‘You’re actually rooting for the clothes,’ goes the Jerry Seinfeld quip about what it means to be a sports fan. The same person that you once cheered for, he explains, turns into the object of your resentment if he ever has the temerity to face your team in the colours of another side: ‘BOO! Different shirt!’ You could say that deconstructing the relationship between fan and team to such a superficial level is just standard observational humour, but then it wouldn’t be funny were there not an element of truth to what is being said.
Not all returning players are met with hostility, but the manner of the contrasting receptions offered to Carlos Tévez and David Beckham on their respective returns to Old Trafford during the 2009/10 season still throws up an interesting point. While Tévez was heckled and booed like a traitor on his way to the scaffold, Beckham was greeted with all the gusto and garlands of a monarch returning from exile. Tévez’s crime, of course, was to swap United’s red for City’s blue; the affection for Beckham, by then a Milan player, was shown by throwing him a green and gold scarf, back when they outnumbered the red and white ones at Old Trafford, which he then picked up to huge cheers from the Stretford End. In both cases, the importance of team colours as signifiers of identity played a central role.
The essence of Seinfeld’s joke, namely that fans’ loyalty is to the colour of the shirt not the individual wearing it, came to mind when considering the effect of the Pozzo takeover at Watford. As has been mentioned elsewhere, including in Ben’s recent post for TTU on the sacking of Sean Dyche as manager in order for the new owners to bring in Gianfranco Zola, a likely scenario from a playing perspective is that certain positions will be filled by exotic loanees contracted to the Pozzos’ main interest, Udinese, at the expense of those with longer ties to the club or the area. The feeling is that fans will find it harder to identify with these players, and perhaps their whole club, if Watford’s starting eleven begins to resemble a second string for the Serie A side transported to the Championship.
Though no loanees have arrived at the time of writing, some Watford fans could have reservations about cheering for what might seem like a fairly alien side when the season kicks off next month, even if the players concerned are most certainly wearing yellow rather than black and white stripes. While that familiar English obsession about players needing to be fit to wear the shirt might not apply to the technical ability of whoever pitches up in the Hornets’ dressing room – it is not in the new owners’ interest to send Watford any duds – there might be a few anxieties regarding the players’ commitment to the club’s cause set against the desire to progress their own career. Put simply, if a player moves to Vicarage Road aware that it is the experience and exposure he should gain in the Championship that will increase his market value and thereby possibly earn him and his parent club a lucrative transfer, will he play as an individual or as part of a team?
To answer this, and perhaps allay a few fears, it is useful to look at the example of Granada in Spain, who the Pozzos bought in 2009. The club from Andalusia achieved back-to-back promotions and returned to La Liga after a 35-year absence two years later. What’s more, Granada preserved their top division status on the final day of last season, despite a dramatic defeat to fellow strugglers Rayo Vallecano, and so will be welcoming Barcelona and Real Madrid to their Los Cármenes stadium for at least another season. That Granada have been able to pull this off thanks in large part to a stream of players filtering down from Udinese is widely known. What has been made less clear, though, is that this policy is not about short-term deals that might make it hard for a team spirit to be forged, but season-long loans that have allowed players to grow with the club.
Indeed, three loan players are preparing to start their fourth season with Granada. Winger Dani Benítez and defenders Diego Mainz and Allan-Roméo Nyom remain contracted to Udinese but have been turning out for Granada since their Segunda B days. Despite the fact they technically still belong to the Italian side, after contributing so much to the club’s rise over the past three years it would be churlish to deny that they feel like Granada’s players. Furthermore, the left back Guilherme Siqueira is about to start a third campaign with Granada, while striker Odion Ighalo, who was particularly popular with the fans thanks to a crucial goal in the 2010/11 Segunda play-offs, also featured in all three divisions for Granada, although his loan does not look like it will be renewed this time.
The situation at Granada is often referred to as a project, a term that some English fans might balk at. It betrays the fact that Giampaolo Pozzo and his son, Gino, are businessmen and that their well-publicised ownership model – scout talent from all over the globe, stockpile it for a relatively small investment, then aim to sell high later on – is about financial success as well as sporting achievement. It is important to note, though, that so far the model is working on both counts for both clubs. Udinese have qualified for the Champions League play-off round, Granada have retained their top division status, and the pair of them remain that rarest of beasts: a well-run football club.
The success enjoyed by Granada would have been impossible without Udinese loaning them players, but they had to be the right sort of players. They needed to be hungry to prove themselves, as individuals and as part of a collective, for the benefit of their own careers and the fortunes of the club. They needed to arrive in Granada with the mentality that only by being part of a successful team would their own reputations grow. Take Siqueira, who originally joined on loan in 2010 and then signed on a free prior to the start of last season following the expiry of his contract with Udinese. With Valencia having lost Jordi Alba to Barcelona, Siqueira’s dynamic performances down Granada’s left flank have not gone unnoticed and he is being strongly linked with a move to Los Che that would earn him Champions League football and Granada a sizeable financial boost. (As an aside, Siqueira also knows his way around a Panenka.) Additionally, right back Nyom became a full Cameroon international last season after helping Granada up through the divisions.
It’s still true to say that this type of ownership arrangement encourages a high turnover of players. By the end of last week, a dizzying 20 players had been added to Granada’s squad so far this summer – some returning from loans elsewhere, including a number who were stationed in Segunda B at Cadiz, with whom Granada have their own relationship – with 10 already having left (thanks to @LaLigaLoca for the maths). Such a state of affairs is not unique to a club reliant on its own loan players, as any fan of a club once managed by Harry Redknapp would testify, but Watford fans might end up with more names to remember than you’d find in a Game of Thrones box set. Nonetheless, owing to a core group of players regularly augmented by careful additions, it has clearly not done Granada any harm to have so many comings and goings. Watford fans will be hoping that this proves to be the case at their club too.
Speculating about the identity of Watford’s starting eleven against Crystal Palace on 18th August is one of the most intriguing elements of the build-up to the Championship season. The only real certainty – bearing in mind there is no clash of shirts – is that they will be wearing yellow. Perhaps the constancy offered by a team’s colours, to return to Seinfeld’s point, is why they are regarded more highly than anything else. Fans know that they’re the one thing about their club that can’t change. With one exception in the Championship this year, of course…