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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Editorials:
Hip hip hoo-Wray?
By Pete Goddard
 
So Nigel Wray has finally come clean and announced his intentions for Watford. He is 'advising' on plans to raise 5m by selling a one-third stake in the club to a media consortium. He is considering taking a stake in the club himself. A flotation of the club is planned by the season's end. The announcement is very welcome. A complete lack of information over the last 12 months or so has led to the club being beset by rumours, scare stories and a suspicion that all was not what it seemed. But should we welcome Mr Wray's plans?

To deal with the personal issue first, supporters have found it hard to trust Mr Wray and his intentions. His track record is a dodgy one. He fell out spectacularly with Nottingham Forest fans (and part of their board) during his tenure there, partly through suspicion of his intentions towards the club but largely because of a manifest failure to invest in its playing side. Forest were relegated. As the principal shareholder in Saracens, there are suspicions of a conflict of interest if he becomes involved in Watford. He has done well with Saracens on the pitch, but it is doubtful whether professional rugby is financially sustainable at its current level. What if he raided Watford to prop up Saracens? Moreover, by his own admission, Mr Wray has little interest in football. And he is a property developer. To many fans, that is barely distinguishable from 'asset stripper'. He has spoken - though not in this announcement - of moving the club from Vicarage Road. Financially, the Vicarage Road lease is Watford's principal asset. And the secrecy with which he operates automatically breeds suspicion.

For myself, I am ambivalent towards Mr Wray's announcement (which is certainly not to say that I'm disinterested!). If the suspicions which I've outlined about his motives were not enough, the flotation of the club will have the effect of putting it into the hands of city investors with little or no affinity with Watford, its history and traditions, and a vested interest in short term returns. Besides, football club flotations have a chequered history to say the least (ask any Millwall fan). If (when!) the present footballing investment bubble bursts, quoted clubs are going to find themselves badly exposed to an unforgiving market, hostile takeovers, asset strippers and the rest. And nobody is going to persuade me that a media company is going to become involved in Watford for the good of the club. They have their own interests to serve. The very last people who will be considered in all of this (except as a source of revenue) are the humble supporters.

Wouldn't it be so much better, then, to go back to the good old days when clubs were in the hands of benign proprietors who ran them for the enjoyment of supporters? It's a powerful myth. But, with a few exceptions, it is just that - a myth. There were no good old days. Jim Bonser and Jack Petchey, for example, were just such proprietors. In recent seasons the fate of Barrow, Doncaster Rovers and Brighton - extreme cases, I grant you - amply demonstrate the potential of that system for abuse. One way of explaining my ambivalence is to ask whether I'd rather have Petchey or Nigel Wray at the helm. Tricky one, eh?

I've said little about supporters, partly because in the modern scheme of things they matter less and less (except as a source of revenue). As many have said before, football clubs are in a peculiarly monopolistic position with respect to their supporters. Most Watford fans will continue to be Watford fans (and grumble about the board) no matter who is in charge. So that revenue stream is virtually guaranteed. One way of assessing whether Mr Wray is worse for the club than, say, Mr Petchey, is for supporters to ask ourselves what we want from the club. It's my belief that most supporters ultimately want success. When was the last time you went to a Watford game without a desperate urge for us to win, even if it was against the odds? Success is relative of course. I'm old enough to remember when promotion to the (old) Second Division represented success of the most spectacular kind. Success at present is measured by our ability to survive in the Premiership. And this is one area where supporters' interests and shareholders' interests (even if the latter have no emotional investment in the club) ought to coincide. Success is as much in the commercial interests of Watford as it is in the emotional interests of its supporters. Its hard to imagine, despite all that I've said, that Nigel Wray and an unspecified media company won't do their utmost to invest in the success of the club.

But there's more to it than that. Football is changing fast. Most of us would agree that it isn't changing for the better; it is becoming commodified. It is now largely an exercise in branding and marketing to maximise the return on investment, to fleece supporters, to serve media interests, literally to trade in emotions. This partly explains why many supporters' gut instinct is to return to those mythical good old days when such pressures were less brazen and less cut-throat. But it is changing nevertheless; burying our heads and hoping for the changes to go away is not an option. Football clubs are rapidly approaching a situation of 'adapt or die'; the good old days simply aren't tenable any longer. Before this season, Watford were losing 1m a year. Other clubs are losing even more. Some will not survive (how can they?); others will never be in a position to challenge for honours again. By rights we should be one of them.

So it's a stark choice. Either we embrace, however reluctantly, the opportunity that we currently have to be one of the big(gish) clubs in the country - an opportunity which serves the interests of Mr Wray and the media company and which they will presumably do their utmost to sustain. Or, by rejecting their overtures, we almost certainly have to face the fact that we belong with the have-nots and that our measure of success will forever be staying out of the Third Division and keeping the squad on full-time contracts. Much as I enjoyed bumping around the Second Division on a week-to-week basis, my tolerance of Watford's (relative) failure was tempered by hope - by the prospect that we might one day be successful enough to return to the top flight. If that prospect were taken away - if hope were extinguished and we knew we were forever condemned to the lower depths and the fight against oblivion - then being a football supporter would become a painfully masochistic pursuit.

So I'm ambivalent. My gut feeling is thoroughly to oppose Mr Wray, the City and everything that they stand for; to condemn them as the hordes of Satan and have no truck with their greedy, self-serving ways. But I fear that the alternative is worse; that way lies hopelessness and oblivion. And at the end of the day, of course, it doesn't matter what my feelings are. Or yours. As supporters we have no say whatever. But then, when in the club's history did we ever? The chances are we'll carry on dreaming of success on the field and put up, if not shut up.

Finally, I think here are two other troubling points which deserve to be mentioned - words of warning, if you like, to potential investors. One is the fact that (unlike many clubs and whatever the books might say), Watford's most valuable asset is Graham Taylor. We would not be where we are without him. If we lose him, it'll be hard to remain a big(gish) club. Graham has made a few worrying noises in recent months and even a veiled threat to resign if he fails to receive boardroom support. To allow this to happen would be madness. Issues around the ownership of the club must not be allowed to interfere with the playing side. Even those who see the club only as a commercial investment must recognise Graham's value and the importance of success on the field. That seems obvious but stranger things have happened. Even as I write this, a pitched battle between commercial and playing interests at Leicester City seems about to lose them an equally talismanic manager. If Martin O'Neill goes, the departure of senior players and relegation will surely follow. It is nothing but the worst kind of suicidal short-termism.

The other point is about the importance of communication. For all I know, Nigel Wray may indeed have nothing but contempt for Watford's supporters. The climate of secrecy which has surrounded his involvement with the club has led only to rumour, anxiety and suspicion in the town. Even he must recognise that this is no more in his interest than it is in anybody else's. It also risks destabilising the team. Which is why I welcome his announcement regardless of how I feel about its content. It also leads me to believe that a culture of openness would be in everybody's best interests and, rightly or wrongly, that it would go along way to assuage supporters' fears for the future.

(Date: 17/9/99)