ASHLEY GREB leaves no stone unturned as he pores over Watford’s ever-eventful Championship promotion season, final day paradoxical feelings and a manager missing his lightsaber.
Returning home from walking the dog – early on Monday morning – outside our expatriate abode stood two ambulances; lights still on, their engines still purring. With a headstrong schnauzer pulling on his lead, I froze.
Gazing through the worm hole; our shared drive formed the backdrop as efficient medical professionals busied themselves, practically on autopilot. Fixated on the scene, I wracked my brain for the correct words to use. What should I ask? What could I even say? Emergencies of this ilk weren’t exactly what Sir Keith Joseph had us cover in German O level.
“Welche Nummer?” I frantically enquired of one paramedic, though the security gate which was opening all too slowly. “Drei” came the cordial reply as he breezed past me – absorbed by duty – and disappeared through the side door of the nearest ambulance. The glimpse of “Malteser” plastered on the side of the van would, ordinarily, have sent me searching for muddled comparisons with confectionary, or crusades, or crass references to slimming aides… but not this time.
Fleetingly lost in a void of selfish relief, the sight of our elderly neighbour emerging from her house dumped reality back in my lap. “Is everything ok? Are you ok?” The words fell from my mouth without considering translation.
Hanging in the air for far longer than seemed permissible, my sincerity was brought crashing back to Earth with a curt yet honest response, “I have to be”. Monetarily staring deep into her distraught eyes, I deliberated of the real value of the footballing angst back home; the woes that had occupied my mind strolling round the fields just minutes before.
Since 2pm, Saturday afternoon, frustrated, I’d watched fellow Hornets tear into each other to resolve their perceived injustice. Post-match taverns dissected by solemn analysis; social media was still alive with bitter disputes. The flares, team selection, pitch invasion, missed chances, The 1881, poor stewarding, wrong chants; no stone was being left unturned. Was this really what we’d become, Spurs fans on 606?
Ten months earlier – the fortunate recipient of the pass of wifely lenience – I’d found my way to the stunning Austrian market town of Bad Bleiberg, where the vein of rich mining has ultimately given way to more leisurely pursuits. There, nestled in the Gailtal Alps, my second love were to take on formidable Russian Premier League outfit, Rubin Kazan.
The third match of their pre-season schedule – the first two both comfortable wins against much lesser opposition – Rubin Kazan offered a much sterner test; a barometer for the season ahead even. The setting had everything, our welcome genuine; the round Beppe bought for the dozen or so, by then, drenched supporters afterwards was truly heartfelt. Company aside, out on the pitch I’d found much reason for optimism too.
At the time I précised the match, “Many things could be drawn from the next ninety minutes – a thoroughly engaging 0-0 draw – however, the vital factor was, and is, the manner to which the entire squad is gelling with Beppe’s big dream.” In hindsight, it is more than obvious that such summations – assembled on just 90 minutes sporadic viewing – were, and are, an act of true folly.
Guiseppe “Beppe” Sannino
Was Beppe destined to fail? Did he fail at all? Is it ever possible to become the successor to such a popular icon?
Though not the greatest tactician we’ve ever had, the effervescent and gregarious Zola was a joy to have about Vicarage Road. Once the Pozzos had wrestled control from the unnerving clutches of Bankrupt Baz, Gianfranco lifted us from that gloom-laden era. And, when Zola felt he’d done all he could, he diplomatically stepped down; his head held rightfully high. Already known to La Famiglia back home, Beppe and a new backroom team were promptly flown in.
Though not noted by many at the time, the swiftness of this transfer of power should’ve been seen as a sign of the way our new owners would be operating. Gone are the days when panic loans and short-listed managerial applications fill weeks of back pages, whilst the team trots to a caretaker’s tune. Now, I’ve a feeling Pozzo Plan B’s are already in waiting, for any and every eventuality.
Whether a language barrier ever hampered his tenure, Sannino really was a new broom; judging by his managerial record it might even have been Trigger’s.
Where Gianfranco drove with a zest for life; with a hint of humour, Beppe was far more authoritarian. The players knew it, the fans knew it. Once the officials attempted to get the besuited one to stay in his technical area, I’m fairly certain they knew it too.
Without Vydra, Eustace and Hogg – the most notable absentees from the successful season before – it felt like his first half season would be treated as little more than mid-table foundation building, but build it must. When we duly finished 13th, the Pozzos grabbed a handful of new Plan B’s for Beppe to mould for the season ahead.
