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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Editorials:
I want the last year back...
By Chris Lawton
 
Actually, that's a lie - I want the last eighteen months back. I want all the time back since we got well and truly sorted out by Fulham on Boxing Day 2000. Ever since that day, the fate and fortunes of Watford FC have spiralled downwards to ever-increasing levels of disappointment, despair and, recently, annoyance.

The question facing me now is where to begin? Well, like all good stories, it is probably best if I start at the beginning. To do so, I have to wind the clock back more than a year - actually, we have to go all the way back to the 17th February 1996. On this fateful day, Watford again got thrashed, not by Fulham but by Crystal Palace. For many it was the last straw, and that included the board. Glenn Roeder got the boot and Graham Taylor returned to the kind of welcome normally reserved for conquering heroes.

At this point, several things should be made clear. In the seasons since Taylor's first departure, a continued lack of investment and appointments of trainee managers had left Watford FC in poor shape. An at best average team, poor following and a board with about as much vision as a mole who is in urgent need of a trip to an optician. Roeder, in the opinion of some, was a scapegoat for an inept boardroom.

Despite the exalted return of the king, it didn't all go to plan and despite a valiant effort the Hornets still went down into Division Two. Having failed as miracle worker, and still smarting from a press hounding when in charge of England and Wolves, Taylor stepped aside and upwards and allowed Kenny Jackett to become manager.

Sadly for Kenny, it didn't work out. It might have been because he wasn't good enough, or maybe it was the players, but whatever the reason we did not bounce back. So we would see out another year in Division Two - with one change, that GT was back in full control. The captain had returned to guide the rudderless ship forward and into the Premiership.

A combination of teamwork, team spirit, managerial know-how, some very good players and a little luck saw Watford gain back to back promotions, culminating a glorious day out at Wembley in May 1999.

Roll on the 1999/2000 season and Watford were meant to take all by storm and repeat their magical feats of the early 1980s. The loyalty of the manager, who decided to "stick with those that got us there", caused a few problems. Largely because many of them weren't good enough for the Premiership and those that were could no longer carry the rest of the team. Despite a memorable win at Anfield, the Hornets were sunk by...well, in all honesty, by Christmas.

So the 2000/2001 season dawned with a sense of optimism. A better, more experienced squad than two years' previously meant that Watford were one of the favourites for promotion. Having spent relatively little while in the Premiership (except to buy out the Jack Petchey), the board allowed GT to go on a spending spree unlike any other in the history of the club. Several high quality players were brought to the club, including Baardsen and Nielsen.

Such an action raises two questions:

1) Why did a man who doesn't have a reputation for spending millions feel the need to spend money? Was there loads in the bank and he thought "why not"?

2) Were the board so delighted at the money and coverage in the Premiership that they released funds in a costly gamble to get back to there as soon as possible?

In answer to the first question, I really don't have an answer. It is clear that GT went against his historical pattern of being something of a sharp player in the transfer market. It may also explain the problems he had in trying to resolve some of the difficulties later in the season.

As for the second question - well, to start with the gamble paid off rather well. A fantastic early run of form saw Watford sitting pretty at the top of the table, with a combination of good football, teamwork and, as always, a little luck.

In any other year, the Golden Boys might well have got themselves promoted, but Fulham spoilt the show. They showed what happens when you spend truly enormous sums of money and their double demolition of Watford in the space of a month created doubt. It created doubt in the players' minds that they could actually do the job. Secondly, it created a doubt in the boardroom that they hadn't spent enough to secure promotion.

For once, the magician couldn't pull a rabbit out the hat. Watford failed miserably in the second half of the season and it all ended far too early. GT, possibly sparing the board the impossible task of sacking him, announced he was to step down as manager.

So, having spent a lot of money and not gained the promotion they desired, the board was lured into a new gamble. The incentive - more TV money for lower league clubs. The combination of this extra money and a share issue raised in excess of 5 million for the club. Instead of returning to the tried and tested practice of experienced management and small budgets, the board embarked on a not-to-be-missed opportunity of double or bust!

If they spend all this extra money, they should get promoted - after all, it worked for Fulham. Shame they forgot about Wolves. And Birmingham. And Nottingham Forest. And Ipswich. And Manchester City. And Blackburn. And Stoke. And QPR. And Sheffield - Wednesday and United.

So roughly a year ago, a bizarre sequence of events was set in motion that has led Watford FC to the perilous position that it now finds itself in.

1) The board appointed a very expensive high profile manager whose only experience as player and manager was at high profile clubs with seemingly limitless funds. They employed him seemingly under the pretence that despite being a small club, the funds were there. Furthermore, there was no get-out clause linking his pay to the performance of the team he managed.

2) They allowed him to sign a number of high profile players and pay them very high wages for the division and the size of the club (after all, why else would they come to Watford?). Again, they are on long contracts with no easy get-out for the club.

3) A mediocre season on the pitch placed a large strain on the whole club:

  • The new players were generally unaccepted by the fans
  • The manager's position was subject to constant speculation
  • The board realised too late that the gamble had failed, that the opposite of double is bust, and that was where the club was heading. In a knee-jerk reaction, it transfer-listed several of the high profile signings.

    As the season drew to a close, the team started to crumble on the pitch and failed even to finish in the top half of the table. Aware of some discontent amongst the fans at some members of the playing and managerial staff, the board started to sack people - largely, it appears, with aim of forcing the manager to resign.

    He didn't.

    In the end, the board decided to sack him and pay him off - saying they need to save money.

    Now, I haven't even mentioned the collapse of the ITV deal. Why? Because I think it is a red herring to the financial state at Watford right now. The likely amounts being paid off to Vega, Vialli and Issa, far outweigh the £5-6million in TV money over the next two years.

    I feel sorry for Vialli. I genuinely believe he tried his best. Maybe he wasn't good enough...maybe, like the last person that tried to follow GT, he had an impossible task, but maybe the board wasn't good enough either.

    In reality, the board should never have appointed him. Not because of his managerial skills, but because they didn't have the money to live his lifestyle. In that sense, Vialli was cheated - he was given guarantees that the club could only ever hope to meet if they got promoted straight away. As this became ever more apparent over the season, so the pressure to succeed on the pitch became more than a footballing matter - it became a financial one as well.

    So the bottom line is this - I want my year back because I have been cheated. Not of names and quality players at Watford, but of a sensible backroom financial management decision. Right now, the state of Watford is a dangerous one, although I hope and believe we will survive. If the board had looked at the history of Watford, and other clubs a year ago, they would have realised that a more pragmatic use of money would have a) been understood by the fans and b) not left us at the mercy of an over-hyped TV deal. Despite all the talk about spending money that was guaranteed, in my opinion you should never spend money that you haven't got.

    Fortunately, the board appear to have realised the error of their ways and are evidently making personal investments into the club. But I also think the board should do the following:

    1) Admit to the fans that they got it wrong. That they took a huge gamble and it didn't come off.

    2) Announce clearly the financial situation so everyone knows exactly what is happening.

    So who knows what the future will bring. Sometime soon we will get a new manager and probably somewhere along the line new heroes and villains. As always with Watford it will be one hell of a ride - but as always it will be worth it.

    (25/06/02)