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The Pozzos at Watford: One year on

PozzoWatford2

Since the Pozzo family acquired Watford FC in the summer of 2012, the club has gone through a period of rapid transition and change.  Following the influx of loanees from the other Pozzo-owned clubs Udinese and Granada (12 in total, before Fernando Forestieri signed a permanent long term contract in January 2013), Watford went on to have a successful season, narrowly missing out on promotion in a scrappy play-off final against Crystal Palace.  Despite starting the season in winning fashion, a 3-2 victory at Selhurst Park thanks to two late goals from the on loan Almen Abdi and Matej Vydra, the Hornets picked up just 7 points from their opening 7 games.  It was only from the start of November where the Golden Boys started to hit form, switching from Zola’s preferred 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2 which led to a run of just 3 defeats in 23 games up to the beginning of March.  A poor run of results from then onwards where only 11 out of a possible 30 points were collected meant that Watford missed out on Automatic promotion, and although the exhilarating play-off semi-final victory over Leicester will live long in the memory, it was ultimately a disappointing end to the season.

2012-13 Football League Championship Table

2012-13 Football League Championship Table

Vicarage Road was graced with some of the finest football it has seen in recent memory and after the mid-season fan forum (a yearly event at Watford where the manager, a senior boardroom figure and a player field questions from fans) it became widely known amongst the Watford fan base which the players’ the club wanted to keep and those were happy in North West London and could be offered long term contracts.  Yet many opposition fans and the press alike believed that at the end of the year the Watford loan players would return back to their parent club, leaving only those players owned by Watford on a permanent contract.  The Football League ‘loophole’ which counted international loans as permanent transfers, therefore allowing more than 2 loans from one club and more than 5 loan men in the match day squad (as is the rule between English clubs) was to be closed in the summer of 2013.  Was it to be the end of the Pozzo experiment?

Well simply, no. As promised, the bulk of the loanees did in fact sign permanent contracts; key players such as Joel Ekstrand, Almen Abdi, Christian Battocchio and Marco Cassetti signed to the dotted line following on from Fernando Forestieri in January.  It seemed as though the Pozzos were intent on making a promotion charge in the 2013/14 season, and sent over further cavalry from Italy, including the Italian capped Diego Fabbrini, promising centre-half Gabriele Angella who had previously made 20 appearences for Udinese, Javier Acuna who was a reported target for many lower Premier League clubs and Davide Faraoni, the ex Inter man. British contingent was added too with the signing of Lewis McGugan, Reece Brown, Gary Woods and later the loan signing of Josh McEachran and George Thorne.  The major losses for Watford was that of Matej Vydra, who joined West Bromwich Albion on loan from Udinese for the season, and midfield hard man Jonathon Hogg who left for Huddersfield due to family reasons.  The long term contracts and the increasing profile of the Watford signings seemed to indicate to the outside World that the Pozzos were interested in Hertfordshire for the long-term.

This is further illustrated by the off-field improvements at Vicarage Road.  Visiting fans have mocked and home fans grown tired of the sight of the dormant East Stand which has been completely shut to spectators since 2008 due to health and safety reasons.  Since the beginning of the 2013/14 season however, demolition work has been ongoing and plans to construct a new 3,000 capacity stand have been revealed, meaning Vicarage Road will once again have 4 completely functional and usable stands for the first time since 2004, by the start of next season.  Much work has been done to improve the financial situation at Watford FC in a time where the financial stability of clubs will come under closer scrutiny than ever before due to the FFP rules.  An example of this is the tendering out of catering and hospitality roles at Vicarage Road, with the aim of increasing both quality of product and revenue for the club.  In their latest financial reports Watford FC’s parent company made a pre-tax profit of £190,000 for the year ending June 30, which included an increase in turnover on the previous period of nearly £7 million.  Compare this to rival Championship clubs QPR, who are believed to have made a loss of approximately £80 million for the same period and Bolton Wanderers, who recorded a loss of £22.1m, taking their total debt to £136.5m, and perhaps the Pozzo model doesn’t seem so bad.

Another criticism faced by Watford, from the likes of Martin Samuel (Sports Columnist, Daily Mail) and Ian Holloway (Palace Manager at the time) is the idea that young, local players may not get the opportunity in the first team which they previously may have had. Well, Watford are still offering youth a chance.  In the previous 12 years, Watford have had 50 youth products reach and play for the first team, and in the 2012/13 season Watford had the second greatest number of players from their academy play for the first team in the Championship with 8, following leaders Middlesbrough who had 12.  Again this year, summer signing 18 year old Uche Ikpeazu has been involved in the match day squad, Bernard Mensah made his first team debut against Bolton, and fellow academy graduates Jonathon Bond, Connor Smith and Sean Murray have featured with more regularity than last season.  Long-serving defender Lloyd Doyley has again been a prominent figure in the first team and the injured centre-half Tommie Hoban who made 19 appearances in his debut season will surely re-join the first team squad if his recuperation from a long term injury is successful.

For the first time in years it seemed that Watford could play youngsters when they considered them ready rather than out of desperation as it seemed to be under previous regimes.  This is illustrated by looking at some of the academy players who had played for Watford under previous managers Malky Mackay and Sean Dyche.  Lee Hodson who made his debut at 18 and played 83 games for the Hornets is currently at MK Dons, Piero Mingoia is currently at Accrington Stanley and previous prospect Matty Whichelow who played 19 games in his debut season (2010/11) is currently at Boreham Wood.  Compare the above names to the current crop of youngsters, including England Under 21 goalkeeper Jonathon Bond and the likes of Sean Murray who has apparently been tracked by Manchester City and it seems that the youngsters breaking through now, who face greater competition for a first team place, may just have brighter futures in the game.  20 year old Britt Assombalonga was reluctantly sold to Peterborough for a 7 figure sum in the summer of 2013 (seen by some as great business for a man who had never scored above League 2 level) but a buy-back clause was inserted in the deal, which shows that Watford are aware of his potential and perhaps shows just how reluctant they were to let him leave.  It seems that the quality of the Watford youth is improving in recent seasons.

Some may argue that on the pitch, Watford have been disappointing this season.  At the time of writing the Golden Boys were languishing in 12th position in the Championship.  Questions about Zola’s position have been asked by a minority of fans, despite public backing from players such as Joel Ekstrand.  Expectations at the Vic have undoubtedly been raised by last season’s progression.  Whether injuries to key players or not adequately replacing the likes of Vydra, Hogg and young Chalobah (on loan from Chelsea) from last season is key to the under performance of the Hornets, it certainly appears that in the long term, the future is bright.  Having guided Granada from the Spanish lower leagues and the brink of administration to La Liga and taken Udinese to European Football from Serie B, it appears that the Pozzos know what they are doing.

James Hardwidge
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