Published on June 10th, 2016 | by Bill

The Polite Protesters of Watford FC

Each year, for our summer issue, we ask regular contributors to sum up the season just gone at their respective clubs. The following is from Jonny Brick, on Watford FC which sadly, we couldn’t fit in the forthcoming Issue 18.

Keep you eye out for release of that, coming soon and in the meantime – why not buy Jonny’s digital book – Saturday, 3pm: A Guide to Modern Football, here

Betty Marks, my ninety-year-old great-great-aunt, spoke to Watford Football Club on the final day of the 2015/6 season. As is the case for fourteen hundred others, including Betty’s daughter, son-in-law, grandson and great-grandchildren, her seat in the Upper Graham Taylor stand will be different in 2016/7.

In February the club announced that they were putting in an additional 220 seats for corporate guests and asked supporters ‘to move an equal number of seats – twelve – in a lateral direction away from the centre.’ Those at the end of the rows would move to a new row, or will have had the chance to claim a seat elsewhere in the ground.

One fan, Nick Gibb, protested against this by covering his seat with a black bin liner, but eventually fans came to think the same as when Sean Dyche was let go, when Matej Vydra was sent on loan to Reading, when Fernando Forestieri was sold to Sheffield Wednesday and when Almen Abdi was played out wide when every fan knows he plays best just behind the front two.

Que sera, sera. In Pozzo We Trust.

The South-West corner of Vicarage Road, which visitors will know as being permanently under construction for about ten years, is now home to the 1881 Movement. Aghast on hearing silence at Wembley Stadium back in the 2013 Championship Play-off Final, Roy Moore took the initiative and has, for three seasons, literally flown the flag for the fan movement at Watford FC.

The club is not known for its boisterous fanbase, but there are a couple of hundred diehard fans who bleed yellow, black and red. The 1881 bunker, complete with snooker table, is a great social place for fans who would travel to the ends of Europe if and when Watford have to play a preliminary qualifier for the 2017/8 Europa League.

Paul Tucker sits in the Rookery End, like the fans in the 1881. Along with Dad, Simon and Brother Gary, he has followed Watford FC for three decades, and he and Paul are pundits on the Ronny and Ramage podcast. Paul has seen negligent owners come and go, and remembers the success of 1999/2000 when Watford went up to the Premiership for the first time and the years of highs and lows that followed, including mismanagement of the club in the middle of the decade.

‘I wouldn’t call it a protest as such,’ Paul says of the dissent shown by Watford fans in 2008. ‘We had big earners on the books, and the club kept players on the same wages, so the relegation in 2007 made the club go to pieces.

‘What have we got to protest about today? The club is going in a superb direction, but football fans will always find something to moan about. The bin liner protest was effing ridiculous!

‘I was talking to a Brentford fan and he said it was sad they will be leaving Griffin Park. But they have to move on because they have no corporate facilities, which means zero revenues. If they want to grow they need a better ground that is all-seater, and commercial revenues coming in. Watford has the same. More tourists are coming from abroad to come to watch Ighalo, for example.’

Watford are in a position to create memories, as they did under Graham Taylor in the early 1980s and in 1999, when Watford were first promoted to the top division in the modern football era.

Elton John’s 2015 track Looking Up goes as follows: ‘I’m looking up more than I look down/ The view’s a whole lot better second time around.’

Elton was present for the final home game of the 2015/6 season. There is a video of him hugging Heurelho Gomes, the club’s Player of the Year. Still the club’s most successful and loyal fan, Elton often phones the Watford manager as well as captain Troy. He famously cried when Watford lost the 1984 FA Cup Final at Wembley, and made sure he was at least in the country for the 2016 FA Cup Final (the UK leg of his summer tour was in rehearsals in May). He was in Las Vegas, in his residency with his ‘Million Dollar Piano’, the weekend of the semi-final, although he was rumoured to have flown in for the game.

In a year of protest against owners, the only protest Elton himself has, as he mentioned the week he opened the Sir Elton John Stand at Vicarage Road in December 2014, is that he cannot go to games as often as he wants. In his years running the club, he would play shows at the Vic which would draw crowds of thousands.

