There is no doubt that Watford has failed this season. The Championship’s promotion favorites are in 10th place and have won one of their last seven league games – and that’s thanks to a goal deep into injury time. After keeping João Pedro and Ismaïla Sarr, two forwards estimated to be worth over £50m combined, they have been surpassed by 14 sides and had more shots on target than just three. The performances were incoherent and totally unimpressive, with the Hornets’ possession largely consisting of centre-backs passing the ball between themselves until the crowd grew restless and one of them desperately steered it straight to the opposing goaltender.
Still, fans reacted with anger to Monday’s sacking of their 10-game manager Rob Edwards. Not because they appreciate his tactical style, but because they are fed up with the club’s ever-spinning managerial merry-go-round and know that the blame for the team’s poor start must be shared. And mostly because they had been encouraged to believe that he was allowed to stay and grow to put together a multi-act play. But here the curtain fell after little more than the prologue.
“We were hiding behind relative success, but it wasn’t a significant success,” chairman and chief executive Scott Duxbury said in June of the process leading to Edward’s appointment. “What we needed was continuity behind a manager that we believe in and that the fans believe in. We also wanted someone who could grow with us. We know we couldn’t go on like this. Watford Football Club needed their culture back. In Rob Edwards we have appointed a manager in whom we all believe fully and one who will lead and drive this change. We will definitely support Rob Edwards.”
But not, as it turns out, coming at the end of September. Not even in the summer transfer window, in fact, which closed on a weak and top-heavy squad that had deprived anyone who could fill the full-back roles crucial to Edwards’ success at Forest Green Rovers. (In recent years the club’s transfer deals have been odd, with some brilliant signings – Yáser Asprilla, the young, one-left-footed Colombian midfielder looks like the newest – but some others that bordered on the inexplicable, and an enigmatic one high expenses for brokerage fees).
It was noteworthy that the brief quote in the statement announcing Slaven Bilic as Edwards’ successor came from Gino Pozzo, the club’s usually taciturn owner; Given his comments from early summer, Duxbury could hardly have made the welcome and he will certainly appreciate that one of the casualties of this decision is his own credibility. Another is the fans’ trust in Pozzo, who rescued Watford from toxic ownership by Laurence Bassini in 2012 and propelled them to the Premier League three years later. This is now a club that is breaking all ties.
Even last season, when the squad was poor, managerial appointments bizarre, performances and results dismal, this was the deeper and bigger problem. The descent in 2020 and the rise a year later had only been witnessed from empty stands. Those teams, even the one that won 14 of their last 18 games on the way back, weren’t very good, the entertainment was poor and emotional investment at a distance impossible. The links between the key groups on which every club depends – board and squad and supporters – are frayed and torn. Nothing was done to fix them as crowds returned to games and Xisco Muñoz was replaced by Claudio Ranieri and then Roy Hodgson. Instead, these groups found that they really didn’t have much in common anymore – and that’s a real problem for any club.
Last season was marked by modest performances and players who came out of the dressing room before every game as if they desperately wanted to be there first. Managers too: after relegation was confirmed at Selhurst Park, Hodgson, the fiercest and most merciless of the 16 managers sacked by Pozzo so far, applauded the home fans and completely ignored his own. For most Watford fans, perhaps the strangest thing about a season that featured a remarkable run of 11 straight home defeats was how little it hurt. Above all, it was boring.
In the end, they voted to award the player of the season to Hassane Kamara, an Ivorian left-back who arrived in January, scored and provided no assists but played wholeheartedly and occasionally acknowledges his existence. It was a decision that only made sense as a desperate plea for attention and for people who appear to be more interested in building relationships and reputation than just building personal wealth. Duxbury seemed to have heard them – “What happened last season,” he said, “was almost an epiphany”. But in Pozzo’s head, the merry-go-round kept spinning.
Bilic could still turn the season around and there is enough attacking talent in the squad to make promotion a realistic prospect. What he needs to do – what each of Watford’s rotating cast of coaches has had to do – is instill in the team a clear identity, and for that identity to remain consistent and for the same coach to remain employed long enough for fans to re-engage. Recent experience suggests this is unlikely. On the Vicarage Road, like in mid-winter Greenland, there is never much time between new dawn and sunset.
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