Let’s be honest, we don’t really hide the fact of our Watford FC supporting roots on this website, so we make no apologies for dedicating another article to the Hertfordshire club. But the fact is that little old Watford have been in the football news quite a lot in the last couple of months, whether that be narrowly missing out on promotion to the Premier League, or the mass debate about their large volume of loaned players. And it is the latter we’re going to look at here. Plenty has been written, throughout the season but particularly after Watford’s form improved, from so-called experts, journalists, managers, opposition fans, jeez even Watford fans on the subject. To be honest the vast majority has been at best ill-informed, at worst, just utter crap. We will look at the criticisms below, and try to overcome them based on what we believe is the reality.
“Watford are Udinese ‘B'”:
The accusation that Watford have become a feeder club for the Italian side Udinese comes from the large number of loan players that Watford took over the season from their sister club. There were ten in total originally, although one, Jean-Alain Fanchone was sent back mid-season; another, Steve Leo Beleck spent most of the latter part of the season on loan at League One side Stevenage; another, Fernando Forestieri was signed permanently in January on a 5 year contract. The thought of Udinese shipping over their second XI doesn’t really have much weight either, when you consider that one of the players, the former Italian international Marco Cassetti, has never played a game for Udinese, and was signed the same day his loan move to Watford was announced, backing up the club’s claims that the large number of loans was due to the lack of time to arrange permanent moves. Watford were under a transfer embargo for a period last summer due to the behaviour of their former owner. In addition, the takeover by the Pozzo family happened with pre-season virtually underway, a limited amount of time for a new management set-up to get the club into the shape they wanted. The size of the squad they had last season (42 senior players at one point) was not ideal, and if they’d had the whole of last summer to put together their squad, many of the loan players would have been signed permanently.
It’s worth mentioning also that only five of the Udinese loan players played anything like regularly for the Watford 1st XI over the season. And of these five, it is expected that three – Almen Abdi, Cristian Battocchio and Joel Ekstrand will join Forestieri in signing permanently this summer, plus Cassetti if he decides to spend a further year away from his family who have stayed living in Rome. The fifth, top scorer Matej Vydra, will be the subject of much interest elsewhere in the summer, but Watford are sure to make every effort to keep hold of him if possible.
In conclusion, if Watford were a feeder club, the successful players would be on their way back to Udine this summer. Should Watford reach their goal of Premier League football, with the riches on offer, it is more likely that the Pozzo family will focus on their English club. Similar to when they took over Granada in Spain, the mass influx of Udinese players will be a temporary fix.
Watford aren’t an English club any more, they’re Italian:
Watford are owned by an Italian family, and the majority of their management team are also Italian. Their day to day operations are run by the CEO Scott Duxbury who is English. Last season, they only fielded one true Italian in the team on a regular basis – Marco Cassetti again. Although Battocchio and Forestieri have represented Italy at youth level due to dual nationalities, both grew up in Argentina, and certainly Forestieri has indicated that he would prefer to play for the country of his birth at full international level.
So Watford are no more Italian than Manchester United are American, Manchester City are Arab, or Hull City Egyptian. Further to this, despite remarks made by journalist and heavy critic of Watford’s new ownership, Mike Calvin, suggesting that the chosen training ground dialect is Italian, this would cause more than a few problems. While it would be silly to suggest that Gianfranco Zola spoke to his assistants Giancarlo Corradini and Adolfo Sormani in anything other than their native tongue, it would cause an issue to the players. I can’t imagine John Eustace or Troy Deeney speak much Italian. Indeed, Zola has insisted that all the players learn English, with the threat of a fine hanging over them if they fail to do so.
Having so many loan players from one club is wrong:
There have been questions over the loan market as a whole for a long time. On the positive side, it allows players who are not getting game time to go and find it at another club, build up fitness and build their reputation. For smaller clubs, it allows them to get good players in without having to pay out large transfer fees. Some however feel that the loan system should not be in place at all, as it allows larger clubs to sign up all the players they want well in advance of when they might actually need their services, and then loan them out to other clubs, sometimes for years on end. Udinese are one such example, but certainly should not be singled out. Chelsea for example loaned out more than fifteen players last season.
The complication with the Watford situation was that there is effectively no international loan market, so any loans from a team outside the UK to an English team is counted as a permanent transfer. This meant the majority of Watford’s loan players were not deemed loanees, so Watford did not have to worry about the restriction on the number of loan players allowed in a matchday squad of 18.