In 1976 Elton had bought the club as a 28-year-old pop-megastar who was selling out stadiums in America. In 1996, as a 48-year-old rock openly gay pop star who had set up a foundation to support AIDS victims, Elton agreed to put money back into the club only if the man called GT would manage the club.  GT has spoken out recently against the way owners run the club; in his day Elton left him alone to run the playing side of things.

I write in my book Saturday 3pm (out now digitally) that Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson were the real runners of their clubs, and Arsene Wenger has much of the power at his club today. Any player who had earned millions and would want the stress and impotence of managing a club, liable to be sacked by an owner or have his players down tools in order to get rid of him, is lying or foolish or very confident in his own abilities.

While fans of Arsenal and Everton, two of the most stable, best-run and financially prudent clubs, moan about their managers, many Watford fans had their way when the club terminated the contract of Quique Sanchez Flores after twelve months. The final home game against Sunderland, which finished 2-2 with, aptly, a goal each for Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo, will be remembered for the fitting send-off given to the bearded heart-throb who came from Spain and kept Watford in the Premier League. He also gave fans a day at Wembley, even though the 1-2 defeat to Crystal Palace was not in the game plan. It has been an amazing season, led by an amazing coach who agreed to seek alternative employers.

For the first time in many years, the manager was not sacked or did not decide to move on of his own accord. In recent years Misters Zola and Sannino have had to write letters upon their resignation. Sean Dyche was ejected over summer, and Malky Mackay and Brendan Rodgers both accepted jobs elsewhere. Aidy Boothroyd, who took Watford up then down then almost up again, was pretty much unloved when he left the club in 2008 after three exciting seasons.

Success is relative, and fans should not be blinded by league positions or heavy defeats to top sides; the aggregate score in the three Arsenal games was 8-2, with both Watford goals coming in the FA Cup Quarter-Final. Nobody remembers the trophies as much as the memories and great young things making an impact.

Aidy’s management brought in the superb young talents of John-Joe O’Toole (now of Northampton Town) and the two men who played on opposing sides in the 2016 FA Cup Final: Ashley Young of Man United, and Aidy Mariappa of Crystal Palace, proving that Watford did get to Wembley after all.

One of the most tedious accusations levelled at Senor Flores was that he was ‘tactically naïve’ and had ‘no Plan B’. His tactic was to find through balls to the front two, using skilful players out wide who were not necessarily byline-hitting wingers. Jose Jurado and Almen Abdi were key components of the 2015/6 season, while Etienne Capoue dazzled fans and opponents with his ball skills. He should have scored more than zero goals, though, for a £6.2m club record signing.

In January 2016 the Pozzo family spent money on three players: reserve goalie Costel Pantilimon came in from Sunderland, while Nordin Amrabat and Mario Suarez bolstered options in midfield. Both men, who have been capped by their international sides, have now had half a season to adjust to the Premier League. 2016/7 will be a season they should shine, though Suarez came to Watford after playing for Atletico Madrid and was truly ‘Quique’s man’.

Interestingly, new manager Walter Mazzarri (a spit for Alec Baldwin) managed two Watford players while guiding Napoli to finishes of sixth, third, fifth and second. In that time, he managed both Miguel Britos and Valon Behrami, two of Watford’s signings for the 2015/6 season, as well as the likes of Vargas of Chile, Cavani of Uruguay, Lavezzi of Argentina. At Inter Milan in 2013/4 he finished fifth with a squad including Juan Jesus, Mateo Kovacic, Fredy Guarin, Esteban Cambiasso and the young maverick striker Mauro Icardi.

Mazzarri has proven he can get the best out of top talent such as these. With Luke Dowling, in charge of player recruitment, working with a silly budget of around £60m thanks to the guaranteed TV money, I am sure Mazzarri will recommend some of his former players. Juan Jesus was one of the first to be linked to the club.

