Beppe Sannino has resigned as Head Coach of Watford, eight and a half months after taking over. ITWM wades through the rumour to reflect on his short stint at the club.
‘I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.’
– A. T. Great
The echoes had just about died down inside Vicarage Road. As Almen Abdi exhaustively raised the standard to signal the end of a hard-fought and hard-earned victory, memories of unrest in the camp fluttered away into the late summer evening. This, we said, is not a side weighed down by hate and resentment. Now, twenty four hours later, Vicarage Road was silent, and Beppe Sannino was picking a cardboard box off an empty desk and turning off the light.
Whispers abound about what went on behind the closed doors of Watford’s London Colney base. For now, we’ll leave them there. Although the case of Malky Mackay has shown that even those with the most spotless public personas can harbour dark and murky sides when out of the glare of public supervision, to judge a man on hearsay and Chinese whispers just isn’t our bag.
So what images does Beppe Sannino the public figure conjure up? For a start (literally) you have the video that George Thorne posted on Instagram – now deleted – of his initiation song. Standing on a chair, Beppe punched the air with images of Watford players as lions and a raucous crowd flooded with colour melting into one passionate cluster of footballing devotion. His cadence at once frenzied and melodic, jagged and flowing, like a seasoned tifoso with his side’s honour in his heart, and the fury that they’re not playing for the pre-arranged draw in his head.
And that is the enduring image of Sannino. After virtually every game he commended the fans: beautiful, marvellous, inspiring. And there he prowled on the touchline, bellowing instructions to all that would listen, cajoling every player into draining every last drop of energy from their bodies.
This longing for the more primal elements of football permeated into his playing and coaching style. While his predecessor focused on the beauty of movement and boot seducing ball, supported by a career of transcendent natural skill; here was a man who had carved out a career through the study of the game, through his own sacrifice and hard work – traits he was clearly keen to engender in his adopted motley crew.
Sannino arrived in the depths of winter. Gianfranco Zola’s best intentions had not been enough, and he fell on his sword, unable, he admitted, to dispel the ennui that surrounded the squad after eight games without a win, including four consecutive home defeats to nil. The side was beat – lapses in defensive concentration and positioning were ending games before our stuttering attack had a chance to get them started. Clearly too long had been spent on passing triangles, and not enough on defensive lines and shuttle runs – in concentrating on the multi-dimensional, Zola had neglected the fundamental foundations on which the game was based.
In that regard, Sannino was the right man for the job. Though the ensuing five months of football were not as ravishing as some of that served up by Zola, there was discernible improvement. Although Beppe’s Watford finished in 13th, just one place above that in which he had arrived in late December, playoffs were a very real possibility until the back end of April, when Charlie Austin swept the ball past Manuel Almunia in the 90th minute to consign the Hornets to their first defeat in seven and remove the possibility of an extended season from tantalising reach.
What followed was a three game parade of dejection: the final act a catastrophic 4-1 defeat at home to Huddersfield. This understandable blip at the end of a promising run of form did, however, turn out to be the beginning of the end.
As Frank Smith reports in the Watford Observer, Sannino’s position was considered during the summer break. There had been anger that he had demanded the players return for extra training after the end of season capitulation and, says Smith, there had been arguments with players during the run-in.
Sannino addressed the issues in the squad, but it seems that the Pozzos felt that they had gone too far in adjusting the balance. Too long was spent on tactics, and players were worked too hard in pre-season, with Sannino himself admitting after the friendly defeat to Coventry that he had overworked them with a double session the day before.
The players weren’t happy, as evidenced by Lloyd Dyer’s outburst at Rotherham, and, when no public backing of the coach was offered by the Pozzos or upper management, it seemed that they weren’t the only ones.
But isn’t this nonsense? Players being worked too hard, being given too many opportunities to learn more about the game and how to play it? How can players be unhappy if they are second in the league? Certainly, the hard work and homework seemed to be paying off, with the players fighting and covering great distances until the death, standing firm to an offensive onslaught from Huddersfield to which not too long ago we would have surrendered.
Again, we cannot know the extent of the problems behind the curtain: talk of physical altercations with players and staff, of constant over-the-top aggression and general demeanour that made it impossible to work with Sannino have been suggested, and would perhaps not be impossible to imagine considering his opening gambit upon meeting players is to make every player tell him to go vaffanculate himself.
There’s definitely something a bit off about Beppe’s departure. The fateful fingerprints of player power are smudged all over his self-inked p45. Had Dyer not made such a public stand against his management, would Sannino still be here, preparing those unlucky enough not to be on international duty with hour-long lessons on Johnnie Jackson’s propensity to take two steps to the right before making a third-man run?
And when does player power go from being the unfortunate product of a world where players are paid the GDP of Tuvalu every couple of weeks and average Championship strikers are somehow worth more than £10 million to being a necessary bit of union action against a line manager who has lost his mind and is flagrantly flouting all kinds of safeguarding protocols?
It’s happened now, and Beppe’s fifteenth management job has lasted at just about his average length (which may in itself tell us something). Though at its core is a political and personal struggle that we may never truly learn the details, on the surface he was a bloke who loved football, loved the fans and, it seemed, loved Watford.
And at least, in his last game in charge, he got to live out his dream, summed up in that short Instagram video eight and a half months ago: a cacophonous Watford crowd, willing on a team of yellow and black lions as they bravely fought for their honour and for victory.