Though pre-season bought as many draws as wins, it was a packed period of assessment, with games to suit every need and playing style. We even got the long-awaited big bonus fixture – though tragically not away – against older sibling Udinese. Was there promise in the air…? Perhaps in hindsight, it’s easy to reach that conclusion.
Old favourites had been kept in the squad whilst some deadwood was manoeuvred away. Pleasing the many younger fans with shirts named after him, Vydra was back in the fold. Optimism had surely been galvanised in the stands.
Brushing aside the League Cup issues – without ever advocating dropping first-teamers, it was never going to be the season’s priority – August was an enviable start to the campaign. With comfortable wins against Bolton, Rotherham, Leeds and Huddersfield our record was only blighted by an away loss to Norwich. The day after The Terriers were neutered however, Sannino headed back home to Italy, pronto.
I’d never thought Beppe was the great saviour, nor did I think he’d be around for ever – his CV said as much – but he had grown on me and many others. The start to the campaign had been wonderful but, there was also a reliable fallibility in his long term achievements that many of us could aspire to. Like us, he appeared mortal.
At the time however, it just seemed crazy; it still does. Going into that international break, Watford sat comfortably 2nd in the table yet we no longer had a manager. Whether it was his decision or not, everything happens for a reason. The Guardian stated at the time that Beppe had decided “he had taken them [Watford] as far as he could”. This seemed remarkably perceptive for a stranger behind a keyboard, given that what he was actually thinking had eluded most Occupation Road regulars for over a year.
No longer, however, would we be trying to work this out, or where he got his natty suits fitted; no longer would supporters chant “He’s out of his box”.
First game in charge (this season) – 9 August 2014, last game – 30 August 2014
League – P5, W4, D0, L1, F13, A6, Pts 12/15
League Cup – P2, W1, D0, L1, F2, A2, Pts N/A
Óscar García Junyent
Three days after Beppe’s departure, Watford prepared two huge back-to-back statements.
Among respectful “The King is dead, long live the King” speeches, a new manager was appointed and – somewhat of a shock to those outside the inner circle – Technical Director Gianluca Nani handed in his notice. Were the two announcements linked? I’d hoped not then and still do. Other clubs could have such fracas but, the last thing I wanted to see return to the Vic was squabbling behind the scenes.
That another one of the Kings Langley Four – really, you had to be there – had taken a bow was disappointing. Along with Scott Duxbury, Ikechi Anya and Gianfranco Zola, larger-than-life Nani was equally instrumental in winning reticent fans over to the new owners’ model. He also remains the only club official – at any club ever – that I’ve overheard using a delightful blend of wit and charm, to expound the virtues of cigar smoking to the players during a warm up.
Whether Sannino’s and Nani’s “decisions” had any real impact both behind the scenes and on the pitch, I’m not sure I cared, but the unintentional aftermath was at best chaotic.
For this Hornet, Óscar García’s arrival was a damp squib. Despite a hugely envious playing career (which I couldn’t ever empathise with), I’d hardly been that impressed with his season in Sussex-by-the-Sea (a place that I was very familiar with).
Back in September, the team performances cooled dramatically. On the playing side, a pivotal event saw Craig Cathcart’s arrival, helping to shore up the defence throughout the rest of the campaign. In front of goal however, our usual potency seemed lacking.
Four games in – following a 1-0 win, a 1-0 loss and a prickly 1-1 home draw with Bournemouth – García “watched from the Directors’ Box” at Ewood Park. On the bench his new first-team Coach Billy McKinlay helped take the reins.
There’d been a debate about Watford since Zola left that Watford needed a British coach to assist the more continental backroom staff. Club stalwart Alec Chamberlain aside, McKinlay was the first such employee and most notably, García’s appointment…
When the dust finally settled towards the end of the month, revelations of Oscar’s health were naturally the only big talking point. Having checked into hospital with “chest pains” the day after it, he only ever really managed one game; the away defeat to Charlton. From that point onwards, through no fault of his own, he’d struggled to do the job.
Whilst one genuinely feels for García, and his family, his case only highlights the peculiarities of pre-contract medicals? Such tests are part of everyday parlance when it comes to signing new players; given the amount of manager’s, just in my lifetime, who have gone under the knife as a result of their jobs, why do we never hear about check-ups for backroom staff? Do new coaches undergo health checks? Are stress levels and breaking-points for them ever analysed?
First game in charge – 13 September 2014, last game – 27 September 2014
League – P4, W1, D2, L1, F4, A4, Pts 5/12
Eight days a week…
When the music stopped, Billy was sitting in the only remaining chair. The media storm – both social and antisocial – went into overdrive. Two years previously, Martin Samuel and his ilk (and their odious papers) had laid into us with some tragically ill-informed “everything that’s wrong with the game” viewpoints regarding our then new owners. Now they were back again; all blundering barbed prose and gnarled pointy fingers.