As of the end of May 2016, Watford have brought in or are bringing in four players, including young Englishman Jerome Sinclair, unable to progress to the Liverpool first team. £8m midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure came from Rennes and impressed for Granada for the remainder of the season, while Adalberto Penaranda was found by one of the many scouts the Pozzos have employed to find the next Alexis Sanchez, whom they had found and brought to Udinese.

Ighalo, Allan Nyom and Forestieri have all come to Europe after being scouted by someone reporting back to the Pozzos. If there are duds – just ask a Watford fan to explain the reasoning behind Jean-Alain Fanchone’s loan move to Watford in 2012/3 – then they are negated by superb attacking talent in Ighalo, Forestieri (now at Sheffield Wednesday but still held highly at Watford) and Matej Vydra.

Alarmingly, though, at the end of the 2015/6 season eight under-21 players were released from the club, including Georgie Byers, Josh Doherty and Bernard Mensah, three bright talents to have come from the Academy and who have all played for the first team at some stage. Tommie Hoban and Sean Murray, two former regular first-team players, have dropped down the order and may be surplus to Mazzarri.

‘They aren’t good enough,’ says Paul Tucker of the players who were released. ‘Take Jorrell Johnson, a promising centre-back who went out on loan. If the main centre-backs are out then we have others, like Angella and Ekstrand, on top of the players we’ll sign before the window closes.

‘The mentality has to change from when we were under Dyche and Mackay, when we needed the kids to supplement the team due to circumstance. We weren’t able back then to sign the quality of players we sign today.

‘It seems we are going to poach some young players from Manchester City and Arsenal when they are eighteen and haven’t made it. We had Bellerin on loan and he looked good; he got football, because there was nobody from our under-18s or under-21s to step up. It is sensible to change the policy and release those young players. If one or two comes through, then great. But Connor Smith wasn’t good enough, and Sean Murray did, before he went off the rails.’

I mention Britt Assombalonga who played for the first team under Dyche. ‘He came back when he was at Forest and his body shape is totally different. We were offered silly money from Peterborough and you couldn’t turn that down. I don’t think we’ll see Alex Jakubiak [2015/6 Young Player of the Year] play next year, maybe he was kept on because we don’t have that many strikers.

‘Tommie Hoban is a good player and he came in aged fourteen from Arsenal. He’s one of our own, but we nicked him from another club.’

Troy Deeney, the heartbeat and soul of the club, is club captain and has a pivotal role reporting player concerns to the coach. Watford’s number nine has remained loyal to his employer. The Pozzo family took over the club in the month that Troy was sent to prison for his part in a brawl outside a nightclub in January 2012. He has repaid them with an astonishing goal return, with twenty in each of the first three seasons.

In May 2016 the Pozzo family sold Granada, the club they had bought in 2009 and taken to La Liga with the help of Odion Ighalo’s goals, to DeSports, a sports marketing agency based in Asia. They had formed an alliance in March with Gino Pozzo and Media Base Sports (MBS), who look after players like Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Thiago Alcantara. The next thing for Watford fans to monitor is the Pozzo interest in Chinese football and its new league.

Signor Pozzo, Watford’s present owner (in both senses of the word, as he lives locally), was out in China in March to, as MBS’s website says, ‘strengthen football in China by exporting their management philosophy and to bridge the commercial gap between Europe and the Asian nation.’

Perhaps this was the reason Gino wanted to add those 220 seats: for the Chinese visitors to the Vic in 2016/7! Who can say, but any move to increase revenue on the commercial side is welcome in a league in which the top clubs turn over astonishing amounts of money which can be used to purchase better players.

I ask Paul Tucker what it will take for him to protest about anything the Pozzos do. ‘So many owners use the clubs for other means or they strip the assets, but I’ll be happy as long as the future of the club is safeguarded. Money should be reinvested back into the club, but Udinese should stay strong too, especially after we took players like Isaac Success and Adalberto Penaranda from Granada.

‘The price of the away tickets has now been resolved by the Premier League’s £30 quid cap. If the club put up the cost of the season tickets that would really annoy me!’

Given that his ticket cost around £400, the club are looking after its most loyal supporters even as a Premier League club. Long may it continue! In Pozzo we trust.

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