So, it's official. After weeks of rumour and one week of intense media speculation (by Watford's normal standards), Gianluca Vialli is the new man at the helm of our beloved club. Many will say that the apparent abandonment of the club's structure will lead us down the same road to financial ruin already trodden by clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday, QPR, Crystal Palace, and everybody's favourite current candidates, Bradford. Just as many will say that a new broom is needed in order to break from the club's history of mediocrity, and to turn spells of over-achievement into sustained periods of relative success.
The only truth is that none of us can tell. We have to have an element of trust in the board, who so far have done nothing to suggest that it would be misplaced. We also need to hope that GT himself has rubber-stamped the appointment. Below are two hypothetical newspaper articles, written approximately two years from now. Both have very different perspectives on what our immediate future may hold. Who knows which will be nearer the truth, but, one thing is for sure, it won't be dull.
For those who remember the Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the following will be familiar. For those under the age of, oh, about twenty-five, this article is presented in three parts. You should read the first part below. At the end, you roll a dice (six sided!), and the outcome decides which path you take....
Vialli departure leaves open questions?
When Graham Taylor, Watford's most successful and certainly most popular manager, announced his retirement back at the tail end of the 2000/01 season, most fans turned their minds back to May 1987. Back then, Watford were comfortably settled in the old First Division having experienced their most successful period in history. Taylor led them from the old Fourth Division to the top league. They finished second to Liverpool in their first season, played in Europe and made it to the FA Cup Final in 1984. When Taylor resigned to accept a job with Aston Villa, the board looked to a man of similar track record to replace him. Dave Basset, who oversaw similar feats of heroism with Wimbledon, was duly appointed.
However, 'Harry' found it impossible to fill the huge void left by Taylor's departure. He tried to impose his own stamp by dismantling the team that Taylor built, already weakened by the departure of John Barnes to Liverpool. It backfired. Watford were relegated that season, and the club fell into a ten year slump that saw a succession of managers fail to lift them back towards their former glories. Only Glenn Roeder showed brief glimpses of promise, getting the Hornets towards the First Division play-offs, but he soon returned to collective form not helped by the then Chairman and multimillionaire skinflint, Jack Petchey.
Things only improved when Taylor himself came back into the fold, revitalised after his disastrous spell in charge of the national team and an unwarranted sacking at Wolves. A five year plan to become a Premiership club was hatched, and achieved in three. Although Watford's life in the top flight this time around lasted a mere season, most experts and not least the accountants, now agree that Taylor's refusal to speculate in the transfer market on players who were overpriced and overpaid was in everybody's best interests. At the start of the following season, Taylor's men stormed to the top of Division One with a fifteen game unbeaten run, but it all turned flat as near-relegation form took over. Towards the end of the season, Taylor made the announcement of his intended departure once the campaign was over in characteristicly dramatic fashion. This was a year earlier than scheduled, and he cited one reason as not wanting to spend the last year of Watford's Premiership parachute payments on players he wouldn't then be in a position to work with.
The Watford board found themselves in an unusual position. In an industry that fires first and thinks later, they had plenty of time to consider their options. Unlike the times under Petchey, Watford's success on the field was matched by significant developments off it. A new board composed, not insignificantly, of many lifelong fans was in place. A new training ground secured, and the club's academy system flourished. The first team showed the fruits of such labour with the likes of Tommy Smith, Gifton Noel-Williams and Paul Robinson showing the way for a crop of very promising youngsters. Clearly willing to learn from past mistakes, and surely mindful of the fact that this time around the Taylor-void would be twice as big, they formed a committee to find their man. Fan speculation centered mainly on John Ward: a Taylor protégé back in the '80s who was languishing as assistant manager at Wolves. Kenny Jackett and Luther Blissett, club stalwarts and part of Taylor's coaching staff, were fancied. Up and coming managers were linked with the club. The likes of Laurie Sanchez and Brian Talbot, then of Wycombe and Rushden and Diamonds respectively, were supposedly in the frame. Of course, the usual lineup of out-of-work managers were speculated upon. George Graham, no way! John Barnes, old boy but perilously inexperienced as his disastrous spell at Celtic proved. Gianluca Vialli...you're kidding, right?
Except, as it turned out, they weren't kidding. Vialli was spotted at Watford's home game against Nottingham Forest, a tenuous link given Vialli's personal friendship with then Forest manager David Platt, cemented when both were at Sampdoria. Platt even helped Vialli gain his coaching qualification by allowing him to train with the Forest youngsters. Then rumours from "someone who knows somebody who knows somebody at Stamford Bridge" suggested that Vialli had approached his former physio with a view to taking him to Vicarage Road. Still the majority didn't entertain the prospect but, as it turned out, the board were more than happy to.
Despite their resolute attempts to hide the fact, the cat was let truly out of the bag on the morning of Graham Taylor's last home game, against already relegated Tranmere. Watford needed three points to stay in play-off contention. A dull 1-1 draw confirmed their status as a Division One team for the following season, and the game was overshadowed by the farewell to the great man. Preceding the game, the morning's sport pages were covered with stories suggesting that Vialli was engaged in talks with Watford. The club issued a statement on their web-site, asserting that they had nothing to add to press speculation - a non-denial if ever there was one. By the following Tuesday's away fixture at Gillingham, Watford players Tommy Mooney and Alec Chamberlain had both been quoted on the subject and Vialli himself was on record as stating he had held discussions and found the Watford board to be "very serious, very ambitious people". The club announced a press conference and Luca became Vialli of the Vicarage.
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