Watford are at a crossroads: Premier League at all costs, or stand for more?
Readers of this (very) occasional blog will know I tend to only write in times of Watford hardship. So it’s not by coincidence that I’ve managed more entries this season than ever before.
Relegation to the Championship has been a forgone conclusion for some time. It’s testament only to the lack of quality lurking at the foot of the Premier League that Watford have yet to officially be condemned to England’s second tier for the second time in three seasons. But the hangman’s noose is tied around our neck and the lever is going to be pulled any second now, probably by Wilfried Zaha.
Given how singularly wretched Watford have been for most of the season — recording a Premier League-record 11 straight home defeats — attention has for some time been focused on next season and, in particular, the next head coach.
Murmurings from the ill-conceived Supporters’ Group meetings and Adam Leventhal’s reporting on The Athletic have it that the Hornets’ hierarchy will widen the search to include younger, British coaches and potentially even those in a job. Quite why Gino Pozzo and co. needed the kick up the arse of two relegations in three seasons to realise they could appoint a coach who ticked any of those boxes is anyone’s guess. It also concerns me they think this alone is the panacea Watford have been looking for. It will take appointing the right person, equipping them with the right tools (both players and budget) and backing them with patience to come good in the Championship.
Former captain John Eustace is the bookmakers’ early favourite. These things are based purely on where the money is being placed so we shouldn’t read too much into his position at the head of the list. But Leventhal reports he is one of the names under consideration, so there is evidently something in the link. It would be the kind of appointment that seemed impossible until now. Furthermore, it’s one which, given his association with the club, would go some way to uniting a currently disenfranchised and bickering fanbase.
But what a coach who has only ever led a National League North team will undoubtedly need is the patience and backing of the higher-ups. Experience, as we know from Claudio Ranieri and Roy Hodgson’s miserable stints, is not the be-all and end-all it’s made out to be. You could not hope to find two more experienced coaches, yet both have proven to be wretched appointments.
Here’s where it gets a bit awkward. Patience and the urgent need to get back into the Premier League pronto do not go hand-in-hand. Watford reported pre-tax losses of £35.6million in their most recent set of accounts up to June 2020. That period covers relegation from the Premier League and though affected by Covid-19, it’s an indicator of the reality of tumbling out of the top flight. Even cost-cutting measures such as the long-overdue introduction of relegation wage reduction clauses and a fairly modest transfer outlay won’t be enough to ensure Watford don’t feel the pinch in the Championship next season.
When they were relegated two years ago, there was no substantial outlay while the club were in the fortunate position of being able to raise funds by selling players who had been parked across Europe on loan. Pervis Estúpiñan joined Villarreal for £15million and Luis Suárez moved to Granada for £10million. Although the departures of Abdoulaye Doucouré (£20million to Everton), Étienne Capoue (undisclosed to Villarreal), Roberto Pereyra (undisclosed to Udinese) and Gerard Deulofeu (loan to Udinese) weakened the team, it was not a total demolition. Ismaïla Sarr was one most expected to leave but he remained and scored 13 times en-route to promotion, finishing as the Hornets’ top scorer.
This time, Sarr is expected to leave. We already know Moussa Sissoko has a break clause in his contract. Emmanuel Dennis’ value might have dipped in recent months but someone will still pay more than the Hornets did less than a year ago. Devoid of that kind of quality but burdened with an aging backline, a one-dimensional midfield, and an impotent attack, enthusiasm is hard to come by.
Yet an immediate return to the top-flight will once again be the aim. But if Watford aren’t in promotion contention by the time the clocks go back, you can guarantee whoever is in the dugout will be under pressure from all sides — that is fans and ownership. Getting back to the Premier League trumps everything else which means that good intentions with regard to head coaching appointments count for little in the cut-throat world of the second tier.
That is unless Watford truly hit the reset button. That would mean selling anyone who could help plug the financial holes of relegation, recruiting players who fit the coach’s playing style and giving them time to grow as a team and develop an identity together without the pressure of expecting to finish in the top two. Perhaps even blooding some youngsters — one of the few successes of Vladimir Ivić’s short tenure. We all remember how that ended, after all.
Does anyone really believe the new head coach will be afforded that luxury? Nor me. So unless the next incumbent is a coaching hot-shot who steers the club through choppy Championship waters despite losing their best players and having little money to play with, pragmatism trumps idealism.
So what do Watford really want? Premier League football and the associated riches at all costs? Or a root-and-branch reboot with a new identity at its core, a focus on player development and standing for something more?
Right now, Watford are stuck in a vicious cycle that does not look like ending.