Conversations with Matt Rowson (Watford)

Posted by on May 25, 2011 in Conversations with | One Comment

140 characters or less may have become the standard form of communication between football bloggers and supporters on the net, but our new Conversations with … series looks to broaden and further the debates that so often begin on Giggs’ nemesis, the website formerly known as Twitter. Honing in on the state of play at a particular club each time, these interview-type pieces between ourselves and supporters of individual teams explore the latest club-level headlines, tricks and flicks and any contentious issues that are currently being played out. We start with Watford, BHaPPY‘s Matt Rowson providing the insight.

LL: So, Matt, I’m not sure what lies ahead for your boys. I see that QPR and Brighton are swooping. What I don’t understand is how Watford can shell out a load of money for someone like Troy Deeney and then a year later be under threat of losing one of their most promising players to a club like Brighton…

MR: I’m not sure about “under threat”. There’s quite a lot of subtext with Will Buckley. He’s exciting and precocious to be sure, but he’s a bit brainless; if there was a hole in the back of the stand, he’d just keep running. He’s great when you’re playing a team that leaves gaps, either because of the way they play (he flayed Cardiff in December) or when you’re ahead late in the game and he can just run off with the ball. But he’s been a bit of a waste of space too often.

If I was speculating I’d suggest that Buckley’s relationship with Malky Mackay certainly seems to have been rocky; on several occasions this season Mackay has benched him when we’ve been crying out for a bit of spark. When you compare the level of improvement we’ve seen in Buckley (not much) to that seen in Danny Graham, Stephen McGinn, Don Cowie and others over the same period … I can believe that we’ll take what we can get with Buckley. The thing about Brighton is that they’ve just nicked our erstwhile head of recruitment, who might have his own opinions on Buckley, and might also be aware of any reservations Mackay has.

Our model is to only spend money on players who will appreciate in value, and then to bite the bullet when the right offer comes in. That last bit’s the difficult thing to swallow of course, but our recruitment has been astonishingly successful in recent years. Deeney, as you will have read, hasn’t set the world on fire yet, but as intimated we haven’t paid anything like as much for him (yet) as Walsall advertised. If we end up paying them £600k he will have been worth it.

I don’t understand what the hell QPR are doing. We’re never going to accept £2.5m, at least not this early in the window. If they wanted to nip in early they’d have needed to offer more, I’m sure Warnock knows that. So all he’s done is start a bidding war, giving us an opportunity to shout “LOOK, WE’VE TURNED DOWN 2.5m FROM QPR, WHO’S NEXT?”. That approach was remarkably successful when we sold Ashley Young for what might still turn out to be £10m+ four years ago. I can only assume that either Warnock is doing Mackay a favour, or that he’s competing for another striker with a different team who are also watching Graham, and wants to draw their fire. Or perhaps I’m thinking about it too much.

LL: Thanks Matt; interesting how headlines can mislead…

It would be good to hear more about this Head of Recruitment. Who is he? I take it that it was working well with him and Mackay looking at players together? Interestingly, I see that Brighton have signed Will Hoskins, who obviously didn’t enjoy a good time at the Vicarage.

MR: John Stephenson is his name, and we did very well by him. The policy at Watford is to divorce the scouting network from the team management – they communicate of course (at least in theory), but it’s not like we lose our scouting system if/when Mackay leaves. So … the head of recruitment knows how we want to play, knows what the strategy for signing players is, knows roughly what the manager is after, but he’s not the manager’s own guy. I’m sure some managers would prefer their own man – but the danger to the club of having it all tied up with the manager is obvious, and this alternative approach certainly seems to have been working extremely well at Vicarage Road.

Stephenson left Watford with the system set up, so although we’ve lost someone who was very successful, the hope is that his replacements will have a more straightforward task of stepping into the roles that he helped define. He had been with Watford for three-and-a-half years, during which time we’ve signed Cowie for a nominal fee, Mike Williamson for a couple of hundred grand from Wycombe, Graham for £250k rising to £450k if we go up, Martin Taylor on a free, McGinn for £100k, Buckley for up to £300k (again, dependent on promotion). Williamson brought back £2m, and the others would all command much bigger fees now on their way out. A few others haven’t worked out; the jury’s out on the likes of Deeney and one or two more. But that’s not a bad hit rate.

