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Leaving the past behind
By Matt Rowson
Bloody hell, where to start...?

It's fair to say that the last eighteen months have been amongst the more eventful of Watford Football Club's history. From the moment that Graham Taylor announced that he was leaving, supporters braced themselves. Succeeding Taylor at Vicarage Road, as had already been capably demonstrated some fourteen years previously, was never going to be an easy task for anybody. It follows logically that the responsibility for making this appointment was not a trivial one either.

There's a line from that most profound of cinematic pieces, "Jurassic Park", that seems to suit here. For it seemed at the time that, for better or worse, Watford's board were so overwhelmed by the excitement of the possibility that they could appoint Gianluca Vialli that they didn't stop to properly consider whether they should.

This very question provoked a summer polarisation of opinion amongst supporters. One camp decried the move as contrary to everything that Watford had ever stood for, citing in particular the disposal of the likes of family members Kenny Jackett, Luther Blissett and Tom Walley, albeit necessary given the managerial appointment, as evidence for the prosecution. In the opposing camp were supporters excited by the unquestionably ambitious nature of the move, and the unusually high profile nature of the signings that rapidly followed. The past, they argued, needed to be properly left behind.

Both camps, however, must have assumed that the signings that were being made, and in particular the salaries that had been mooted, had been part of a plan, that at worst there was money to accommodate the (generally two-year) contracts that were involved. In any event, the bold approach taken was a gamble. High profiles and big signings raise expectations.

Personally, the thing I found hardest was the speed of the transition. Rarely does any club make such a dramatic overhaul of its playing staff. When players come and go over the course of a season, they are joining and leaving an identifiable entity and are part of the team before the next guy comes in. When everything changes at once, the strength of the bond is weakened. What is it that we are actually supporting?

The football itself started fitfully, as might have been expected from what was a team dominated by new faces (five players made their competitive debuts at Maine Road on day one). The "need to gel" was much discussed and, by and large, accepted. Of more concern was the often bafflingly positive take on some of the poorer early performances exhibited in press conferences. Vialli was either a master psychologist - putting on a impenetrable front to the media to protect his players - or else he didn't know what he was doing.

As time went on, occasional flickers of consistency and form tended to be scuppered as soon as they showed signs of waning, leaving my co-editor to observe that the manager was "waiting for his jelly to set while blitzing it with an electric whisk". Watford's form was reminiscent of Worrell Sterling's... just as the ex-Watford winger would pull a half-decent performance out of the bag the game before he simply had to be dropped, the pressure from the stands was never really given the chance to mount, peppered as the dross was with occasional suggestions of everything coming together.

Finally, on St. Valentine's Day with Watford lying an unconvincing and increasingly momentumless twelfth and any hopes of promotion receding into the distance, the news broke that cast a new (grey) light on proceedings. Evidently, there had been no plan. Or, if there had, it hadn't amounted to much more than "get promoted immediately". Six players, the majority being high earners, were put on the list, among them three players that Vialli had signed during or since the summer.

How much the television money situation, discussed at length and ad nauseam elsewhere, contributed to the situation is unclear. Obviously it can't have helped, but the situation in February was far from clear, at least publicly. One can only wonder what Graham Taylor made of it all... for so long preaching the importance of a frugal transfer policy, to the point that during the Premiership season we were one of only three clubs in the country to run at a profit, he watched on as the board threw money at their new toy. Bradford's laughable attempts to stay in the Premiership by chucking money at mediocre Premiership players had now been emulated by a club with a smaller catchment area, and playing in Division One. Whither so many clubs (mostly Wolves) had been before. To their credit, the board have more recently appeared to behave responsibly and are taking moves that can only be sensible in preserving the future of the football club. There is one hell of a cock-up to atone for, though.

The relationship of the details of the season's failure to Elton John's resignation as chairman will perhaps become clearer in time. So too the reasons for which Ray Wilkins and several other members of the coaching staff were dismissed a matter of days before Vialli. At the time of writing, 7pm on the evening of Vialli's departure, it's difficult to comment on either.

Certainly, however, Vialli will be more widely mourned than Wilkins, whose managerial track record before the Watford appointment was far more damning than Luca's and who gave a far less convincing impression of his heart being in it during his year at Vicarage Road. The clincher for me was the way that his TV punditry sideline was invariably accompanied with the caption "Ray Wilkins - ex-Manchester United and England" rather than "Ray Wilkins - Watford assistant manager".

It is very difficult not to have at least some sympathy for Vialli, whatever his quite evident limitations as a manager. His decision to take the job in the first place was certainly a bold one, and founded on the best of motives. Nor can there be any doubt that he put his heart and soul into the job...the haggard, tired-looking man who spoke so uncomfortably at the Sponsors' Evening was clearly someone with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His stated personal aim on arrival, however, was to demonstrate that he was capable of being a "proper" manager, developing players and teams, rather than the chequebook figurehead that Ken Bates, with typical grace, tried to paint him as. Unfortunately for all concerned, he completely failed to do so.

So how much did the financial situation contribute to his departure? Would he have merited more time had the need to cut costs not been so urgent? Probably; very few Watford managers have had a career as brief.

Whatever the overriding sentiment regarding whether his leaving is a Good Thing, the ultimate cause is one which no Watford fan can rejoice over. The one certainty is that Watford season-long attempt to be a Big Club is over.

And the one question which badly needs answering is, "What now?".