Watford have ended their brief Claudio Ranieri experiment with the appointment of another veteran coach. Can Roy Hodgson keep them up?
Arrivederci then, Claudio Ranieri. After just 16 weeks in charge of Watford, the managerial revolving door at Vicarage Road has spun again, leaving the former Leicester City manager out on his ear after just 14 games in charge of the club, during which time the Hornets have dropped from 15th place in the Premier League table to 19th and been eliminated from the FA Cup at the first hurdle. A 3-0 home defeat to Norwich City, another team fighting relegation, but one which seems to have some idea of what they need to do in order to remedy this, proved an embarrassment too far for the club’s owners, the famously trigger-happy Pozzo family.
Ranieri won just two Premier League matches while in charge of Watford, and those two wins said more about the opposition than they did about the Hornets’ progress. A 5-2 win at Everton at the end of October revealed the depths of the malaise at Goodison Park under Rafa Benitez after a deceptively competent start to the season, while their 4-1 win against Manchester United four weeks later turned out to be one humiliation too far for the Glazer family with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Other than these two results, there was almost nothing but a slew of defeats. Watford conceded three goals or more five times in Ranieri’s 14 matches in charge, including four goals twice against Leicester City, once in the Premier League and once in the FA Cup. The only exception was a 1-1 draw at Newcastle which played out in the now-familiar blizzard of hysteria that St James’ Park now hosts every other weekend, and which required an equaliser two minutes from time for the visitors to snatch a point.
They’d been teetering in 17th place in the table since the Manchester United win, and a combination of Norwich winning at Vicarage Road and then Newcastle winning at Leeds the following day nudged them down into the relegation places for the first time. That’s all it takes these days.
The Pozzos are more experienced than most when it comes to hiring new managers, so it should probably come as little surprise that it barely took them 24 hours to announce a replacement. Their third manager of this season will now be Roy Hodgson, who left Crystal Palace at the end of last season.
At 74 years old, Hodgson had been half-expected to retire after four years at Selhurst Park, but apparently the allure of the Premier League proved to be too great for the former England manager. Hodgson will arrive with long-time assistant (and former Watford manager) Ray Lewington, and the task ahead of them looks immense, with Newcastle seeking to spend their way out of trouble and Norwich City starting to look like they could yet drag themselves to safety with two straight wins.
Hodgson should at least know what he’s getting himself involved in by accepting the Watford job. In June 2001, the Pozzo family appointed him as the coach of Udinese, but he lasted just six months in the position before being sacked over comments made in the press in which he described Udinese as “a very strange club”. Pozzo said at the time that he was ‘shocked’ and ‘hit in the heart’ by Hodgson’s comments. Udinese were in ninth place in Serie A at the time of his departure, but finished the season in 14th place, just one point above the relegation places.
A 74 year old replacing a 70 year old on a short-term contract until the end of the season doesn’t say much for the long-term planning behind this decision – it seems reasonable to suggest that there likely wasn’t any – but are there reasons for Watford supporters to be optimistic about this appointment? Well, things probably couldn’t have got any worse for them than they did under Ranieri – the rumour has been that he was fundamentally disinterested at Vicarage Road, with the suggestion being that this was also the case during his similarly disastrous spell at Fulham – but what about the new appointment?
Well, Hodgson does at least have an accomplished record as a Premier League fire-fighter. When he replaced Roberto Di Matteo at West Bromwich Albion in January 2011, they were in 17th place in the Premier League, and by the end of the season they were in 11th. The following year, when he left to take the England job, they finished in 10th place in the table.
When he joined Crystal Palace in 2017, the Eagles were in the midst of a meltdown that saw them lose their first seven league matches of the season. Hodgson took them to an 11th-place finish that season. It wasn’t just the first time that a club had survived relegation from the Premier League after such a bad start; it was the first time that a Premier League club had even had such a terrible start to a season.
At this precise moment in time Watford don’t really seem to have any ambition beyond staying in the Premier League come the end of the season, and that is in its own way understandable. After all, staying up would be worth in the region of £100m to the club. But Hodgson’s appointment does raise the question of what comes next for Watford. He may be the best chance they have of staying up, but as ever there seems to be no sign of a coherent plan at Vicarage Road beyond fighting the fire that is immediately in front of them.
It seems unlikely that things will get worse for Watford under Roy Hodgson than they did under Claudio Ranieri, and anything above a continuation of that capitulation may be credited as a success. If he can keep them up, Roy Hodgson will have achieved his mission, and what comes next for Watford will depend on where that mission ends, but as ever at Vicarage Road, what happens in the long term seems to be up in the air.