Appointing and sacking Quique Sánchez Flores twice is not the first time that Gino Pozzo has done things differently since taking over Watford in 2012.
Making 14 loan signings in one summer
“What happens when the loans go back?”
That was the slogan of Watford’s 2012/13 season. Not from those connected to the club, but from those outside it, who couldn’t comprehend the Hornets being anything other than the genial and harmless club they were previously.
Gino Pozzo had the Proper Football Men right where he wanted them within days of his takeover at Vicarage Road in the summer of 2012, sparking outcry by immediately replacing British Bulldog Sean Dyche with Gianfranco Zola.
But nothing prompted as much fume on sportsdesks and radio phone-ins as the club announcing the signing of 14 loan players – 12 of whom arrived from Udinese and Granada, the other clubs owned by the Pozzo family.
Daily Mail sports writer Martin Samuel described the Hornets as “a snapshot of all that’s wrong with the modern game”, while after a 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road, Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway became panicked by “where the English players are going to come from?” His side’s starting XI that night featured as many players (4) who would choose to represent England as Watford’s.
A combination of EFL-hardened and more technical European players racked up the most goals in the division, produced that Troy Deeney goal against Leicester and narrowly missed out on promotion both automatically and through the play-offs.
The EFL responded to the furore by deciding that no club could now have any more than eight loanees in their squad. Seven of Watford’s 12 signed permanently.
Four managers in 38 days
Watford have got through their head coaches at a good rate since promotion to the Premier League, but their reputation as ruthless choppers and changers stems back to a crazy spell between August 31-October 7 2014.
Beppe Sannino resigned first, and his replacement Oscar Garcia quickly followed suit after a heart scare, leaving a season in which promotion was the aim in disarray.
Billy McKinlay had been brought in as Garcia’s right-hand man, so was quickly hurried into position as the new head coach. Believing that the Hornets were pledging their future to him, McKinlay resigned his role as Michael O’Neill’s assistant with Northern Ireland. Awkward.
After eight days and two games in charge, a win and a draw, Pozzo and chief executive Scott Duxbury forged their reputation as arguably the most brutal football club hierarchy in the country by changing their mind and sacking McKinlay, for whom there was no going back to the national team.
“Our job is always to act in the best long-term interests of the football club,” said Pozzo, in a rare public statement. “There can be no compromise on this – whatever the circumstances.”
The statement did little to convince outsiders that the Hornets weren’t a complete shambles, despite the fact that the appointment of head coach No. 4, Slavisa Jokanovic, was entirely justified.
The Hornets were promoted to the Premier League that April.
Signing Jose Holebas without telling him
After three years of shenanigans in the Championship, Pozzo’s Watford were never likely to arrive quietly in the Premier League.
Jokanovic was dispensed with after rejecting a half-hearted contract offer, and Quique Sanchez Flores was appointed – armed with 13 new signings, obviously.
The most bizarre arrival was Jose Holebas – quite a feat when you consider that 32-year-old Alessandro Diamanti was recruited on loan from Guangzhou Evergrande.
The signing of Holebas was announced in July 2015, with the club understandably proud to capture a player who had played 34 games for Roma the year before.
Except they’d forgotten one thing.
“I haven’t signed anything, I need to see the contract first,” Holebas said in an interview the following day. “I don’t know why this has happened.
“They arranged my transfer without asking me. I came back from my holiday in Dubai and everyone started telling me my transfer had been officially announced.”
The mix-up has never satisfactorily been explained, but the Greek did begrudgingly rock up in Hertfordshire a few days later.
Having consistently complained that his team lacks a winning mentality, become statistically the most card-happy player in Premier League history, rowed with Etienne Capoue on the pitch after a win at Middlesbrough and called a fan out for a fight after a defeat at Southampton, it seems like he’s never really got over it.
The Watford and Everton rivalry might be a fad, but it is one that is felt intensely from the top of both clubs.
Pozzo turned down an official approach from the Toffees for head coach Marco Silva in November 2017, but knew that talks were taking place behind his back – including, reportedly, Silva telling some of his players that he would sign them when he moved to Goodison Park.
Having refused to let their manager leave, Watford’s form nosedived, and when they were forced to sack Silva in January 2018, they blamed “an unwarranted approach as the catalyst for a significant deterioration in both focus and results”.
On a point of principle, Pozzo filed an official complaint in the hope that the Toffees would be deducted points, but ultimately had to settle for a £4m compensation payout, which was at least an admission of guilt.
The club’s approach to the visit of Silva’s Everton to Vicarage Road last season proved their strength of feeling.
Duxbury joked that Javi Gracia had a win bonus in his contract for beating the Toffees, Troy Deeney said in the build-up that his team would “kick the shit out of Everton”, while the pre-match music inside Vicarage Road included Al Wilson’s 1968 single The Snake and Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way.
Reappointing Quique Sanchez Flores… and sacking him after 85 days
Flores was sacked as Watford head coach in May 2016 because of his confusing, stifling tactics, odd substitutions and a lack of intensity in training.
So after sacking him again three-and-a-half years later for all the same reasons, Pozzo will reflect on the worst judgement call that he has made as Watford’s owner.
The usual “basket-case club” criticism has done the rounds since Sunday, and – while not for the right reasons – they are all correct. Replacing the popular and successful Javi Gracia with Flores just four games into the season has resulted in a mess that will likely see the Hornets relegated and several years of hard work undone.
But while it’s a surprise that it took so long for Pozzo to pull the trigger on a regime that was doomed to fail, the fact that he has recognised the gravitas of the situation now gives Watford some hope.
His track record remains strong. His best two appointments, Jokanovic and Gracia, were made mid-season and made immediate impacts, while the Pozzo family – who took over Udinese in 1986 and Granada in 2009 – have never overseen a relegation from a top tier.
Pozzo’s unique decisiveness gives him the best chance of ensuring that this season doesn’t become the exception to that rule.
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