The reason Watford had so many players from Udinese was two fold. Firstly, the Pozzo family also own Udinese, so transfers between the clubs was very easy, and with the takeover taking place so late on in preseason, the decision was made to send a large group over for Gianfranco Zola to select from, knowing that some would be successful and some not so. Not an ideal situation for a new manager trying to make his mark on the team, so credit must go to Zola for making it work so well. Secondly, the Pozzo’s method of creating a successful team is by building an extensive worldwide scouting network, and developing the players to sell on at a profit. There is nothing wrong with such a system, and one wonders why more clubs don’t employ a similar ethos. One of the fiercest critics of Watford’s player recruitment was Ian Holloway, who commented that maybe he should get a European Scout; a rather worrying remark for a modern day football manager to suggest he never considered employing one.
The loan players are mercenaries and don’t care about the club:
There are a number of reasons why this isn’t the case. Firstly, mercenary players are generally only at a particular club for money. If that were the case, there are any number of clubs both in the Championship, and of course the Premier League who would be able to offer far greater riches. Secondly, a large number of the loanee players went out of their way to bond with the fans. For example, after the thrilling play off win over Leicester, several players went into Watford town centre and partied with the fans. Another example is that in the end of season awards, Fernando Forestieri was awarded the community ambassador award for his work away from football in the local area. The majority of the loanees are now living locally and the squad as a whole are very close knit. Finally, anyone who has seen the players’ reactions to both success or disappointment on the pitch will confirm that they show a lot of passion for the club. One thing the Watford fans have always appreciated is hard work and effort, and there have been no accusations from the stands that any of the loan players haven’t grafted for the cause.
All the loanees are going back now:
All the loanees with the exception of Chelsea’s Nathaniel Chalobah, and Fulham’s Matthew Briggs, were signed with a view to making the signing permanent (and much as Watford would like to keep hold of Chalobah, he may well have played his way out of their price range!). As already mentioned, Fernando Forestieri completed his move in the January transfer window, and more are expected to follow (the reason Forestieri was the first to move was that his contract at Udinese had the least amount of time left). Defender Daniel Pudil has already indicated his intention to stay, and there have also been positive noises from Ikechi Anya, Almen Abdi and Cristian Battocchio. Director of Football Gianluca Nani has already stated that Watford will purchase the loanees they want to keep and the rest will be returned.
To add to this, CEO Scott Duxbury recently confirmed that if any of the loanees don’t want to stay, they would be returned and would be replaced ” with better players”. Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail suggested back in September that “the Udinese cast-offs will no doubt pine for a return and a chance in Italy’s top league if they ever do hit form”. The evidence so far suggests that these players are instead pining to get their new club into the Premier League.
The club have downgraded their youth programme:
Watford’s youth system has long been recognised as one of the better run academies in the UK, with more than 50 players graduating to the Watford 1st team. One of the early accusations thrown at the new regime, was that they didn’t care for this, and when news broke that Watford were applying for only category three status in the new EPPP set up, this backed up their claims that Watford would no longer develop youngsters.
That is however a rather simplified viewpoint. The EPPP is a certification system, where academies have to meet certain criteria to receive a category grading between one and four, with one being the highest. We will be exploring the EPPP in a blog later this summer, however, one of the issues for a club like Watford, is the large amount of investment needed to meet the criteria, in terms of full time coaches, sports scientists etc… Also, the football management team were unconvinced by the mandatory under 21 league in which category one and two clubs have to participate. In Watford’s opinion, the set up they already have is quite sufficient to continue to produce quality young players. It is believed that the previous management were intending to push for category one, but with all likelihood being awarded category two status. As Watford had never actually been awarded any EPPP status, there was certainly no downgrading involved. Watford’s academy continues to run as it previously did.
When the Pozzo family were looking to invest in an English club, the ability to produce and develop players was a requirement, and very much fits into their player development model. Scott Duxbury has stated that when the finances at Watford are improved, they may look to receive a higher certification – clubs are regularly audited so there is the possibility that if they reach the Premier League where more income is available, their position may change.
The club are no longer interested in developing young players:
We have already looked at the Academy at Watford FC and discussed the reasons why it is very much still alive, and a long way from being downgraded. However, that is all very well, except if Watford’s youngsters then don’t get the opportunity to break through into the First XI. Certainly there was a fear for a number of fans at the start of the season with the influx of new players. However, Gianfranco Zola has always stated that players are selected on merit, and if they are good enough, they will play.