It was a strange time to be a Watford fan, that week; it was also hard not to feel sympathy for McKinlay. Totally blameless; he wasn’t a boardroom selection, Billy had been appointed by default.
Reportedly now in Spain with David Moyes, his reputation as a coach, thankfully, has seemingly not been harmed by his brief stint at Watford. Nonetheless, it was never going to last. Once La Famiglia Pozzo had their Plan C in place – to replace the Plan B who’d fallen ill – Billy was always going to be moved on. There is/was no room for sentimentality, the club’s progress comes first. That is the model. Amazingly he left the club with the best managerial record of the season…
First game in charge – 30 September 2014, last game – 4 October 2014
League – P2, W1, D1, L0, F3, A2, Pts 4/6
When Slav was first appointed, I took little notice of his CV. Instead I found myself chuckling into a personal universe, wondering how the hell The 1881 were going to string a tune round “Славиша Јокановић”…
Six months later, Slav had the team purring, and the boys in the corner had rewritten an alternative way to Amarillo but, it wasn’t a smooth ride for any of us.
October continued along the same furrow that September had fallen in to; November – bringing four defeats from five – would have been best put on the bonfire. Given our inconsistent form over these three months, it’s staggering we even stayed in the top six for all bar three weeks during the season.
If anything was developing in this division, it was that at that time any team – (sadly for their fans) Blackpool aside – literally any team, could compete for the top six place.
Whilst each club’s supporters could unearth a handful of justifiable explanations for their side’s varying form – injuries, suspensions, poor defending, alleged crap officials – Watford’s for once seemed united behind the team throughout. The reward for this devotion came on a Friday night in Fulham.
When I arrived, The Eight Bells at Putney Bridge was a heaving mass of optimism; the noise level was one of partisan crescendo. We’d all bought fully into the Pozzo-Slav dream; it all just felt right. The previous month meant little; we’d suffered enough. Advent had ushered in renewed good cheer and tonight, Abdi was back on form…
Live on TV; when our fifth goal capped off a marvellous win, without reply, people began to take notice. Not enough to actually acknowledge us with any real credit of course; more a “oh look, Watford won at last” kind of thing. As this continued over the next few months, many began to suggest that the media’s apathy to success in our little satellite town played nicely to our advantage. Life is easier when one goes unnoticed.
Even with minor slip-ups to Wolves and Huddersfield, Watford seemed totally rejuvenated. In his first month, the powerful will of Slaviša Jokanović and his hard-stare had laid to rest any sign of dressing room insurgency. In his second, he manipulated his players into a real force and the goals flowed. Somewhere underneath we sensed human will kept the club’s progress to the fore but, striding up and down his technical area, he was Darth Vader without a lightsaber. Determined and totally unshakable.
Potentially difficult characters had been shipped off to distant planets where they could harm the federation no more and, those that remained bagged seven goals in 47 minutes, coming back from two down at home to bottom of the table Blackpool. It was breath-taking. Whilst I’m reluctant to take up the punditry mantra of bemoaning officials, next up to take ours and everyone’s breath away was Lee Probert.
Pumped up out of all proportions, Bournemouth v Watford – LIVE ON SKY (or some other irritating move-games-wherever-you-like-and-to-hell-with-the-supporters channel) – was not the be-all-and-end-all. It was just one of forty-six games which make the season. Of course it would have been nice to see how the division’s top two would shape up against each other but, Probert got star-struck or card happy – a red card that was subsequently overturned by all bar the gloating Bournemouth fans – just thirty seconds into the game. Sitting with old college friends in the home end, the sporting contest became a mere side-line to our catching up.
Would we have smirked had the boot been on the other foot? Of course we would. Probert hadn’t committed a crime on the scale of Roger Milford; he hadn’t even destroyed our season but, in the heat of the moment he threw oil on the flames. With the media going all starry-eyed over the romantic myth being carefully rewritten on the south coast – rewritten to avoid any mention of deep pockets and Russian billionaires – Probert’s recklessness just pulled Watford tighter together; he made us more determined. Six subsequent wins were only punctuated by another blip to top six rivals, Norwich. Remember, Probert’s hasty reaction gave us this impetus.
With news of a two-all draw at Molineux, sporting stories were side-lined by the tragically mindless actions of a few. Not dissimilar The Few, Billy Bragg sung about, such pondlife still aren’t of course football’s problem but they are our society’s. Hopefully society will now deal with those that blighted our game that day.
