Hot Seat Narratives: Watford's Managerial Carousel
In passing judgement on Watford’s unusual managerial goings-on this season, one really needs to take a step back and appreciate the backdrop to a bizarre period that saw five different men – four full-time appointees and one stand-in – take charge of Watford within less than six weeks.
So… for those that have been paying no attention at all, here’s a whistle-stop summary. The Pozzo family bought Watford in 2012. Three positive seasons under the management of Malky Mackay and Sean Dyche had concealed and been achieved despite bedlam in the boardroom. The previous owners, a group including Lord Ashcroft, had sold the club to local businessman Laurence Bassini in 2011 but included clauses in the sale allowing Ashcroft to take control back if certain conditions weren’t met. When Bassini defaulted on several of these conditions Ashcroft exercised that right and sold the club to the Pozzo family who were looking to extend their family of clubs with an English branch.
If you run with the premise that the Pozzos are a good thing for Watford, we got lucky… low hanging fruit, a club close to London whose owners needed to sell. Management changes are a frivolous distraction compared to the challenges the club would otherwise have been facing.
The Pozzo model is based around a vast scouting network with young talent being recruited and deposited amongst their clubs and on loan elsewhere, funded by the sales of the cream of the crop (Alexis Sánchez, Samir Handanović and Gökhan Inler are only three of a vast number of relatively recent graduates). The system has its critics, but to me is a souped-up version of the buy-low-sell-high that most small clubs aspire to, and has to be more sustainable than pouring money at the transfer fees and salaries of established stars. I’m kinda comfortable with it.
Which isn’t to say that the players coming in have been wide-eyed rookies. The takeover was followed by an influx of internationals, albeit many of them notoriously on loan as the protracted summer takeover left scant time for rebuilding in advance of the transfer window. With the takeover – and ever since, without exception – came mercifully sensible and measured communication both from owners and the guys they installed to run the club. We were aiming for the top flight, the model demanded that we got there to fund the exercise, but there was no drastic rush and no quick fix. Things needed building gradually, there was no expectation that promotion would be immediate.
As such, Gianfranco Zola can probably be considered an absolute disaster from the Pozzo’s point of view. Appointed as the first head coach under the regime with the strict remit of looking after what was going on on the pitch and with little apparent input into player comings and goings, he did an astonishing job of fashioning a wonderfully harmonious thing out of these new signings – along with the cream of the old guard, including a rejuvenated Troy Deeney, given a second chance by the club after a spell at her majesty’s pleasure. The side began to click in October 2012 and roared upwards from the lower reaches of the division. In playing such extravagant football and missing promotion so narrowly – automatic was missed via a final day defeat to Leeds in which two goalkeepers were injured, the play-off final was lost to an extra time penalty – the club was left at a low ebb with expectations through the roof and one of the season’s star turns, Czech striker Matěj Vydra, too quickly called upon by clubs in the top flight.
Last season therefore started with some optimism, but optimism that was to prove misplaced. Zola’s side, minus Vydra but bolstered by a raft of further signings, lost only one of the first nine whilst recording big wins over Bournemouth (6-1) and Barnsley (5-1) but Vicarage Road has rarely thrived under the weight of high expectation. In October the wheels came off big style as a careless defeat at home to an accelerating Derby proved to be the first of five in a row. We became horribly easy to play against as demonstrated by Yeovil who turned up, put players behind the ball and waited for us to make mistakes – which we did on three critical occasions to no reply. The utterly likeable Zola had lost his mojo and the side looked flimsy and rudderless. After the fifth consecutive home defeat, a joyless surrender to Sheffield Wednesday in mid-December (that’s less than a year ago, boys and girls), Zola resigned.
His replacement was Beppe Sannino, another Italian but in many respects the opposite of his predecessor… Zola had been voted Chelsea’s best-ever player, Sannino’s career had involved playing in the lower divisions in Italy and involved a spell as a janitor at a psychiatric hospital. Zola was relaxed and effusive, Sannino was animated and spiky, incapable of remaining within the constraints of his technical area. Significantly, whilst Zola’s team had been expansive but (increasingly) brittle, Sannino built from the back. Those five home defeats under Zola were followed by a nine game run in which the Hornets conceded a total of one goal.
It wasn’t enough, as you’ll have noted. Sannino steadied the ship and tightened us up, but whilst we were in the highly congested pack in upper mid-table chasing the play-off place traditionally contested between the best-of-the-rest behind the division’s strong sides, our challenge never quite progressed beyond the theoretical. A thunderous performance at Loftus Road on Easter Monday ended in disappointment as the Hornets, forced to chase three points by a late Joey Barton equaliser, ended up losing the game. That confirmed QPR’s place in the play-offs and all but ended the Hornets’ aspirations.
In the aftermath of the game, in which a ferociously noisy away end had lauded the head coach, Sannino said all the right things. He praised the support, and pledged that the side would put in performances and fight for every point until the last day of the season. So the three insipid defeats that followed, culminating in a grotesque capitulation to Huddersfield on the final day of the campaign in which the cracks in the squad were daubed all over the pitch, didn’t say a lot for the relationship between the manager and the players.
