions that those who are interested in the Hornets would like answers to.

The club colours have changed, there are no terraces anymore and even the old ‘tells more, sells more’ Watford Observer clock no longer adorns the front of the Rookery End roof.

But the Watford Observer recorded the birth of Watford Football Club, it’s charted its progress and growth, and it will continue to be that ‘critical friend’.