With Nic Cruwys critically ill in hospital, the unselfish compassion of Wolves fan Ollie Floyd and the tag #fornicforpromotion spurred the Hornets on. For the first time in decades, without any need to brag of our direction, Watford’s fate felt secure.
Ipswich made a little dent but the run-in’s opponents, one after another, generally toppled like dominoes. No longer were we struggling to hold leads, no more were we worried by opponents and their records. With two games left, the division’s top four were split by fag papers; with two games left even the title was undecided. Whatever the Premier League would have you believe, this season the Championship really was The Best League In The World. Within an essential cast of twenty-four; Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, Norwich and Watford equally made it so.
In Düsseldorf’s Altstadt there is a mighty fine restaurant named Schweine Janes; the best of its kind. Whilst my people were at The Amex, I was out for Mittagsessen. It was wrong but, I had to keep myself busy.
Never before had I worn a Watford scarf to lunch with the in-laws. Never before had my wife courteously looked away as I wore a Watford scarf to lunch with the in-laws, in a different country, and refreshed Twitter throughout the main course.
When Vydra fired home Watford’s second moments before the final whistle, I leapt up from my Schweinshaxe feast, into Bolkerstrasse, cheering in delight. I didn’t care that people were staring, I didn’t even like the Premier League and all it stands for – I still don’t – but the relief of knowing deep inside we’d done enough to secure promotion; the climax of the week’s building adrenalin rush was uncontrollable.
As players and fans partied together in Watford that night, I’m sure Slav celebrated the fantastic achievement by stating deadpan how proud he was of the team but that “it wasn’t finished yet”, whilst staring down anyone foolish enough to catch his eye.
Going into the final game, Watford had held their nerve better than those about them; the title was now ours to lose. As The 1881 worked their socks off that morning to make the stadium display simply awesome, “Champions” arches were hurriedly hidden deep within two stadia. Having arrived at the ground straight from the airport, I’d seen ours being covered up by the now defunct Family Terrace on the North East corner of the Vic but, a clone was also lurking down at The Valley.
As the players first emerged post-match for a lap of honour – all of whom deserve praise – the deflated look on their faces was truly awful to those of us lucky enough to be at close quarters. They’d given so much this season, fighting adversity and pathetic coverage, surging back from a torrid autumn but, Wednesday’s injury time leveller had cruelly sent the trophy into the clutches of local boy Eddie Howe and his Bournemouth side; the side that had held their nerve on the final day. Was it anyone “fault”? Of course it hurt but, this last game wasn’t to blame nor was anyone on or around the pitch, with or without pyrotechnics, singing or not. Sometimes it just works out that way.
The season was about seventy hours long. Seventy hours of nerve-jangling, unpredictable sporting endeavour where millimetres and seconds could create and destroy heroes. In our seventy hours – our forty-six matches – one more goal in possibly any one of fourteen other games, than this final one, could have secured the title.
Whatever the spurious claims of injustice emanating from fans throughout the division, the best performers over those seventy hours always rise to the top. This season that was AFC Bournemouth.
Back in Hertfordshire, we came heartbreakingly bloody close. In an optimistic seventy hours, under four managers, with unbelievable supporter participation, Watford had one of their greatest seasons and achieved a position that any of us football supporters would grab for our sides at the start of any season.
When getting worked up about sport, we all need to keep some perspective. Shankly was wrong, football really isn’t more important than life. Ultimately it’s not even worth kicking the cat over (and I don’t much like cats).
Looking at my neighbour whose husband – like Nic Cruwys – is still critically ill in hospital should remind us all of this. Just as life’s millimetres and seconds impacted our sporting worlds this season, so could they have affected us much worse, many times over. It’s just millimetres and seconds…
I really don’t like the mentality of the league we are now entering, I don’t want to hear my people bemoaning their luck to blinkered pundits on 606 but, Watford have now been promoted eight times in my presence; I am truly grateful to have seen them all. In four more weeks I’ll be scouring the fixtures for the team I love, I’ll be hoping my wife lets me jet off to some strange location for the pre-season tour and above all, I will be optimistic for life both in and out of football over the coming months.
First game in charge – 18 October 2014, last game 2 May 2015
League – P35, W21, D5, L9, F71, A38, Pts 68/105
FA Cup – P1, W0, D0, L1, F0, A3, Pts N/A
This has been a @putajumperon production, for both Nic and Otto, and millions more with real suffering in their lives than a late equaliser.
FOLLOW ASHLEY ON TWITTER @putajumperon