Watford’s season has been an unmitigated disaster. With virtually every step, owner Gino Pozzo — where the buck stops — fixed the crosshairs on his shiny leather shoes and pulled the trigger.
If there was space on the club badge for the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, it wouldn’t look out of place. Somehow, a mirror image of Watford’s last Premier League relegation has unfolded, but this has been even worse.
The 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace rubber-stamped relegation in 2021-22 and rubbed salt into the wounds. The scab will now form, the Championship may provide a sticking plaster, but the problems are more than skin-deep. They strike right at the core. Watford need surgery to rectify the damage.
Not that Pozzo was at Selhurst Park to witness it, only sporting director Cristiano Giaretta and non-executive director Stuart Timperley from the club were present in the directors box. It was a move that one Palace official suggested exhibited a lack of respect and left their table for 12 at lunch looking a bit empty.
“A fish rots from the head down” is a graphic saying but speaks of an operation that won’t function properly unless the leader makes significant changes. Approaching 10 years of Pozzo ownership, this needs to be a watershed moment; a reinvention based on reflection and in reality. There needs to be a culture shift, which must be led by the man at the top.
The connection between fans and “the project” is frayed. Arrogance, secrecy and ruthlessness needs replacing with warmth, transparency and respect. If Watford wants to trade on its “family club” identity, espousing the values of Graham Taylor and Elton John from a bygone era, that has to encompass all and not only parts of the club.
The smartly-suited Pozzo — famed for his hard-nosed negotiating — needs to soften his stance, his footballing family at Vicarage Road look at him differently now. His crown has slipped, the 1881’s “Gino” banner is tucked away at the back of the bunker. He needs to listen and accept that being challenged and taking on board new ideas is healthy.
This relegation must be the equivalent of an intervention. It’s the only way to improve the “chaos” that former captain Troy Deeney stuck a flag in last year.
Being detached in his actions, sat stony-faced in the padded director’s box seats, whilst presiding over a disjointed, disillusioned team on the carpet below is turning something so full of life at the start into the darkest of comedies. So much so that one Watford insider freely admitted that the unstoppable managerial roulette wheel has made the club “a laughing stock” in desperate need of a reset.
Communication is key to the success of any organisation. To those inside, to keep them on board, and to those outside, to keep them dialled in to the vision. Pozzo’s decision to not speak publicly, engage, or even try to excuse so many disastrous decisions whilst being one of the most hands-on owners in football is inexcusable.
Vicarage Road looks great, the community work continues, the club lent a hand to Watford General during the pandemic, yet the Harvard-educated, multilingual, eloquent but painfully secretive Watford owner says nothing.
The team he built — and yes, he makes the final call on virtually everything to do with the footballing side of the operation — are still two points shy of their worst top-division points tally of 24 in 1999-2000, with 28 (2006-2007), 34 (2019-20) and 32 (1987-88) far away in the distance. The record run of 11 consecutive home defeats at English football’s top table still has two more games to add garnish to the most inedible of dishes.
In April, CEO/Chairman Scott Duxbury described the season as “unacceptably poor”. Here, The Athletic looks into why that’s been the case and, of vital importance to every Watford supporter’s sanity, what happens now.
Central to any discussion on Watford is the issue of trust. When it evaporates, it’s very tough to get back.
Most fans will support the team unconditionally. It’s part of the agreement. But the club’s hire-and-fire culture, the lack of clarity on recruitment direction, frequent legal wrangling involving FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and some PR own goals — like the recent messaging around the supporter committee — means there’s now a question mark after the “In Gino we trust” mantra that many fans once held.
Perspective is often drawn into the argument. Watford have only ever had 14 years in the top division since 1881 and six of those have been under Pozzo control. But, as one source within the club explained, there are a collection of things that aren’t being done correctly, which add up to an overall issue. “It’s not broken and we’ve been in worse scrapes and come back from it,” they said. “But there are problems.”
One is certainly the treatment and recruitment of head coaches and managers, who are rarely rallied around and rather hung out to dry. That applies on both fronts to Xisco Munoz. He fulfilled his brief in winning promotion from the Championship, albeit with a strong squad, and then the club took a haphazard approach to the next steps, which ensured the season was built on sand.
Sacking him after seven Premier League games reflected muddled decision-making. If there was no faith in his ability, then Watford should have had the courage of their convictions — as they did when not retaining Slavisa Jokanovic after promotion in 2014-15 — and made a change there and then rather than string him along. It would have saved a whole pre-season being wasted.
Sporting director Cristiano Giaretta built a strong rapport with the Spaniard and appeared to be the one who pushed Pozzo to do “the right thing” to try to repair reputational damage. When the team looked out of sorts against more technically astute opponents, it didn’t have to be the end. Watford could have augmented the staff with more experience, for example. Instead, they did what came more naturally. “Sorry, but…” is how the conversation is said to have started when Munoz learned his fate in the aftermath of a 1-0 defeat at Leeds.
