I write this with a heavy heart. I really wanted it to work. I make no bones about it, I am not a member of the "I told you so" brigade, who voiced concerns the very minute Gianluca Vialli was appointed. I rejoiced at the quality of signings the club were attracting, others worried about their wages and their motivation for giving their all to the club. I loved the passing football and pretty patterns woven by the players, others pointed to the lack of end product and passion and predicted it all going wrong. The fact that they were right won't make the pessimists feel any better, and us optimists are just left to pick up the pieces of the mess at our beloved football club.
Gianluca Vialli's appointment was an interesting idea. The board at Watford needed to find a replacement for the most successful manager in our history. Filling Graham Taylor's shoes was a job for a man of considerable confidence and charisma. The club had tasted the sweet honey of Premiership money, and wanted it again. They were also about to float on the stock exchange and needed to be led into that by a name the city would recognise as well as the football world. So, off the field, it made sense.
On the field, Vialli brought a record of trophy-laden success at Chelsea. He had led a team at Stamford Bridge who could play sublime football at times, ripping apart sides such as Manchester United and Galatasaray with almost consumate ease. He brought with him an experienced coaching team - with a fitness trainer, goalkeeper coach, general manager, reserve team manager, assistant manager all with many years of football life behind them.
He also brought with him doubts about his ability to motivate players, questions on his man-management, and a reputation for tactical naivety. The optimists felt he had surrounded himself with a good team of people to help him out, so weren't unduly worried. He said all the right things, visited all the right places, and signed players of a class which could justifiably be described as "Premiership". There was Ramon Vega, fresh from winning the treble at Celtic; Stephen Glass - highly rated Aberdeen and Newcastle winger; Stephen Hughes - double winner at Arsenal; Marcus Gayle - consistent goalscorer at Wimbledon; Filippo Galli - AC Milan European Cup Winner; and Patrick Blondeau - former Marseille captain and French international. He threw out the old guard, in terms of players and coaches, and we sat back to watch the "Manchester United of the division" (Vialli's quote, not mine), show their Premiership class.
The problem was that you don't need Premiership class in the First Division. Vialli now readily admits that he signed the wrong sort of player. He thought that he could impose a patient passing game on the First Division, and found that the First Division doesn't reward a patient passing game. So, by the end of October, languishing in lower mid-table, we realised that Plan A wasn't going to work. Therefore, we gave him a chance, we sat back and waited for Plan B to materialise.
And we waited....
Well, I tell a small lie. In November, Vialli brought in Alec Chamberlain in goal to replace Espen Baardsen, and changed the team from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2. Suddenly, we became well nigh impossible to score against, and we started to score a few as well. Between November 3rd and December 18th, we played nine games in the league and let in two goals. The defenders looked confident, with Neil Cox, Ramon Vega and Paul Robinson quite imperious. The wing backs, particularly Stephen Glass, swung in crosses with abandon. The centre of the midfield dominated games, with Micah Hyde looking like the creative dervish of old. Tommy Smith scored goals. It was all going so well. We beat Charlton in the Worthington Cup in a rip-roaring epic that will be remembered now as Vialli's high point. On December 15th, we beat high-flying Crystal Palace at home, having beaten high-flying Coventry away the week before, and sat in a dangerous ninth, ready to make our expected push for promotion as we travelled up to Sheffield Wednesday for the Worthington Cup Quarter Final.
And this is where Vialli lost me. Having played so well and got great results for seven weeks, he changed the team. He dropped top-scorer and main threat Tommy Smith, he changed to a back four, he played one up front, and the slow paced Gifton Noel-Williams was that one. It was baffling. Watford lost 4-0, and it could have been more. Afterwards, I waited to hear about injuries enforcing the change, only to be assailed by some of the most nonsensical claptrap I have ever heard from any manager. "I changed the formation because whilst the results were good, we weren't playing attractive football" was one of the things he said, and "I wanted to rest some players, as reaching the Premiership is more important than the Worthington Cup".
Right, I'll address these one at a time. We were winning games, we were not conceding goals, he has the fans on his side, the players looked comfortable, so who cares if we are playing "attractive football"? I certainly didn't. As for the second comment, if he thinks that we thought that maybe getting in the playoffs was more important than getting to a national cup final in Cardiff then he has no understanding of this football club. Luca Vialli, you may have won the Worthington Cup, but Watford haven't, and this cup run was the best in any competition since 1988. It was December 19th, in the aftermath of that game, when I crossed over to the pessimists.
Loan players and lacklustre performances
We always wondered how our well-paid stars would shape up to the freezing cold of January. Not surprisingly, there was little stomach for the battle. To try and change a run of dissapointing results, Vialli brought in Jermaine Pennant on loan. This was all very exciting, but how it contributed to the development of players at Watford in the long term I'll never know. With Lee Cook back on the left, we had two good wingers. But with a struggling and disinterested Marcus Gayle up front, they had no-one to aim for. So Pennant tried to take everyone on by himself, with predictably disappointing results.
Vialli also brought in Wayne Brown, not wanted at Ipswich, and suddenly things looked up. Partnered with Filippo Galli at the back, we suddenly looked solid again. The results started to look up. But we all realised that Brown was only a short-term fling, and sure enough Ipswich took him back just before deadline day. Brown could have saved Vialli's skin, but all he really did was underline just how bad his judgement of players had been. The guy probably earned less than half what Ramon Vega and the hapless Pierre Issa earned, but he performed twice as well.
