31st May, 1999. Watford promoted to the Premiership.
17th June, 2002. All is lost.
For many the downward spiral began immediately following the resignation of Graham Taylor, a club legend. Not only had Taylor been the most successful manager in the club's history, he was also a pioneer in recognising a football club's responsibility to its community. It was thanks to Taylor that Watford F.C. gained a reputation as a "Family Club", among the first to donate to local charities and send players to meet fans and visit hospitals. Twenty years after he first introduced it, Watford's "Football in the Community" initiative is still going strong.
The board had a tough task ahead of them, and anxious to avoid a repeat of the club's catastrophic fall from grace that followed the end of Taylor's first reign, looked for an ambitious, "Big-name" manager.
Step forward, Gianluca Vialli. Former Chelsea manager. Former World Player of the Year. Elegant, stylish, and a household name; all the necessary ingredients for the New Watford.
Unfortunately, while Vialli's team were welcomed in the front door, first team coach Kenny Jackett and reserve team coach Luther Blissett were being ushered out the back. Jackett, a former player under Taylor, found employment at QPR. A stunned Blissett packed up his twin records of most goals and most appearances for the club but had nowhere to go. Now, twelve months later, the former hero of Vicarage Road has just found work at Third Division York City.
The whirlwind had begun, and the board and manager prepared the club to roar out of the blocks to the Promised Land of the premiership. Out went the old, as nine players jumped or were pushed, including club captain Robert Page, and Player of the Season Tommy Mooney. Terrace Heroes were replaced with aging professionals and Premiership rejects. Unfortunately, but not totally surprisingly, the efforts of Blondeau, Vega, Gayle, Hughes, Glass and Issa did not match up with their massive wage packets. The Watford F.C. Promotion Bus never turned up, and players, supporters and board were left at the bus stop wondering what went wrong.
And so to the present. Watford finish fourteenth in Division One, and as the ITV Digital cash crisis tightens its grip, five internationals are put on the transfer list, three signed by Vialli only months earlier. Elton John resigns as chairman, and weeks later four of Vialli's staff are sacked, followed by the manager himself, as the board desperately try to reduce wages.
In a statement, Chief Executive Tim Shaw blames ITV Digital, explaining "Our club has been denied a guaranteed income of £2m for each of the next two years." Clearly worried, he adds, "Your frustration should be directed at Carlton and Granada, not us..."
But supporter frustration is directed at them, and the board find themselves managerless, rudderless, and staring down the barrel of a gun.
In Watford's case, the board's ambition for instant success and their reckless use of limited finances has clashed violently with what supporters call "The Watford Way". One supporter worried when Vialli was appointed, that "wannabe Big Club Directors failed to understand the true nature of our club."
But in an era when most of the league's clubs have wage bills impossible to reconcile with their turnovers, the name of Watford could be replaced with any other club's. At time of writing, Notts County are the latest in administration, closely following Bradford City.
This is the legacy of "Football as a Business". Let's hope it becomes fun again soon, before our national game becomes no more than a financial infeasibility.