As a football follower, it is unlikely you will have failed to notice the news that Watford have in the past few days been taken over. The new owners are Italian, the Pozzo family, who also own Udinese in Serie A and Granada in the Spanish Primera Liga. Both clubs have benefitted much from the family’s ownership, using a sustainable business model that seems to be so lacking for many clubs in the modern game, relying on youth development to bring profits through selling the players on to larger clubs. It is a business model that Watford looked to follow after their last financial meltdown, and with one of the best academies in the English game, and a recent history of picking up hungry, hard working players from the lower leagues and developing into sought after assets, things have progressed reasonably well. In the past twelve months, Watford have received well in excess of £5 million for players such as Danny Graham and Marvin Sordell.
Off the pitch at Vicarage Road, it’s been something of a mixed bag. Since the 1980s heyday of the successful teams managed by Graham Taylor, and careful but passionate support from a board led by Elton John, it’s fair to say that it’s been a rocky road. The early 1990s saw former West Ham director Jack Petchey try to run the club as a profitable business, while failing to grasp the fact that a football club is a business involving a fair amount of emotion and passion, and while the stadium saw some notable improvements, the quality of football suffered and saw Watford drop to the third tier. Taylor and Elton returned with a new consortium and things improved, despite some initial wranglings in the boardroom. The Premier League dream became a reality and lasted just a season, but with the resultant money in the bank, everything looked rosy and everyone got rather excited. When Taylor retired, there was fresh optimism with the arrival of former Italian international footballer and Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli taking over. Watford were no longer the little club; with the help of ITV Digital’s financial input and an array of internationally known stars, Watford were set to romp back to the promised land. Instead, a mixed season of results and performances saw Vialli sacked and the club on the brink of administration. Severe financial cutbacks including the playing staff taking a collective paycut, some fresh but limited investment, plus the sensible, yet nonetheless miraculous stewardship of Ray Lewington not only saw the club survive, but retain it’s Championship status for several seasons. The chairman at the time, a long time supporter and local businessman Graham Simpson wanted more ambition, so decided to ruthlessly replace Lewington with the energetic optimist that is Aidy Boothroyd, who subsequently got Watford promoted in his first full season. Again Watford were swiftly relegated, again there was money in the bank, again it was spent unwisely, and again Watford were staring down the financial barrel.
Since then, on the pitch, Watford have been blessed with talent on the managerial front. Brendan Rodgers cut his managerial teeth before disappearing to Reading (and some might say up his own backside). Malky Mackay stepped up from the coaching staff, and steadily built a decent side before taking what he considered a step up to Cardiff. His assistant Sean Dyche, a former player and youth team manager stepped into the breach, and after a slow start put together another strong squad based on a hard working team ethic, and Watford finished a highly respectable 11th with a budget much smaller than most clubs in the division. Meanwhile off the pitch, there had been many boardroom shenanigans which I won’t bore you with, but needless to say the fact that Watford still had a club to support was a positive. Last season the ownership had passed to local businessman Laurence Bassini, who came with a rather unconvincing background including bankruptcy and a name change. The season had been a mixed bag for the owner, as he struggled in the PR department, despite seeming to make some progress in improving things off the pitch. When rumours started surfacing of the Pozzo’s interest, Bassini initially denied everything, before this summer declaring his intention to sell so he could spend more time with his daughter as she apparently didn’t like football and he hadn’t realised how involved he would have to be in running a football club. Then there was Bassini coming out in the local press that the deal was off while the club claimed everything was going to plan. Also stories came out of the staff not being paid, of arguments over access to the club safe. The news that the club was being taken over by experienced football people was something of a relief to this part of Hertfordshire.
As is often the case with football, new ownership bring the promise of fresh investment, and as a result an increase in fans expectations. While the beginning of last season saw most fans realistic enough to hope for avoiding the drop and maybe a mid table finish, this season will no doubt see talk of promotion. Message boards have seen the champagne corks popping, the club is finally arriving in the big time etc… How short people’s memories are. Spending money in the Championship is not a guarantee of success, far from it. The big spenders last season were West Ham and Leicester City. Neither team gained automatic promotion despite beginning the season as nailed on certainties. In fact Leicester finished a mere two points above Watford. The Championship cares not for reputation or flamboyance. You need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work hard, play as a team, play effective football that suits the strengths of the players in the squad. Sometimes its not pretty, but it’s a reality. Not that I think that the Pozzo’s are going to come in and throw money around; their performance at the other clubs suggest this isn’t the way they run things. They’ve seen how Watford have designed their business model, and they want to develop that, which is a good and sensible thing in my eyes. With the arrival of the EPPP, some further investment in our Academy could see us attain top level status, see us develop further young talent which will enable us to bring in significant transfer revenue to not only survive but perhaps grow. The Pozzo’s also have a renowned scouting network which has brought in talent from all round the world which again, is welcome news.
