A tepid start at Watford means knives are already drawn for the new manager

Date published: Saturday 24th September 2022 7:04 - Ian King

Watford - the original family club

Watford signalled a change in direction in hiring Rob Edwards earlier this year, but mixed early results are already putting the pressure on.

 

Summer is over and autumn has begun, so naturally talk must turn to the annual replacement of the Watford manager.

The Hornets have made a spluttering and contradictory start to life back in the Championship, and the inevitable reaction to all of this is to wonder when the revolving door policy will come back into play under the Pozzos.

As football broke up for its last international break before the World Cup, Watford were 10th in the Championship table. But their form so far this season has been contradictory. They’ve only won three of their 10 games so far, but those victories came against Sheffield United, Burnley and Middlesbrough – three of the teams expected to compete at the top end.

While they’ve only won three out of 10 in the league, they’ve also only lost twice: to Queen’s Park Rangers and Blackburn Rovers. With 11 goals scored and 11 conceded, it’s not that they’ve been bad, more that they’ve been unable to kill games off. The for and against columns tell a story of their own.

Even their league position is a riddle wrapped in a mystery. On the one hand, with almost a quarter of the season played 10th place is a little on the low side for a club just relegated from the Premier League. But on the other, the Championship is the Jeux Sans Frontieres of leagues, and even now there are just five points between Sunderland in 5th and Middlesbrough in 22nd.

When Rob Edwards was appointed as the club’s manager at the start of the summer, it didn’t come without controversy. Having taken Forest Green Rovers to the League Two title at the end of last season, his former club issued a statement expressing their disappointment in the way the move was conducted: ‘We’re disappointed that our support, loyalty and honesty towards Rob has been repaid in this way – with negotiations taking place behind our backs.’

Of course, all this talk of skulduggery belongs in the past, but questions were raised at the time over whether Watford would be softening their previous policy on managers with a young coach from the lower divisions coming in. After all, three managers weren’t able to keep them in the Premier League last season, and bringing Edwards in felt like a shift in direction. This wasn’t the sort of manager that a club with a hire ’em & fire ’em policy would usually go for.

This, it was (perhaps somewhat blithely) presumed, a project.

The cognitive dissonance over all of this is obvious, and it’s easy to talk about changes in club culture and other such fine words in the long, hot days of the summer. But that is over now and the nights are drawing in, and this is the first real test of Watford’s resolve over switching from a policy of treating managers as disposable to treating them as a philosophy to be nurtured.

Since Gino Pozzo became the sole owner in 2014 the club has had an up and down experience. Promoted to the Premier League at the end of his first full season, Watford stayed five campaigns in the top flight, hitting 40 points in each of their first four. In Javi Gracia, they even seemed to have found a manager who fit the club.

But Pozzo’s meddling ended that brief period of coaching stability. Even though Watford had finished the previous season in 11th – their highest final league position since finishing 9th in 1987 – and reached the FA Cup final, just four games of the season and with the team having taken just one point, Gracia was sacked in the first international break.

Watford had been relegated the season after that 9th-placed finish in 1987, and history repeated itself in 2020. Quique Sanchez Flores lasted until December. Nigel Pearson replaced him until the following season. At the end of the season, Watford were relegated with just 34 points, their lowest final points tally in 13 years. The revolving door was back open for business.

Rob Edwards is Watford’s seventh manager in the two years since Gracia was sacked. Watford have bounced between the Premier League and the Championship ever since.

There will be claims made that Edwards is ‘out of his depth’ in the Championship, but such comments raise questions of their own. It’s hardly as though he’s never seen football at this level before. After all, his playing career took in Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Derby County, Wolves and Blackpool. But going from managing in League Two to managing in the Championship is a change in culture, especially when the expectation at that Championship club is to be challenging for a return to the Premier League.

But if someone is ‘out of their depth’, is 10 league matches anything like long enough to give anyone the time to acclimatise to their new surroundings? And what on earth is the point of Watford offering anybody as much as the two-year contract if there’s such a strong possibility that the man who ultimately makes the decisions is likely to pull the trigger at the first point at which things aren’t going so well on the pitch?

It is, of course, possible that Edwards isn’t up to the job. Forest Green Rovers may have won League Two last season, but they crawled over the finishing line, winning just four of their last 17 games and were knocked out of the FA Cup by a team playing two divisions below them. They did well to get promoted from a competitive division, but their record wasn’t quite as stellar as might be expected from champions.

But while this may raise questions about his suitability for this particular job at this particular time, it invites more about the recruitment processes at Watford. Because ultimately, when the manager’s job is perpetually in danger at a club over such an extended period of time, it’s worth asking whether the owner might be the issue rather than the apparently endless parade of managers who’ve passed through the revolving door at Vicarage Road in recent years.

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