Regular readers will recall my views on the takeover of Watford over the summer. The season is now nine games old, so it seemed an appropriate time to take another look at the club and its progress since the Pozzo family moved in. It also seemed an apt time to comment following a couple of journalists deciding to make their feelings known on the subject. Michael Calvin did a piece shortly after the takeover, and unfortunately, despite being a known Watford supporter, completely misrepresented the viewpoint of the majority of Watford fan’s following the change of ownership, and the subsequent dismissal of Sean Dyche. Today, Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail added his piece, taking advantage of Watford’s fairly mixed start to the season. But more on his thoughts shortly.
Personally, I’ve seen all but one of Watford’s home games, and one on their travels, plus a couple of the preseason fixtures. There are several things that have become clear. The new manager Gianfranco Zola has a desired way for his team to play, and nothing is going to change that. The players, whether the original squad, or the incoming signings, need to play that way or learn pretty damn quick. There is also no apparent bias towards the new blood, youngsters, or the older guard. If you’re fit and in form, you stand a chance of inclusion. Players seemingly on their way out the door at the end of last season have regained their places. Youngsters have been given opportunities and extended contracts. Players who aren’t fit are nowhere near the team until they are 100% ready. In terms of performances, ball retention has, as expected, been the key and generally pretty well executed. Some of the attacking play has been superb, sometimes more limited. The defending, particularly with players not used to the Championship way of doing things, has been mixed, best evidence being a 5-1 hammering at Derby County. It’s work in progress, and the manager deserves time to get it right.
Off the pitch, there have been suggestions that things behind the scenes last season were even worse than thought, and that the Pozzo takeover may well have halted a road towards similar problems to those experienced by the likes of Portsmouth. There has been a large amount of recruitment, primarily on “loans” from the likes of Udinese and Granada, although the term loan is incorrect, as such a thing doesn’t exist internationally. Also brought in have been experience in the form of Fitz Hall and Manuel Almunia, and exciting youth in the form of Chelsea loanee Nathaniel Chalobah. This has left the squad rather bloated, but gradually the players not in the side, particularly the younger ones, are being loaned out to get games under their belts, and one suspects there will be further outgoings during the loan window and in January.
Perhaps one area that has caused more concern, is the decision by the club to apply only for Category Three Academy status as the new EPPP system comes into force. I will cover the EPPP in a forthcoming piece, but there are arguments for and against the plan. It still isn’t clear what the long term strategy is concerning the club’s reputable Academy set up, but as mentioned previously, two of Watford’s most highly rated youngsters have been given long term contracts with the club, and there has already been another debutant this season for a player brought through the Academy.
So while things are far from perfect, the foundations are there for Watford to progress, and despite some setbacks, Zola is predictably upbeat, and the fans in general seem onside. However, it seems that the view on the outside is less positive, given Martin Samuel’s article today. It has already received some feedback from Watford fans, including myself, and although everyone is entitled to their own opinion, it would be nice if a piece written by a well respected journalist did not contain elements which are so ill informed.
It has been suggested that some of the negativity in the piece, particularly towards Zola and Gianluca Nani the club’s Director of Football, comes from the fact that Samuel is a West Ham fan, and therefore has a grudge to bear. It does seem a bit odd that he has chosen to highlight what he sees as an example of Nani’s poor judgement, without doing a lot of research into the background. He mentions the signing of Savio from Brescia in 2009, citing the fact that £9 million was spent. A small bit of investigative journalism here (checking on Wikipedia), will tell you that much of the £9 million was based on appearances and other factors. With only 10 appearances, it’s unlikely he cost West Ham anywhere near that amount. It also suggests that Savio was some unknown having only played a handful of games for Brescia, again overlooking the fact that Savio was part of Germany’s u19 squad, and very highly rated. The fact his moves haven’t worked out are more down to illness (of a mental kind so perhaps as per usual this is just ignorantly dismissed as a player being weak), than lack of ability. And it’s not the first time such a figure has been splashed out on a very young player. Even Sir Alex Ferguson spent in the region of £10 million on a player with only a handful of appearance behind him. The fees are more about modern day football than an inability to spot a decent player.
Samuel also criticises the recruitment of players primarily from the other Pozzo owned clubs, Udinese and Granada, saying that filling the team with Udinese Reserves is wrong. Using the teamsheet from Saturday’s match against Bristol City, he informs us that only two of the players from the final game of last season have survived, surely a sign we’ve been taken over by foreign mercanaries. Again, that’s an easy argument to make given the right examples, but lets look at the facts. Three players (Loach, Mariappa, Taylor) from that starting XI have moved on in arguably moves beneficial for their careers. Three of the players (Hogg, Eustace, Buaben) are injured, and in all likelihood the first two would have played had they been fit. Three were amongst Saturday’s substitutes (Deeney, Doyley and Iwelumo), and the first of these has only just come out of jail (oh how the Daily Mail missed an opportunity there). So that makes 11 in total. Hardly a Udinese takeover. It is a surprise also that Samuel overlooked the Football League ruling limiting the amount of non home grown players allowed in the match day squad, so in reality it’s never going to happen anyway. Samuel also lists some of the players brought in and suggests we’d never have heard of them before. Given he includes a former Italian international, a current Swiss international who scored against Celtic in the Champions League last season, and two current Czech internationals, it again suggests Samuel’s vast knowledge of the beautiful game is not as good as he would like to think. And in a typical Daily Mailesque xenophobic remark, he comments on the non British names on the list, despite including Chalobah who happens to be one of England’s bright young talents.
The overall tone is the suggestion that what is going on at Vicarage Road is a stain on football itself. How can it be that a club can import a load of players from another with no limits at all? He has a case here, in that it is loophole that has been taken advantage of, however this is more an issue with football governance as a whole. As previously mentioned, international loans don’t actually exist in reality, they are deemed permanent transfers. And the evidence from previous movements between Pozzo clubs suggests that the players that remain in and around the first team squad at Watford will be around for years to come, unlike previous season’s loanee stars that disappeared back after six months or a season, thus this is a more stable route to take. More importantly, given the state of modern day football, what alternative is there? Would it be better for Watford to continue to tread water both on the pitch, and off it financially, watching other clubs overstretch themselves to the point of extinction trying to get to the promised land of the Premier League. Surely a sustainable business model, with the intention of bringing on the pitch success, is the way forward for modern football as a whole, rather than the boom or bust policies of which there are sadly too many examples, and of which Watford have survived becoming one by the skin of their teeth on two occasions. Agreed, there is no guarantee of success, and the whole thing might fail miserably, but the Pozzo family have a track record to suggest that they can bring improved fortunes to an unfashionable club without bankrupting them in the process. Given the choice between this possibility and the likelihood of a club in administration, you can understand therefore most Watford fans accepting what has happened and giving the new regime the opportunity to work.
For a further excellent response to Martin Samuel’s article, see here.