With all the over excitement, I had hoped therefore that the talk of a new superstar manager was just press talk, but over the past week it just wouldn’t go away. Gianfranco Zola was the name on everyone’s lips. The two men who had apparently helped to engineer the takeover, Gianluca Nani and Scott Duxbury, had worked with Zola previously at West Ham, so maybe it was a case of two and two equalling five. Then came quote from the Italian media that Zola had been offered the job…a job that already had an occupant, Sean Dyche. On Monday of this week, there was to be a staff meeting at the club, and later that evening, news began to emerge that Dyche had been sacked. As of Wednesday morning, the club have yet to confirm anything, but sources close to Dyche have confirmed this to be the case. This has been met with a mixed reaction in social media circles; former players expressing surprise, supporters with disappointment but mixed with a realism that this was always likely to happen, others more passionate in their feelings towards the club’s decision. As for myself, I fell into the latter category.
Those defending the decision, despite feeling sorry for Dyche, say that the new owners would want their own man, would have a vision for how the club will move forward, and that someone like Zola will undoubtedly bring in a high calibre of player and better standard of football. The Pozzo’s have remained fairly quiet so far, but did put out a statement yesterday. The statement was well received, fans excited for the future. This was how to run a club, not like the previous owner who was a PR disaster, and who was pushing the club towards administration. The statement made no mention of the manager, and at the present time I remain cautious. They are after all just words. And for me, some of the actions so far are not tallying.
In part of the statement, the Pozzo’s comment on knowing how important the club is to its local community, which is absolutely spot on. It’s what makes the club special, and in recent years, although Watford have not been winning trophies, as a fan I’ve appreciated that the players have given everything to be successful for the club, the fans, the town. They may not be Barcelona in terms of finesse or ability, but they’ve been part of us, fighting to make the most of what they do have. And last year, that was brought together by Sean Dyche. When things weren’t going our way, you didn’t hear him moaning about referees or how unlucky he was not being able to buy more players. He was realistic, he gained our trust, and to me, given the resources he had, he did a fine job. So why sack him? Why get rid of someone who worked with our academy, was highly influential in the development of several players who have gone to better things? A man who was spoken of highly as a coach, and whom the players obviously had high regards for? Why get rid of someone who bought into the Watford ethos, of being part of the community, who spent time at supporters evenings and was always available? A man who more than 70% of fans in a poll last week wanted to stay? The argument that he won’t attract top players doesn’t add up either. The Polish goalkeeper Tomas Kuszczak was happy to join on loan for three months from Manchester United, we were never going to have the finances to keep him permanently though. Fulham and Aston Villa were happy for their young players to get experience at the club under Dyche’s watchful eye. Wolves allowed Michael Kightly to regain fitness in a very positive loan period for all concerned. The club has in place a decent set up for picking up talent to be developed, but with a structure to ensure that they will also fit in to the club’s way of doing things. Dyche also has years of playing in the Championship, coaching and now managing. Zola was a fine player, is no doubt a decent coach, but has no experience of this level. I remember Graham Taylor saying when Vialli was first appointed as his replacement, that people tended to go starry eyed when he walked in the room because of his reputation, and I see the same thing happening now. Could Dyche produce a better quality of player and brand of football? Well he’s done more than ok on next to no budget, and I imagine even Jose Mourinho might find Watford a tricky task. You don’t know until you’ve had the opportunity, which is exactly what Dyche, a man who recently ignored overtures from managerless Birmingham, citing the importance of loyalty, hasn’t been given. At the first opportunity, the new owners have shown no regard at all for the fans or the club.
I also think it’s wrong to dispose of someone when they haven’t performed badly, in football, in business, anywhere. For me, it’s just not the way of doing things. Watford under Taylor and Elton John generally did things in a decent manner, that’s not to say that the club’s record is perfect. When Taylor left the first time, Elton decided to bring in a whole new team under Dave Bassett. Quality coaches such as John Ward and Steve Harrison were sacked. Similarly, when Vialli joined, Kenny Jackett and Luther Blissett, both club legends were removed. When Boothroyd arrived, another club stalwart and favourite, Nigel Gibbs was jettisoned. In all cases, it was a case of “that’s the way football is”, but that doesn’t mean it’s right, and in the majority of these cases, chucking out the old guard has not brought success. Bassett’s team lasted months before being sacked as Watford faced relegation, Vialli lasted a season before being expensively paid off. In the current situation, Watford have had a summer of boardroom upheaval, but things were steady on the playing side, players happy and preparing for the new campaign. They’re not any more, and you rather hoped the club had learned their lesson, and someone at least would have mentioned it to the incoming owners. But then Nani and Duxbury have forged their own reputations from their time at West Ham, but that’s a whole different story (and by the sounds of it, a costly one). Zola will have his own way of doing things, so that will take time. Another revolution rather than the steady evolution under Dyche.
So now we await the arrival of Zola amidst much fanfare and increased expectation, but with recent history of a high profile Italian manager joining a small Hertfordshire club, bringing in a new broom and fresh ideas, but falling way short. As a supporter, despite my disgust with the club for the treatment of a loyal and successful servant, I will of course be cheering the new team on come what may. But you will excuse me for keeping the champagne on hold for now.