The only surprise, perhaps, was that Sannino survived the summer. Despite the horrible end to the season the Pozzos lived up to their reputation and stuck by their man; the break saw yet more arrivals, but critically the eyecatching return of Vydra and the retention of Hungarian midfielder Daniel Tözsér, who had impressed in a half-season loan since January, along with the return of injury victim Almen Abdi all fuelled optimism.
And so at the end of August after four wins out of five it was perhaps surprising, from the outside, to see a manager resign with his side second in the table. The fault lines had been there, however, and with a squad of incredible strength and depth unparalleled in the club’s history it was less of a surprise to those who had the situation in focus. Sannino’s prickly character had clearly failed him in a key aspect of his role – forging harmony and a team ethic out of a disparate multinational group. Lloyd Dyer, recruited on the back of a strong season with promoted Leicester and part of a core of recruits with Championship experience, painted a vivid picture of the state of the dressing room with a defiant show of disdain to the bench after a matchwinning goal off the bench at Rotherham. In isolation more blame would have been squarely at the player’s door for unprofessional behaviour. But this wasn’t an isolated incident.
Sannino’s resignation was, according to the Watford Observer, based on a conflict with the club who believed his long tactical sessions weren’t preparing the players for the physical demands of the Championship season. In any event, for all that Sannino had been in charge for only eight months and despite the team’s position there was an element of relief about his departure.
Publically pronouncing that the next coach would have experience of the requirements of Championship football, the Pozzos appointed Óscar Garcia, whose Brighton side had won the lottery for that last play-off place despite their own managerial upheavals last season. We’ll never know how successful his appointment might have been since he was in the dugout for only one game – a narrow defeat at the Valley, the club’s second of the season and first genuinely disappointing result. The next day he was admitted to hospital with chest pains and would resign for health related reasons a fortnight later, his coaching staff having overseen five points from three more games in the interim.
So… two departures into the season there seemed little to criticise the Pozzos for, but it was the appointment and astonishingly rapid departure of Billy McKinlay that really caught the eye. McKinlay had been brought into the set-up three days prior to his promotion to the hot seat; Garcia would later claim that he had been involved in the appointment, knowing that he might not be able to return to work but McKinlay certainly seemed to have no such expectations. Garcia attended what was to be “his” last game, a draw at Blackburn, amidst the expectation both in and outside the club that he was about to resume control.
Quite what happened with McKinlay remains a bit of a mystery. One popular analysis is that the club rushed the decision, that McKinlay should have been given caretaker charge whilst fuller consideration was given. However Garcia had been ill for several weeks, and a long stay in hospital with chest pains must surely have left the club’s owners contingency planning. Garcia’s own quotes suggested a succession plan, not a panicked response to an unexpected turn of events.
So what did happen? Certainly McKinlay’s one game in charge was uninspiring, an ultra-defensive draw at home to Brighton compounded by unfortunate post-match comments suggesting preoccupation with containing struggling opposition rather than exploiting the Hornets’ own attacking threat… but one game, however disappointing, is a perversely short management career to pass judgement on.
And it’s partly the extraordinary brevity of his tenure that leads me to trust the judgement of the Pozzos, whose conduct up until now has suggested hard-nosed professionalism rather than excitable rashness. The decision was always going to attract criticism, even scorn, but they took it anyway and paid McKinlay, who hadn’t signed a contact, a full year’s salary. Much as the incident doesn’t reflect well on the club at all from the outside the decision, right or wrong, was a brave one. Without knowing what went on behind the scenes it seems unwise to comment further.
Enter, then, the Hornets’ fourth manager of the season in the shape of Slaviša Jokanović… another rapid appointment, and rather going against the grain of the earlier insistence of Championship experience. Early days for the Serb too, and I’m conscious that passing judgement in the wake of the first consecutive defeats of the season, isn’t entirely even handed. Certainly his two home games to date have been encouraging – an impressive and underrewarded draw with Forest and a hugely inspiring and defiant overcoming of a well-planned Millwall. The latter, finally, came in front of a four sided stadium with the opening of the new Community Stand down the east side of the ground, thanks to the Pozzos. You’ll know by the time you read this how the mouthwatering visit of Derby, this Saturday as I write, played out.
What this whole saga says about the changing roles and ever-shrinking tenures of managers in general I’m not sure. Every club’s supporters will see their own side as a special case, but there is undeniably a uniqueness about the Hornets’ set-up and in that context a coach HAS to fit into the structure rather than expecting to define it. Two undeniable facts shine through, however. One… Watford supporters have to adapt to an about face, a new reality… from the position where excellent managers (Rodgers, Mackay, Dyche) made the best of limited resources we now have a situation where the incumbent has to fashion a side out of untold riches – witness the recruitment of the monstrous Sebastian Bassong in response to a bit of a concern about injuries to centre- backs, this squad really ought to challenge with a paper bag in charge. Two, whatever the justification and circumstance behind our many managerial departures this season, the selection of their head coach is the one area of their work at Watford where the Pozzo family have yet to convince. Keep watching…
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