Watford's Italian job, far more than loan sharks and Udinese rejects
Whilst the media frenzy that surrounded AFC Bournemouth and the story of how chairman Jeff Mostyn rescued the club from financial ruin in League Two and led them to the Premier League with Eddie Howe at the helm, things were a little more quiet in Hertfordshire.
Of course there was stories on Watford’s promotion, but the focus was more on the manager Slaviša Jokanovi? and his future, with weeks left on his one year deal.
There was much less said about Jokanovi?’s employers, Gino, and his father Giampaolo Pozzo, who had bought the club in June 2012. Despite being a private family, who rarely give interviews, the Italians have been give a rough ride by the press since their arrival, but why seems to be a question left unanswered.
To look at the Pozzo family’s impact, it’s worth looking at what went before. Fans of the Premier League will remember the brief seasons that the Hornets had spent in the top flight in 99/00 and 06/07, the latter after their promotion by defeating Leeds United 3-0 in the 2006 Championship Play-off final at the Millennium Stadium.
Aidy Boothroyd, who was seen as a real managerial hot prospect, had led the club to the top flight on a shoestring budget, spearheaded by Marlon King’s 21 goals. But they just weren’t good enough to stay up, weakened even further in January 2007 when young prodigy Ashley Young was sold to Aston Villa for just £9.5m, and went down with a meagre five wins.
That led to numerous years of scraps of real instability; Watford may have reached the playoffs the season after they were relegated, losing to eventual winners Hull over two legs, but what followed was mediocrity, turnover of talent being sold for less and less, wage bills slashed, all the while under the backdrop of constant boardroom wars.
Enter the Pozzos. June 2012 arrived, and Giampaolo Pozzo bought out the Hertfordshire club, and changes were quick, and unpopular. Out went the highly rated Sean Dyche, who had managed to get the club to its highest position since their playoff finish four seasons before, to be replaced by Chelsea favourite Gianfranco Zola.
More startling was the loan arrivals; 12 players had arrived from the other two main clubs in the Pozzo network, Udinese from Italy and Granada of Spain, whilst Nathaniel Chalobah arrived from Chelsea.
After a poor start, losing seven of the first 13 games under Zola, the team began to gel, and finished third. After overcoming Leicester in a dramatic play-off semi-final, scoring a decisive winner just seconds after Leicester had a penalty save, the Hornets lost out to Crystal Palace at Wembley, with former fans favourite Kevin Phillips (on loan from Blackpool) coming back to haunt them with a penalty in extra time to win 1-0.
It was quite apt that it would be Ian Holloway’s Palace who would triumph over Zola’s Watford in the final, considering the former Blackpool manager was a critic of the system that enabled the club to loan players from Udinese. Martin Samuel was louder, calling them ‘Serie A Lite’ and saying they didn’t have British names.
Despite the fact that two of the players he said didn’t have British names, Ikechi Anya and Chalobah, grew up in Oxford and South London respectively, the Football League acted, and limited all clubs to four loans from any club, domestic or foreign.
A disappointing 13th finish the following season and those who had barracked the Pozzo regime were quieter (the fact QPR had a wage bill bigger than Champions League finalists Dortmund being far better than those pesky Udinese loans, obviously) but the Hornets rallied back, earning automatic promotion this season by finishing second.
Their detractors will point to the signings of players like Miguel Layun from Mexico and Nigerian Odion Ighalo from Udinese, but Troy Deeney, Anya and Ben Watson played a huge part in promotion: Six of the eleven who played in the promotion clincher at Brighton were British.
So whilst the media will concentrate on Bournemouth and their story, Watford will be allowed to prepare in their own way. The Pozzo family have completed their first mission, and preparations will begin for the second part.
Consolidation will be of main priority, but with Premier League football now on offer at Vicarage Road, the selling points will be much stronger. The Pozzos have made profits of £113.45m in the past five years at Udinese, selling names like Alexis Sanchez and Kwadro Asamoah, and this cleverness in the market will help Watford too.
With Granada in deep relegation trouble, Watford’s return to the top flight will be a timely help for the Pozzo regime. With a £5billion TV deal coming into effect next summer, keeping Watford up will be of real importance for their strategy.
They are much better equipped to stay up this time. Just don’t expect Martin Samuel to be a fan, even if the Pozzos are of far more benefit to Watford than some of their previous owners. Praise should be given to the elusive Italians, but will it? About as likely as Ian Holloway managing Udinese any time soon.