Indeed, Watford were second only to Middlesborough in last season’s Championship in terms of the number of players used who had come through their youth team. And the club made its position very clear early on in the season, when three youngsters, Sean Murray, Connor Smith and Tommie Hoban were given long term contracts. Previously, such players were given one or two year deals. Now, the club are ensuring such players are developed at the club, and any prying big clubs will have to part with a large amount of cash to secure their services. Murray, who broke into the team in early 2012 has found things a little harder in his second season, whereas Hoban became a regular in the side, making 19 appearances before an ankle injury ended his season. Smith was a regular in the matchday squad before his season also ended early due to injury.
Later on in the season, two more youngsters, Britt Assombalonga (who spent most of the season on loan at Southend), and Bernard Mensah also signed new longer term deals. In addition, youth team skipper Jorell Johnson was included in the squad for the trip to Birmingham in January.
The journalist Michael Calvin also suggested that parents of young players were looking to move their players away from the club, as there was less chance of them progressing to the first team. Perhaps the path will not be as easy, and players will have work hard to prove themselves, but this is always the way with clubs as they become more successful. And it seems Watford’s scouting net is widening, with highly rated Australian youngster Panos Armenakas joining the academy last season after previously being on the books of AC Milan, and more recently, American youngster Arie Ammann also joined the academy. Armenakas’ parents have commented that the reason they were keen for their son to join Watford, was that they knew that not only would his football be developed, but he will also be educated to ensure he has something to fall back on should things not work out on the pitch.
Watford FC have lost their soul:
Here’s a question…what makes the soul of a club? Is it the players, staff and management? Is it the fans? Is it the community and how the club fits in? It was the rather controversial journalist Adrian Durham that accused the club of losing their soul, not that anything he says is usually worthy of much respect.
Although it was 30 years ago, many Watford fans still view the period under Graham Taylor and Elton John as the standard to which the club should be run. Many administrations have come up well short in the interim period, none less so than the previous owner Laurence Bassini, who not only took the club towards financial ruin but did his best to upset the authorities at the same time. The club now appears to be in safe hands, with sensible use of funds, a business model and plan in place, and allowing the football side of things to develop without the fear that the any success will see the side decimated by the need to sell the best players.
The club has also built a good bond with the fans, with family and community events continuing. The owners, CEO and football management have all been out into the local area to meet and talk to fans, and the feedback from the fans has increased in positivity throughout the season. There is no doubt a side winning football matches will always help, but there is little doubt the soul of Watford club is very much alive and kicking.
Watford will start next season with only 14 players:
Some rather poorly informed press reports have suggested that due to contracts and loan periods ending, plus a Football League transfer embargo due to financial irregularities under the stewardship of Watford’s previous owner, that the club will start the new season with only 14 professional players. Let’s look at each case individually.
Watford recently announced the players they were releasing at the end of their contracts. These totalled eight professionals. In addition, five other senior professionals are out of contract, but one can assume they have been offered new deals. Without the loan players, this leaves Watford with 14 professionals still under contract, plus newly signed youth player Luke O’Nien. Should the five out of contract players agree new deals, this would still leave Watford with only 20 players.
In addition, Watford will be unable to bring in as many loan players as last season, but the club have already stated this is not their intention. The preference will be for permanent signings. The issue it is claimed, is that the transfer embargo will prevent Watford buying anyone else.
Here’s where things have been clouded. Transfer embargos in the past have sometimes prevented clubs from signing players, usually because there is some doubt if they will be able to afford to pay them. In this case, a regulation 19 embargo in place, which simply means the Football League will have to approve any activity that Watford take part in, to ensure the finances which had been misused previously, are dealt with properly. The situation will certainly not hinder Watford’s plans to build the squad for the new season.
It’s ok though, the Football League have ensured that this “loophole” is closed now:
The football league met last week in Portugal, and the loan rules were high on the agenda. What Watford had got away with was wrong, unfair, and should be stopped. The irony is that Watford also voted for the proposal to bring international loan rules in line with the domestic rule. It would be interesting to understand the reasons why the club chairmen felt it so important that the rules were changed. While what Watford were doing was different, was it any more unfair than a club being taken over by a rich benefactor and spending millions on buying up all the available talent? With Watford showing no interest in repeating the exercise, all it has done is restricted all clubs abilities in the transfer market. What was made out by some to be an important ruling has actually just hurt everyone.
We certainly hope this article has cleared a lot of the confusion and misinformation regarding Watford, please feel free to add your own opinion below. For Hornets fans, it promises to be an interesting summer as Gianfranco Zola tries to build a side capable of going one better than last season and leading Watford to the Premier League.