Behind the scenes, the creep of uncertainty, as it has done in the past, meant players sensed the end was coming. Munoz’s authority was compromised and it was only a matter of time. Just like he had done before his predecessor Vladimir Ivic was sacked — and countless others before — the next man was waiting in the wings. The last time that approach had actually worked was back in the 2017-18 season, when Javi Gracia was prepped to take over from Marco Silva. When it happens too often, word gets around and no manager ever feels safe.
The squad assembled for Munoz to work with didn’t help his cause. It is now accepted internally that defensive reinforcements should have been prioritised, even though the budget was hampered following relegation and the pandemic. That view was evidenced by the eventual signings of Nicolas Nkoulou (free in October), Samir and Hassane Kamara (in January). Danny Rose’s arrival and subsequent struggles for fitness suggested the requisite due diligence hadn’t been applied to that acquisition.
Will Hughes’ protracted departure, which involved a previously popular and influential member of the squad being demoted to the under-23s, did little for team harmony. Considering his role as a tempo-setting No 6 was essential to how Watford had played in the Championship, for his replacement Imran Louza to feature in that role during pre-season and then not be considered ready to start the impending Premier League campaign itself was an inexplicable oversight in planning.
Once again, there was a reliance on agent Mogi Bayat, who is under investigation by the Belgian authorities, to do many of the deals, The Athletic has learned from more than one party within the club that there is unease about the dominance he has. Not that that seems to make a difference. During the last home game against Burnley, he was once again sat within a couple of seats of Pozzo.
With Nathaniel Chalobah following Hughes out of the club, Watford ended up with plenty of combat but little craft in midfield, with Peter Etebo, Moussa Sissoko and Juraj Kucka having to hit the ground running; players with good attitudes but unable to give Watford much control as they tried to find their feet.
Ozan Tufan’s addition to that department was the least necessary or successful. The Turkey international never settled and didn’t live up to his billing, and was gone by January. The only silver lining to the cloud of relegation is that a contractual obligation to buy Tufan for approximately £5.5 million turned into an option with the drop into the Championship. Even a source close to the player admitted that Watford had managed to dodge a bullet, feeling the player’s ego was an issue and that he may struggle to find another club, having been ostracised by Fenerbahce on his return.
Emmanuel Dennis’s signing came with risk. He’d struggled to integrate at previous clubs but his early-season performances suggested the reward may have been worth it. Other attacking additions Joshua King and Ashley Fletcher aimed to refresh the striker department, with Andre Gray and Deeney departing, but Watford lost more than they’d gained. Deeney, in particular, left a leadership vacuum that was never adequately filled.
Retaining Ismaila Sarr, seeing Cucho Hernandez in a Watford shirt for the first time, and allowing Joao Pedro to feature more prominently added a frisson of excitement to the club’s attacking options but although much was expected, ultimately, it was only Dennis that could be deemed anything close to a success. It’s known that the club are working with agents to facilitate a move for Dennis to see if their most saleable asset can now help balance the books.
The decision to appoint Claudio Ranieri, a long-time friend of the Pozzo family, in October is now widely regarded within the club as being a knee-jerk error driven by the owner.
The title-winning former Leicester boss’s more recent experience in steadying Sampdoria’s Serie A ship away from relegation had taken precedent over his last Premier League job when he’d contributed to Fulham’s demise. That should have been analysed more deeply. Like many managerial appointments, due care and attention hadn’t been taken and, instead, someone on the Pozzo Rolodex had been summoned for a few months’ service.
Ranieri’s first game couldn’t have gone worse. The 5-0 defeat to Liverpool was disarray personified. Ben Foster’s fascination with his YouTube channel also led to a club rebuke after he gave away tickets to UFC fighter and Liverpool fan Paddy Pimblett in a home area. It was dealt with internally but is known to have angered several club officials, who understood the 39-year-old’s desire to prepare for retirement but questioned whether his hobby should be carried out on club time, and often in private training ground areas. Whether someone should have ensured the parameters were more clearly adhered to is up for debate.
Beating Everton (5-2 away) and Manchester United (4-1 at home, Watford’s last win at Vicarage Road) in his opening five matches were part of a false dawn for Ranieri, and although Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal helped form a tough opening run of fixtures, there was a lack of structure in training and performances that highlighted any genuine improvement.
The COVID-19 outbreak prior to Christmas — which led to multiple postponements — was difficult to negotiate for all, including Ranieri, in addition to the political controversies over Africa Cup of Nations selection for Dennis (Nigeria) and injured Sarr (Senegal). The Athletic has learned that some players were also uncomfortable that their schedules were changed at the last minute around the festive period, meaning family plans — and in one case, the chance to take their child to see Father Christmas — were disrupted.
Disagreements between the hierarchy, players and agents over various bonus payments over the last few years, stretching back to the post-FA Cup Final period, have tested relationships at times. One club insider put it simply: “We’ve got to stop pissing off the players and treat them better.” Going back to the Ivic era, players were told after a long trip from a fixture that instead of being able to go and spend the night at home, they had to stay in a local hotel instead before their recovery session the next day. The drip, drip, drip of discontent builds slowly.
