As the season progressed and their team failed to drag themselves clear of the relegation battle Watford were forced to draw up detailed contingency plans in case the worst was to happen, but until Sunday they continued to believe they would find a way out of danger. Those who had assembled the squad were convinced of the quality of its leading lights – players such as Ismaïla Sarr, Abdoulaye Doucouré, Gerard Deulofeu, Troy Deeney and Étienne Capoue – and whatever the mounting evidence presented by the league table they found it inconceivable they would fail.
On Monday they gathered at the training ground at London Colney, separated by a hedge from the Arsenal team whose victory over them, and the defeat to Aston Villa, during the final week had sealed their fate, and confronted the fact that the worst-case scenario was indeed the one they had to deal with.
In a joint statement Gino Pozzo, the club’s owner, and their chairman, Scott Duxbury, admitted to “mistakes that were made surrounding the team this season” and pledged “to do everything in our power” to return them to the top-flight. “We have to be honest with ourselves and admit our efforts surrounding the team were not good enough,” they said. “There will be lessons learned and changes made but, from today, we move forward.”
There are fewer than seven weeks until the new season starts, but the club will not panic. Or more correctly, they will not panic again, yet. Having sacked Nigel Pearson with two games remaining the process of recruiting another permanent head coach, their fourth inside a calendar year, was put on hold. It now begins in earnest and is unlikely to conclude this week, with no appetite for a repeat of this season’s coaching carousel. The process of shedding highly paid players disinclined to spend a season or more in the Championship will be lengthy and is likely to run until the international transfer deadline on 5 October and beyond.
Regret and recrimination start immediately. That the performance in defeat at Arsenal, even with defending for which mere haplessness was a distant aspiration, was the best since the restart by a significant margin will add to their disappointment. Many will consider a squad of players who have often looked disinterested responsible for this, but that the attacking unit suddenly seemed cohesive and productive on Sunday was not just down to last-day desperation. It was the first time all season Watford have played two specialist forwards plus specialist midfielders on the right and left – in other words, their best formation.
Javi Gracia never had the chance to pick Sarr; Quique Sánchez Flores only had Deeney for his final three matches (though did not seem inclined to use him; Pearson, given more time and a fit squad, insisted on playing Deeney as a sole striker, with only occasionally encouraging results. For all the outrage and the embarrassment that followed his dismissal, Sunday demonstrated Pearson’s departure might not have come too soon, but too late.
One thing that had been delivered prematurely was Deeney’s footballing obituary, with the club captain, again playing after painkilling injections and with a heavily strapped knee – the operation he has long needed will happen in the next week – back to somewhere near his best when finally being allowed to combine given the right players in the right positions. There was also an encouraging cameo off the bench from João Pedro, an 18-year-old Brazilian who is one of several young players on the fringes of the first team – also including Domingos Quina, Ben Wilmot and Tom Dele-Bashiru – who are likely to have many more opportunities if they stick around for another season.
Changes will not be limited to personnel. Under Pozzo, Watford have pursued a deliberate policy of underspending on defenders, saving their money for younger forwards with potentially greater resale values. They have sanctioned eight-figure gambles on strikers while assembling a backline on a relative pittance – the seven most-used defenders this season, with 172 league starts between them, collectively cost slightly less than Andre Gray, their occasionally used reserve striker, who started seven games. How Craig Dawson gifted Arsenal a first-minute penalty or the ease with which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang collected Kieran Tierney’s long throw to score the third appears to have finally convinced them to change tack.
Inevitably, Watford’s worries are not confined to the pitch and the double disaster of coronavirus and relegation will severely test their financial security. They have posted pre-tax profits in three of the past four years but have been extremely reliant on broadcast income that is about to dry up, are still fully staffed despite plunging revenues even in the Premier League and instead of banking season ticket sales they have spent recent weeks issuing refunds. Never will the parachute payments be more gratefully received.
“In sport,” Pozzo and Duxbury concluded, “you will always face moments of great disappointment but it’s how you react that defines you.” After a season featuring an unusually high number of managers and an unusually low number of victories a moment of great disappointment has certainly been reached. Their decisions this summer will decide how many more are still to come.
The Guardian Sport