So once more, after a run of 5 unbeaten games in February, Watford are in crisis. Long gone is the comfortable win over a Brighton side that have been strongly financially backed and are fighting for a place in the playoffs. Irrelevant is the game at Leicester – ten points clear at the top at the time, having won 11 of their 14 home games – in which victory was snatched away in the fourth minute of added time. No, the 2-0 defeat at Bolton (where we haven’t got as much as a point since 1998) surely signals doom.
The reaction to the loss at the Reebok has taken three forms:
1) Get Sannino out. Bring in some English Old Boy who knows the rough and tumble of the Championship. How can we possibly progress with some Italian stooge in charge?
2) Get Nani out. You don’t win with a bunch of foreign no-marks cluttering up your team. We need some English grit.
3) Get the Pozzos out. They don’t care about the club. All smoke and mirrors, innit?
Watford fans have had almost a month with nothing much to moan about. This weekend it has burst forth with great vehemence. Everything that can be argued about, is being argued about, but for now let’s make a statement that is based purely on fact:
Watford are a mid-table side.
This, you will probably notice, is nothing new. 12th place in the Championship fits us like a warm glove. We may have gone about getting there a bit differently, but at the end of the day, we are back bobbing gently on a sea of mediocrity.
What is different is what we’re floating on. In previous years we have maintained an old dinghy, desperately patching up the holes that open up every summer. Now, with a fourth stand (eventually) coming and a bit of black in the accounts, we’ve found ourselves a sturdy vessel. The only problem is that the engine’s gone.
We’re not where we want to be, but with this sort of foundation, we’re at our lowest ebb. We won’t sink, and given the right crew and a bit of engineering, we might get this boat going.
That’s the end of that bloody metaphor.
When Sannino (nobody calls him Beppe when we’re angry) came he vowed to tighten up the back-line. ‘Hooray’ cheered the masses as they shuddered at the memory of Gianfranco Zola’s porous defence gifting opposition goals with regularity. ‘Boo’ they jeered when they realised that transforming a defence to the extent that February produced four clean sheets in six matches meant that we might not score four goals a game.
We are now genuinely hard to beat. Our back three, though obviously prone to the odd mind melt, is solid enough and has good, if not great depth. We may be more industrial going forward, we may not sweep those before us apart with swagger and panache, but we weren’t exactly doing that before either.
The balance needs to be sorted, but the foundations, like those of the East Stand, are being solidly placed. Good teams need solid defences, while the ‘we’ll-score-more-than-you’ approach is entertaining and exhilarating, it doesn’t win leagues. The sign of a Champion, they say, is nicking a win when you haven’t played well: it’s easier to stutter and win 1-0 than 4-3.
The problem with Sannino is that he’s not English, and won’t be any time soon. This alone makes him a target for some. He has shown in his brief time here that he loves the English game and seems truly besotted with the fans and the ferocity of the Championship. He is also clearly a thinker, someone who values tactics, flexibility and adaptability. But does he know the Championship like your Glenn Hoddles or your Neil Warnocks or whoever the crap manager de jour is?
The Championship: fast-paced, liable to throw up the odd upset, lots of Tuesday games, can get a bit wet in the winter.
Now that you’ve read those two sentences, you know all you need to know to coach in the Championship. It is not the mythical land that some depict it as. They have bad weather in Italy, there’s crap pitches in Spain, they’ve got hard bastard defenders in Argentina. Sannino has brought an order and method to a team that was lacking it. Though at the time of his appointment I thought he might just be a stop-gap, he has earned his chance next season.
But he’ll need players. It all comes down the guys on the pitch. That is undoubtedly where Watford have fallen shortest this year. But I think those in charge of it are only liable for some of the blame.
Think of our expectations at the beginning of this year. Last season we took a random handful of players from the Udinese fringes, and they almost took us up. It wasn’t the plan, but it worked out better than anyone expected. This summer, we did it again. Whether that was wise is up for discussion – and with hindsight we’d probably say it wasn’t – but at the time adding a striker with 18 goals in the Spanish second tier, an attacker with an Italy cap and a former Real Betis captain sounded good to us.
In the end, none of them worked out. All three of Iriney, Javi Acuña and Diego Fabbrini are gone, most likely never to return. Davide Faraoni will probably join them in the summer, destined to become a semi-remembered quiz answer for years to come. It’s important to remember that no club has a flawless record of recruitment: for every Michu there’s a Roland Lamah and Itay Shechter. The near universal failure of this summer’s foreign imports is hard to defend, but with the pedigree of the players that came in, everyone would have expected better from the class of 2013. Of them, only Gabrielle Angella has looked properly comfortable at this level, and even he has his moments.
So the relative failure of the foreign ‘purchases’ to adapt will have come as just as big a surprise as last season’s success. I wrote earlier in the year about how all of the subsequent loans have felt like attempts at a quick fix, but you can’t build a team in January. Transfer fees (not that we need to worry about them) double as selling clubs prey on the desperation of the buyers and many clubs worried about squad depth are loath to part with a fringe player. Mathias Ranegie and Chu-Young Park aren’t much different to your Craig Beatties or Marcelo Trottas – a desperate grab to try and make some sort of impact on an emaciated front line.
You have to think that lessons have been learnt. After two years of free transfers and intra-familial lending, I think this summer recruitment will have a more British vibe, and maybe, given the baby-steps the club is making towards sustainability a few transfer fees here and there. But why let this year’s bunch of Bellions put us off our unique (but getting de-uniquer) resource of European talent? The Pozzos won’t be happy with how this year’s gone and will be keen to press on. It could, of course, go wrong again.
But these days, it can really only get better. Which is nice.
Reading this back, I come across as a bit of an apologist. Believe me, I feel a dull ache when I see some of the performances that have been put in this season. I don’t like some of the haircuts on show. I’m puzzled at why Sannino needs four assistants. But that’s really as bad as it gets.
Sannino said when he came that he wanted to build from the back. Now, after a few blips, we look much more competent at the old defending lark. The Pozzos said similar things, but weren’t helped by unexpected success. Despite what we all hoped during the exhilaration of our ride to Wembley, we haven’t moved forward as a club – yet; but we’ve got ourselves on firm ground, and are ripe for growth.
We all just need to calm down a bit.