Replacing Javi Gracia with their ex-coach is understandable, writes Watford fan Adam Drury, but it still doesn't sit comfortably.
After Graham Taylor died in 2017, Watford chairman Scott Duxbury vowed to run the club in his image: a presence in the community, a club that cherished the role it played for people as much as three points on a Saturday.
When Javi Gracia was handed a new five-year contract last November, there was reason to believe that Duxbury and owner Gino Pozzo were replicating Taylor’s legacy in the dugout, too.
At the end of last season, the club produced a video in which Gracia and Taylor are pictured together saluting the sea of yellow behind a goal at Wembley: Taylor after the Championship play-off final victory against Bolton in 1999, Gracia after his team had beaten Wolves in April’s FA Cup semi-final.
The video has since been played out on the big screens at Vicarage Road before every match. It will now need editing.
Even after years of watching Watford disregard English football’s rulebook, the “Are you kidding?!” punch in the stomach is never far away. So anyone who tells you that they anticipated Saturday’s antics is a liar.
Gracia’s departure was the less surprising of the double bombshell.
He had overseen a run of eight points from his last 13 league games, in which the only victories came against Fulham and Huddersfield. Most worryingly of all, the Hornets had conceded 23 goals in eight matches, with no clean sheet since February.
In hindsight, leaving Gerard Deulofeu on the bench for 80 minutes, and Danny Welbeck and Ismaila Sarr for the full 90, feels like Gracia’s last stand gone wrong in his last game at Newcastle.
But his final matches as Watford boss didn’t resemble the wheels-off omnishambles of the last days of Quique Sanchez Flores (ha!) and Walter Mazzarri.
The goodwill generated from a wonderful run to the FA Cup final last season – and a courteous, uncomplaining manner that drew comparisons with Taylor – ensured that plenty wanted to see him given more time.
Anyhow, there is a difference between concern in the stands after disappointing performances and panic in Watford’s notoriously level-headed boardroom last Monday morning.
So the decision to fire Gracia and replace him with ex-head coach Quique Sanchez Flores brings with it the most intense scrutiny that Watford’s hierarchy has ever come under.
Duxbury and Pozzo often refer to ‘unchecked ambition’. That regardless of Watford’s perceived standing, they never want the club to stop looking up.
This appointment is the antithesis of those values.
Primarily, it is an acceptance that they have massively underinvested in defence. After failing to sign a centre-back for three years, the addition of Craig Dawson – to put it kindly – is proving underwhelming.
As a result, they have judged Watford’s Premier League status to be in such danger that they must replace a progressive coach with one who – in his previous spell at Watford and in subsequent jobs – trades creativity for a solid defence.
Flores’ Watford kept eight clean sheets in their first 17 matches of the 2015/16 season, while his 2016/17 Espanyol team had the eighth-best defence in La Liga. Both ranked considerably lower for goals.
In effect, Flores is a firefighter who must save the club from its sub-standard backline. The ambition for this season is purely to stay up.
Watching the pause button be pressed on what has been impressive and enjoyable progress through four-and-a-bit Premier League seasons is dispiriting, particularly when the fall guy is perhaps the most popular Watford manager for nearly two decades.
But survival, understandably, is the club’s priority.
As supporters, all we can do is close our eyes, cross our fingers, and hope that replacing the modern-day Taylor is the answer.
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