With Ranieri at the wheel of an out-of-control train back to the Championship, his laissez-faire attitude to training is said to have been the final straw. One player complained that he consistently called him by the wrong name.
The January signings of Samir, Kamara, Edo Kayembe and, to a lesser degree, Samuel Kalu helped plug some gaps, but Watford were keen to ship some players out, with the squad too big. Tufan had gone but it’s also known that another player found out via an agent that the club were keen to sell him without having discussed it with him first. One player who left last summer was told that a new deal would be sorted out, only to be told late on that the club had changed their mind. His patience had run out.
Ranieri’s 14-game spell culminated in a 3-0 defeat to fellow strugglers Norwich, who’d been comfortably beaten 3-1 earlier in the season at Carrow Road. One senior source described that night as “a total shambles”. Watford had gone backwards and needed their third dugout custodian of the season.
Former sporting director Luke Dowling watched from the director’s box that night and it’s understood he was given the nod to aid the search for Ranieri’s successor in a quasi-consultancy role. Via former Tottenham defender-turned-agent Ben Thatcher, Roy Hodgson was contacted and within three days, an agreement was reached on a six-month deal. Hodgson’s short-lived experience of working with Pozzo at Udinese was put to one side and he was soon taking training with assistant Ray Lewington.
When they arrived, their first assessment to the hierarchy was that they’d be able to add structure to a team that possessed power and strength, and the initial signs were positive. Against Burnley in February, there was a first clean sheet of the season and at West Ham, they lost narrowly. The Hodgson experiment got off on the wrong foot at Vicarage Road, though. Defeats against Brighton (2-0) and his former club Palace (4-1) were uninspiring.
They won at Aston Villa (1-0) and drew at Old Trafford (0-0) but why couldn’t Watford pick up results at home? Hodgson’s abrasive responses when questioned about it didn’t endear himself to fans. Yes, he was being honest, but the relationship never really recovered from that point, even with the glimmer of hope afforded by March’s 2-1 win at Southampton.
The intended bounce ended up being a thud instead.
The search for Hodgson’s successor intensified with every passing defeat but there was always the aim for the 74-year-old to see out the season to avoid a repeat of the ignominious sacking of Nigel Pearson in 2020 with two games to go.
Boardroom discussions focused on restarting in the Championship with a promising young British manager. Foreign candidates were discussed, but going home grown was settled on. The aim, to try and build a new culture with a new approach. The due diligence involved whittling down lists of viable options in the football league.
John Eustace quickly emerged as a leading candidate and the possibility of him being interested was sounded out. They’d looked at bringing him in before, even when the former captain originally left the club as a player in 2013. Eustace’s time with QPR appears to be coming to an end with the departure of manager Mark Warburton (to whom he was assistant). But The Athletic has learned that the west London club, who are also compiling a shortlist, may look for Eustace — who has a year left on his contract — to step up at Loftus Road. Any official approach from Watford could lead to a discussion on compensation.
Alternative options are being considered and the plan is to hold further discussions with other candidates and representatives. Blackpool’s Neil Critchley — in addition to others discussed here — fit the profile that they are looking at.
Much like at Christmas, the club’s decision to change the squad’s plans ahead of last month’s Burnley fixture to having two nights in a hotel rather than the usual one, and then again prior to the Crystal Palace game was aimed to “take away all other distractions”, according to Duxbury, yet some players felt that it was more like they were being punished for their failures. One agent felt that grown men were being treated like children and that it may leave a bad taste heading into the summer.
Whether the ploy will serve to test the disaffected who may want to head elsewhere ahead of next season will only become clear at a later date. There are fewer players that will be a financial burden due to high wages this season compared to after 2019-20. Sissoko and King have relegation release clauses, while both Dennis and Sarr are all but certain to leave. It’s understood that decisions are yet to made on Cucho or Joao Pedro, but they are expected to have potential suitors. Many agents are preparing to hold meetings with the Watford hierarchy to find out the plan.
There’ll be a refresh in goal, with Maduka Okoye — a £5 million signing from Sparta Rotterdam completed in January — aiming for the No 1 spot set to be vacated by the out-of-contract, and potential retiree, Foster. Daniel Bachmann is currently eager to fight to be first-choice goalkeeper, leaving Rob Elliott, Pontus Dahlberg and under-23 keeper Vincent Angelini to make up a well-stocked department.
With loanees returning and youngsters from the academy due to be integrated more, there will be a new look whatever happens between now and the start of the new season on July 30.
The last time Watford went down, it was said that lessons would be learned and there would be a genuine shift in purpose. Out of the ashes of this season must be a genuine attempt to forge a new identity, a new DNA that fans can get on board with and perhaps the wider football public can get their heads around.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Tom Slator)