BY ASHLEY GREB
I want to yell in the faces of a mindless minority; to shake them by the arms, but then, is it really possible that they’d even see sense? Booing through the last few weeks of his reign, such fans justify their behaviour with all the grace of Romero’s living dead.
If it takes special characteristics to jeer the man who has both guided us out of the darkness and, lifted our expectations through the roof; it requires even more idiosyncratic behaviour to believe such actions might actually improve team performances.
Eighteen months ago Gianfranco Zola strode through the front door of our crumbling palace armed only with a Pozzo broom. Having spent almost three decades turning around the fortunes of firstly Udinese and then Granada, we were to be the family’s new “project”.
Whilst the rivals vented spleens – as a wave after wave of quality new recruits swept through the door – the locals just offered an olive branch laced with neat trepidation. Putting any suggestion of xenophobia aside, our apprehension was more one of resigned unease; a “What now?” with an exhausted sigh.
Since the second coming of Elton John’s Taylor Made Army, Watford’s most recent history has been determined by a series of stuttering false dawns. With the new board’s blessing Vialli spent a small fortune before falling out with said pay-masters. His departure handed the reins – rather fortuitously – to the more-economical Lewington. ITV Digital went down the swanny and administration glared menacingly through the letterboxes of many. Thankfully for the fans, senior figures on the playing staff lead a pay deferral crusade and, the club steered for slightly calmer waters.
When a League Cup semi-final wasn’t enough to save the very affable Lewington, a young and relatively unknown Leeds coach took over the helm. With improved financial backing and the burgeoning talent of Ashley Young, Boothroyd took the Hornets to third in his first full season before sinking his former club in the play-off final. Young left for a massive fee, strange stuff went on in the boardroom and following an inevitable relegation, once handed a new cheque book, our young manager – now without the steadying arm of Keith Burkinshaw – gathered an array of even stranger recruits.
The new recruits didn’t gel, the club imploded in the play-offs, and Boothroyd drew the “by mutual consent” card. Whilst others had left “refusing” to speak of why, infighting lead to many prominent figures “moving aside”. On the pitch Mackay and Rodgers shuffled new decks, administration came knocking again, and was thankfully sent packing, again. Rodgers yelled something about “integrity” at us as he caught the first train to Reading and, Malky went even further west the following summer. Whilst only one deserved to leave with his head held high, each had looked promising but each had also shown us a clean pair of heels as dark clouds stirred over WD18 once again.
The less said about the following twelve months the better (there’s probably a court case to be settled somewhere). On the pitch, Malky’s lieutenant, Sean Dyche, performed incredible miracles; off the pitch an even more incredible story of “Larry & the Hard Hat” was taking shape.
Where we would have been if la famiglia Pozzo hadn’t gained control is anyone’s guess (though all the options looked very bleak). Like Dyche’s departure, the calm after the storm was not easy to accept. Rivals – some with a very xenophobic leaning – bayed for justice; the locals trained their eyes to the horizon waiting for the next downpour.
Halfway through the season, arriving in Kings Langley for the first club “At Your Place”, results after a shaky start had begun to pick and the team was sitting in relative comfort. True, we still had no idea who half the squad were, nor were we sure where they’d come from, but Watford were winning and our rivals were jealously bemoaning our style. It was like 1983 all over again; we showed caution to no-one, well no-one except the new owners.
What would happen three months later has justly been written into folklore. To the squealing voices of Jon Marks and Johnny Philips, Knockaert missed a penalty (twice) and Deeney sparked a pitch invasion. That day is talked about as “the greatest” by many but for me, the season’s red letter day came on a cold February night.
CEO Scott Duxbury, Technical Director Gian Luca Nani and Ikechi Anya were warming up the select crowd when Zola strolled in, late. Clearly the mood on the pitch meant all were in good spirits but, the warmth of the little one’s smile as he entered lifted us further still.
Thanks to his time at Chelsea we were all familiar with the deft skills of the Sardinian but, until you meet Gianfranco face-to-face, it’s truly hard to comprehend just what an engaging man he is. That night – those two hours of uncensored questioning to a packed bar – four men won the Watford faithful over. Trust me there had been no more uplifting experience since Demerit had headed the first at the Millennium Stadium seven years earlier and, whilst all four had their moments in the Kings Langley limelight, Zola was the king; our king.
In his first exhilarating season Zola gave Watford the kind of season that every football fan dreams of; tonight he was ultimately undone by this success. Cobbling together an existing squad, fantastic academy products and range of new recruits, Zola gave us a footballing swagger. Even when we (and by then it was very much WE) failed at the last hurdle there was no fear or trepidation, just a comfortable warmth.
We may have over-achieved but under the Pozzo’s wing, Watford had been lifted from the gloom; our future was secure. La Famiglia have always claimed they are in it for the long haul; there is a business model and hefty wages and quick fixes will not be sought. Once you understand this model, the easier it is to understand changes that occur.
In the great scheme of things we are all, every one of us, replaceable. That said, tonight’s resignation has bought with it a great sadness for many. Throughout his short tenure, Zola acted with great dignity, from the day he arrived to the day he left; his every action made you proud to have him associated with your club. There is an argument that many he was “too nice” but the moronic jeers of dissatisfaction belie what he actually achieved.
No man since The Great Taylor has given us supporters such a swagger; no manager has ever provided such beautiful football. In the past thirty plus years I’ve celebrated every single goal but only one – Battocchio against Huddersfield – has left me awestruck by its magnificence. He may have been on the bench however, that goal was pure Zola; fast, accurate, deadly team work, skilfully tucked away by a little one.
From Cristian’s goal to Manuel’s double save, everything clicked last season and, that is what toppled the king. Zola couldn’t keep up such with a benchmark; eventually any manager would have slipped from that lofty perch. In the summer, much of the side was gratefully held together and, whilst some new faces arrived, a couple of dogged yet prominent midfielders headed north.
Whether the combination of Hogg and/or Eustace departing has affected our game or, whether the loss of Vydra to his agent dried up the goals no one can tell. Is Abdi’s toe injury the worst of all those currently warming the physio’s room? Has a change in backroom staff altered the guidance? Have the signings not quite measured up? Or has the level of expectation just risen beyond all sense? Has the intermittent booing finally driven the last of the confidence out of the team?
Being diplomatic, last summer the only way was up; Bassini’s empire was at tipping point and our Italian saviours strolled in without any yardstick to measure themselves against. Twelve months on, more, and maybe far too much, is being expected of the club by fans now neck deep in a footballing avarice.
Proving he and his team haven’t deserved the booing, reading Zola’s resignation is at the very least a humbling experience; that man just oozes dignity. I’m sure Watford is still in safe hands but, I’m truly sorry he’s no longer here to share the future with us. In reality I couldn’t give a damn if the boo-boys are content at the outcome, whatever happens, I for one hope Zola is happy first and foremost.
For the season of utter exhilaration he gave us, for the swashbuckling style of football and, for the look on my son’s face as he picked a blade or two from the hallowed turf last May, Gianfranco Zola should enter the Watford Hall of Fame. He deserves that at the very least.
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