I thought about Stephenson when Brighton signed Hoskins, too. He’s always had ability, he just needed to grow up a bit. Perhaps he has. Three consecutive and very different Watford managers tried him and binned him though (Boothroyd, Rodgers, Mackay).

LL: This is all very interesting. My view of Watford from a neutral perspective has been that the club’s on the bread line, surviving from season-to-season with an ever-changing board of directors at the top of the tree. The nonsense surrounding the Russo brothers, the uneasy relationship between the club and Lord Ashcroft, and the state of the Vic with its Oxford-esque 3 open sides would all seem to back that up. But this scouting system seems particularly forward-thinking, and the club continues to punch above its weight in the league. Is there some kind of behind the scenes continuity that I’m missing, then?

MR: Ashcroft, much as it makes me ill to say it, didn’t do bad by us at all. The Russos are out of the picture, thank goodness. The redevelopment of the ground a long-standing challenge that should have been funded in 2006. The behind-the-scenes continuity is the non-executive board – which is something that I’m all in favour of – featuring, crucially, Graham Taylor as chairman and more particularly Julian Winter as CEO. Wouldn’t say a bad word against either.

LL: So has Ashcroft’s money been paid back now, or is he still involved? Who has current investment in the club? Tell us more about Taylor and Winter’s roles at the club, Matt. Are they both in for the long haul?

MR: Ashcroft no longer owns shares – he sold out recently to the as yet low profile Lawrence Bassini. However, he is still owed money, having bailed the club out at least once, and the repayment schedule is demanding. Taylor is a non-exec chairman; he initially appeared to be reluctant to take on the role but wanted to safeguard the club after the Russos’ histrionics. Surprised, and delighted, personally, that he has stayed on. Winter is an employee, a paid CEO. From my distance, he’s doing a stunning job to keep the ship on an even-ish keel.

LL: This is the first I’ve heard of Lawrence Bassini. The first article that pops up on a Google search doesn’t look good. But as a supporter of a club that’s currently putting the dinner on Peter Ridsdale’s table I haven’t really got a leg to stand on. What are your thoughts?

And putting ownership and the make-up of the board room to one side, what can we expect from Watford over the next few seasons? More promise, but ultimately fading towards the season’s end and ending up in lower to mid-table Championship positions?

MR: Laurence, not Lawrence then. No, the back stories aren’t altogether encouraging. Got to suck it and see to a certain extent though.

What to expect from Watford? You’re putting a rather negative spin on things there, I think. We’ve sold experienced players in each of the last three summers, lots of players in some cases. We had no right to expect anything other than a relegation scrap in those circumstances. Had we pulled away to fourteenth, rather than slipping as the season closed, we’d have been delighted. Frankly, we’re still delighted. Twenty one home grown players were named in squads, most of them played. Thirteen debuts last season. Those players will be a season stronger, more experienced. And there’s some real quality there. Assuming that we lose Graham, replacing him is the big “but”, of course. There are a few unknowns floating around … the governance of the club going forward, Mackay’s future (he’ll have many options), Graham. Bassini has to fund big repayments back to Ashcroft. Whilst the glorious nature of the play-offs is that many teams can pitch for sixth on the back of a late run, the reality is that stability and midtableness remains a worthy target for the time being. Not very sexy, perhaps, but I don’t need to tell a Plymouth fan that there’s plenty would take that with both hands.

If you’d like to take part in this series, then we’d be pleased to hear from you. Contact us at @twounfortunates or to get the conversation started…

is co-editor of The Two Unfortunates. He's 31, supports Plymouth Argyle and takes a particular interest in the fortunes of those Football League clubs west of Bristol. He tweets @lloydlangman.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Bodell
    May 25, 2011

    Good read – agree with everything Matt says.

    Re. Bassini, I think t's fair to say that we know littl about him but what we do 'know' worries me. Hopefully the fact that we now have an owner who's prepared to invest some money is a good thing for now. COYH's!


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