As results worsened, Vialli started to make some silly mistakes. The first thing he did was start to complain about the fans. Now, Watford fans aren't the best fans in the country, and can be quite fickle. But, having stayed optimistic throughout the preceding two seasons of relegation in the Premiership and humiliation in the first division, the fans were starting to lose patience. Vialli had come in, signed loads of players and built up our expectations by way of pronouncements that we were the "Manchester United of the division" and other over-optimistic utterances. When you build up expectations like that, you have to know how to deal with the situation when your team doesn't meet them. One thing you don't do is blame the fans for not supporting the team. The team were playing passion-less football, passing it around with no penetration. They looked like they didn't care, and the fans took their lead from that.
What was worse was that the players not only weren't gelling with each other, they were making no effort to gel with the fans either. At the end of each game, only Paul Robinson and Ramon Vega bothered to applaud the fans on a regular basis, most of the others just walked off. The fans felt no connection with them, so it was that they didn't feel a need to support them if they didn't deserve it. Vialli, again, with little understanding of the club he was at, seemed to think that the mere fact that his team was walking on the field was sufficient for a standing ovation. Well, it wasn't.
And then came the catastrophe that could unbelievably save Gianluca's management reputation. The ITV Digital crisis meant that he was told in no uncertain terms that he would need to sell players and couldn't buy any. Suddenly, there was an excuse, and a good one. Predictably, and with the media-savvy that he was first hired for, Vialli took advantage of this. Stories came out in the press of how frustrated he was at having his hands tied, how this crisis was affecting his "three-year plan" (although how a three year plan involved loaning players beats me). He tried to take full advantage of the situation, hoping that it would mask the fact that his failings as a manager, in terms of player judgement, tactics and motivation, were the real reason his three year plan would fail. The way football is, though, he'll probably walk into a job in Italy, claiming that the ITV Digital crisis stopped him from doing his job.
After a 3-0 drubbing of Coventry, Vialli's team was left facing three games against Bradford, Barnsley and Stockport, all at the bottom of the division, which could have propelled them into the playoff zone. This was his big chance to show what he could do. I actually think Vialli did show what he could do. The team went down to defeats against Barnsley and Stockport and a bore-draw against Bradford, a game they should have lost. Quotes from Watford players such as "the other team just wanted it more" didn't help either. Why did the other team want it more? Why weren't we motivated? This carried on to the end of the season, despite the best efforts of both Danny Webber (another loan signee from Man Utd) and Anthony McNamee (a youth teamer thrown on in desperation, on whom the hopes of most Watford fans now rest).
The end becomes nigh
Watford could never be the Manchester United of the division, because Manchester United don't finish 14th. Watford did. Since the end of the season, news has emanated about boardroom friction and antipathy towards Vialli, who was becoming more and more aggressive in his outbursts to the media about the lack of money at the club and the lack of passion from players that he himself had brought in.
Ultimately, I think that Vialli's biggest problem was that he thought that the fans would love him just because of who he was and what he'd done. He was right in a sense, as the adulation poured upon him at games and wherever he went in the community was sometimes quite breathtaking. But he never earned the true respect of the fans.
His problem was that he didn't try to evolve from the end of the Graham Taylor era, he literally rolled up that history and tried to stuff it in a dustbin. At Fan Forums, he would attack our love of Taylor, thinking that the unattractiveness of the football Watford apparently played in that era made it likely the pretty patterns his team made should be enough for us to forget the past. He made a few too many jibes about Graham Taylor for our liking. The fact was that the club has never known success without Graham Taylor, so telling us to forget about him because you were once "World Player of the Year" doesn't cut it. The truth is, Vialli could have learned something from Taylor that could have made a difference with the fans.
Last in, first out
The Graham Taylor era was about openess. The players were open to the supporters, and the manager was even more open. Because we shared in their successes in so many ways, we stayed with them through the bad times. This was particularly true of GT, who not only answered every letter (all letters to Vialli were screened, and sometimes answered, by Terry Byrne, the general manager), but also came to every event he could, and spent a good deal of time talking to anyone who wanted to talk to him. At club events, he was often the last to leave.
I went to many Watford events, such as the golf day, the fans fora and the sponsors evenings, and Gianluca Vialli was invariably the last one to arrive, and the first to leave. He looked like he couldn't wait to get out of there. People picked up on this. We have no right to expect the manager of our club to come round to our house to dinner. But this is Watford, and when you manage Watford you need the fans on your side. Graham Taylor understood that, and worked hard at it. I'm not sure Gianluca Vialli understood it. In fact, I'm not sure he even cared.
I feel that the legacy Gianluca Vialli leaves at the club is that it was the season when a lot of people stopped caring. The players on the field seemed to stop caring, particularly towards the end of the season. The management team seemed to care little, constantly complaining about the fans, and belittling the previous management team. Ultimately, the fans stopped caring. People who hadn't missed games for years started to stay away, to not make that extra effort to get to a game. Season ticket renewals were down so much that the chief executive had to write to every fan to almost beg for their custom.
Is it right to blame the board for this mess? Well, yes, because they chose Vialli ahead of other managers. They must have known the risks when they approached him, and I presume that they must have known the risks of signing the contracts of players who through age and injury record were a big risk to take on. But I think that the board had to try what they did. Graham Taylor's departure left them needing a strong-willed replacement and a chance to see if Watford really could become a big club. I enjoyed many parts of the season, some of the football was excellent, but right now the club seems on the brink of combustion, and the board put us in that position, and should now get us out of it. To their credit, by sweeping this regime out, they've made a start.
Ultimately, my lasting memory of the Vialli era came at the end of the last game of the season against Gillingham. The players were going on their lap of honour, and at the back were five players, dressed in suits, waving to the crowd. Those five players hadn't played due to being dropped or injured or transfer-listed. Those five players, useless to Watford, earned more put together than the entire West Bromwich Albion squad, who were, lest I need to remind you, promoted to the Premiership.
I found that really, really sad.