Forza Watford: Shaking up the Hornets’ Nest
I recently returned from a three-month trip overseas to find a Watford FC very different to the one I had previously known. As a season ticket holder who attends most home games, I found the new Watford both exciting and also disconcerting. It is undoubtedly a new era for the club, but what that era holds, and what it will transform the club into, remains to be seen.
Over the past five or six years Watford FC has become one of the clubs that have stood in stark contrast to the increasingly dominant business model of modern football: find rich investors, buy heaps of new and exotic players, fail to achieve expected success, and call in the administrators. In contrast to the likes of Leeds, Portsmouth, and more recently Rangers, Watford was a club whose team-sheet was largely made up of academy products and British players, a club that lived within its means, and a club whose owners attempted to focus on stability and long-term planning, rarely voluntarily replacing managers and employing a ‘buy low sell high’ transfer policy. It was responsible ownership creating a sustainable, if not spectacularly successful, business model. A lot of fans including myself took a great deal of pride in this. Here we were, a small club with little clout, but we were doing it properly.
In June 2012, Watford said goodbye to former owner Laurence Bassini, and buongiorno to the Italian Pozzo family. The Pozzo family represent an international football business, one that already owns the well-known Serie A outfit Udinese as well as the lesser-known La Liga side Granada. With this, it seemed as though Watford had given in to the reality of 21st century football, selling out in the hope of future fame and silverware. This opinion has certainly been the prevailing one in much of the mainstream media.
One recent article by the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel suggests that Watford have become “a snapshot of all that’s wrong with the modern game” (25th September 2012), this despite the fact that the same journalist wrote an article back in May lauding the “fairytale” transformation of Manchester City from a mediocre club into English champions, criticising the new UEFA financial fair play rules that threatened to curb the Citizen’s spending as of last summer. While many may disagree with Samuel’s opinion of Man City, it is harder to find fault with his criticisms of the transfer policy that has seen 10 Udinese loanees join Watford since the takeover.
These loan players are the ones who have so far received the bulk of attention in the mainstream media. Many Watford fans including myself are uncomfortable at the appearance of so many loan players so quickly, all coming from Udinese, one of the other Pozzo assets. Some of the loanees have been excellent so far this season. Matej Vydra had already scored four goals, while Fernando Forestieri is one of the more exciting players seen at Vicarage Road for some time. Yet, there is still a worry that Watford might become a shop window for Udinese players, or a reserve team to give them games to hone their skills before returning to play in Italy.
The challenge for Watford is to retain the identity and character that has made them so popular with neutral fans. One Watford project that received attention from top clubs across the world was the Harefield Academy, a local school where the Watford youth academy is based. The Academy combines a footballing education with a conventional one and has produced several talented players in the last few years, including much of the current first team as well as Marvin Sordell, who played for Team GB this summer and regularly features for the England Under-21 team. In recent years the academy has been to Watford what the NHS is to Britain: a core part of the collective identity of the club, and vital to its well-being.
Worryingly, in August this year the academy was downgraded from category one to category three. What this means is that Watford’s youth setup will receive less money to produce players, the academy teams will play against lower quality opposition, and Watford will get less protection against poaching of their young players from bigger clubs. When current first-team player Sean Murray was at the academy, a move from Man City to sign him was blocked by the academy’s category one status. If Man City were to come in for another youth player today, Watford would be largely unable to stop it. Though a category three academy costs around £1.2 million less to run per year than a category one, Watford fans were both outraged and worried by the decision, made just two weeks after the completion of the takeover.
Gladly however, the Pozzos do have a track record of sound ownership. Giampaolo has owned Udinese since 1986, turning them into one of the top six or seven clubs in Serie A and was voted the best President in the league in the 2007/8 season. In 2009 the Pozzos bought Spanish team Granada and led them into La Liga one year later, that Granada team, like the current Watford side, using several Udinese loanees in their successful campaign.
So, what of the shakeup at Vicarage Road? Has it been successful? So far, the answer seems to be no. Under new manager Gianfranco Zola Watford have had a less than impressive start to the new season, sitting firmly in mid-table with 13 points from their opening 10 fixtures.
Of course, it would be unfair to expect immediate results. 16 new additions since the end of the 2011/12 season means that this team must be given time to gel, as well as time to get used to a new manager and several new backroom staff. Hopeful talk of an imminent promotion challenge in pre-season were of course premature, though arguably unavoidable in any situation where a club is suddenly flooded with resources it did not previously have access to. There are many examples in recent years: QPR under Tony Fernandes, Portsmouth with Alexandre Gaydamak, and even the Venkys promising Blackburn fans Ronaldinho and the Champions League.
Regardless of the slow start to this campaign and scepticism of the current loan policy, the Pozzo takeover is an exciting time for the club. Between 1998 and 2012 Watford have enjoyed two seasons in the Premiership, but the rest in relative mediocrity in the Championship, coming close to administration on more than one occasion. Of course many clubs would kill for such relative stability, but for many fans the 2012/13 season presents a hope for something more. Of course, the club must not lose sight of the perils of sudden resources, and need look no further than their own league to see other teams who have fallen into that trap and subsequently fallen from the Premiership’s graces.
The reality of the post-Sky era of football is that the game has become a business, and for some people, an extremely profitable one. The challenge for clubs including Watford now is to get the balance right. A takeover such as this and the resources it pumps into the club could be used for great things. However, as so many fans have found out in the past few years, what begins with hope and excitement may end in tears. With luck, the downgrading of the Watford academy mentioned above will not be the first of many moves turning Watford into a home solely for Udinese exports. I hope to keep my handkerchief tucked firmly away.