Watford supporters have watched on with annoyance as their club has slid down the Championship table this season while their local rivals have flourished.
For much of the last 10 years, there has been a tempering influence on much that could be said about the Pozzo family. The Watford owners may have had their eccentricities, but supporters of the club itself in the main seemed to be fairly content with the way in which it was being run. And that has to count for something, doesn’t it? After all, the fans are the people who know a football club best. If they’re happy, then those of us peering in from the outside should probably take that into account.
Well this season may turn out to be the one when this particular dam broke. It has has been another distinctly Pozzo-esque campaign at Vicarage Road, but this time around something seems to have changed within the fanbase itself, and it’s not particularly difficult to see why this should have reached critical mass in the last couple of weeks. Because while a cursory glance at the Championship table shows the club exactly halfway down it, this can hardly be described as a sleepy mid-table season after burning through two managers and reportedly soon a third.
To lose a local derby is one thing, but to do so in the way in which Watford recently lost to Luton Town is something else altogether. The first manager that Watford jettisoned this season, Rob Edwards, was in charge of the team that brushed them aside with a 2-0 win, and if enough layers of rich irony hadn’t already been heaped upon this defeat, it all came on April Fool’s Day, the sort of happenstance which leads one to the postulation that God may be a headline writer after all.
Looking up from their mid-table berth, all at Vicarage Road can see the difference between the two clubs at the moment. Luton may not have been the beneficiaries of Premier League money – and Premier League parachute money – over the last few years, but they have established themselves as A Well Run Club. Despite the lowest attendances in the Championship, they’re in the play-off places for a second year in a row and, while the accounts for 2022 showed a financial loss of £6.3m, this has to be placed within the context of two not insignificant factors: the general madness of the finances of the EFL Championship and the recovery steps needed following the effects of the pandemic.
All of this raises an obvious question. What’s Watford’s excuse? This is, after an all, a club which has spent six of the last eight years in the Premier League. They have a bigger and considerably more modern stadium than Luton, and average crowds of around double the amount that Luton can cram into the cramped and dated Kenilworth Road. Yet over the same period of time, Watford lost £18m despite all these advantages and the small matter of having been in the Premier League.
Symbolically, the club made £6.76m from matchday revenues in their 2021/22 accounts but paid out just over £1m more in ‘termination payments’, presumably to the two managers they sacked throughout the course of that season. The club’s commercial department could be forgiven collectively smacking their heads against their desks in frustration. All that time and effort spent persuading people to renew season tickets and spend their hard-earned money at the club on matchdays undone by the continuation of a revolving door policy on managers which didn’t even do them any good.
It’s a policy that has continued into this season. The appointment of Edwards, a forward-looking coach who’d achieved considerable success lower down the football food chain with Forest Green Rovers, was supposed to be a shift in style towards a more progressive outlook. After five games of the season Watford were in second place in the Championship table and still unbeaten. But by the time that 10 games had been played that famous Pozzo impatience had manifested itself yet again and Edwards was out on his ear, replaced by Slaven Bilic.
Things didn’t improve. Bilic did have the satisfaction of a 4-0 derby win against Luton in his sixth league game in charge in October, but otherwise results remained patchy, even though as late as mid-January the team remained in third. But 2023 has not been a happy year. They were eliminated from the FA Cup at the first hurdle by Reading, while in the league they’ve only won two of their last 14 matches.
The chase for an automatic promotion place faded into a chase for a play-off place, and that has only continued to diminish to a point at which even making the top six is starting to feel like a pipe dream. Watford are now six points off the play-off places with just five games left, the inherent advantage that comes with being a club freshly relegated from the Premier League having been frittered away.
Bilic himself couldn’t steady the listing ship. He lasted until March 7 before being replaced by Chris Wilder, but under Wilder things don’t seem to have improved very much. Wilder is an experienced face in the EFL who won the League Two title with Northampton Town in 2016 as the club financially imploded around him, and who then won two promotions in three seasons with Sheffield United, taking them from League One into the Premier League. It’s almost as though the sense of rudderlessness which has descended over Watford over the last couple of years can’t be fixed by shuffling through three managers per season alone.
But then again, it may be understandable if the Pozzos have had other things on their mind than Watford at the moment. After all, they’re currently somewhat wrapped up in a court case in Spain concerning the tax implications of transfer activity between Granada CF and Udinese. Spanish magistrates have accused Gino Pozzo of launching a ‘criminal plan’ while he was the owner of Granada, using what was described as a set of ‘opaque structures’ to hide the true source of funds disbursed to illegally evade tax on player trading between the two clubs. The matter is ongoing.
Meanwhile back in Hertfordshire, tempers have been continuing to fray. At home against Huddersfield Town on Good Friday, supporters chanted for the removal of the Pozzos while footage on social media showed one supporter with a ‘Pozzo Out’ banner being escorted from the ground with the stewards apparently trying to seize the banner itself. The unhappiness over the Pozzos has been swelling for some time at Vicarage Road, and what has been clear from the last couple of seasons is that the diversionary tactic of repeatedly changing managers is no longer anything like enough to persuade fans that the issues within the club are the fault of the procession of experienced coaches that have tried and – certainly over the last couple of seasons – failed.
The issues, it is clear, run far deeper than this.
Even now, with all this water still passing under the bridge, this season could yet end successfully. Their hopes of making the Championship play-offs may be fading, but they haven’t quite been extinguished yet. No matter how unlikely it may seem with just five matches left, they could end the season back in the Premier League again. But this in itself raises a further question: were Watford to somehow achieve this, would they be in any condition whatsoever to be able to deal with it?
The evidence of their last season in the top flight suggested that they weren’t then, and much behind the scenes at the club seems to be continuing to deteriorate further. And the supplementary question that accompanies this is arguably even more pertinent: what happens if they don’t? Revenues will only drop further with each season away from the Premier League, and at a time of the year when supporters are expected to renew their season tickets for the next campaign, having them in their current frame of mind could be extremely damaging.
The Pozzos defied expectations at Vicarage Road for a long time, but it feels as though they’ve run out of road. It’s time for them to consider an exit strategy before any serious damage is done to the club.