Look at Us, We’re Going Places (Volume 5)
Ian Grant considers Gianluca Vialli’s time at Vicarage Road.
The summer of 2001 was a time of inevitable change, given Graham Taylor's retirement.
It was truly the end of an era. Perhaps, as noted in volume 2, that end actually came with relegation from the Premiership; perhaps it came with a five-nil drubbing at Craven Cottage on Boxing Day of 2000, after which what remained of our fragile confidence simply evaporated into the cold winter air. Whenever it was, there were plenty of tears when we actually had to say our goodbyes. It was hard to let go.
Tears from many, but perhaps not regret from all. For as that confidence evaporated, so it became evident that the manager, the coaching staff and many of the players who'd taken us from the Second Division to the Premiership had no answers. It takes nothing away from their achievements to say that; you could argue that it makes them even greater, that it shows how very far they stretched. Much as some would cling to it, the option of simply carrying on didn't actually exist: even had Taylor stayed, or had he passed the baton on to a boot room successor, the need for a pretty thorough clear-out of the squad was abundantly obvious.
From some quarters, there was increasing impatience and frustration, particularly with Taylor's preference for attempting to unearth and polish gems rather than simply pay the going rate on the high street. Although we'd broken records to sign Espen Baardsen and Allan Nielsen in an attempt to return at the first time of asking, the sense remained that we were holding back for the sake of caution while others in the division took a more speculative approach. There would be much subsequent criticism of our over-spending, but it wouldn't do not to point out that there was pressure from the stands for the club to be more ambitious.
One imagines that the mood in the boardroom was similar, and that there might've been those who'd grown weary of Taylor's conservatism, his perceived obstinacy and his elevated status within the club. His thoroughly sensible view that Watford ought to be happy with a position in the nation's top thirty probably grated a little, perhaps even seemed a bit defeatist. He was no longer the radical young firebrand; he had become the establishment. You don't, I suppose, get to the point of being wealthy enough to invest in a football club only to be content with being thoroughly sensible. You want to make your mark, to have an impact. The odds are that it's going to be an expensive way of making yourself unpopular anyway, so you want history to record you as more than an underling. We'd all like to think that we'd be different, I guess. I wonder if we would.
And thus change became reinvention. The footage of the press conference in early May 2001 to announce Gianluca Vialli's appointment as Watford manager is easily available, placed onto the mid-season review by someone who presumably thought it'd age rather better than it has. In it, we see the directors instrumental in the courtship - Haig Oundjian and Brian Anderson - virtually elbowing each other aside in their eagerness to be photographed shaking the new manager's hand. Elton John, still chairman at that point, appears on video to describe the appointment as a "stunning coup" and to point out the "international status" of the new boss.
It's tempting to use the word "star-struck". That isn't it, though. A bit, even Elton, but it's not quite that. Rather, there's the sense of jostling for position, of wanting to be first in line when the credit is dished out. Of something already achieved:
‘Look at us. We're really going places. Starting with a pre-season tour of Italy.’
Aside from Tim Shaw - always a more sober, less brittle presence - it reeks of fake camaraderie, of arms around shoulders, of forced banter in over-pitched voices. One imagines that those close to Anderson and Oundjian spent the summer doing a great deal of eye-rolling behind their backs. One imagines that the opportunity to have Vialli round for dinner - you know, only casual, something simple, just found this rather good bottle of red at the back of the cupboard - might well have swung their side of the deal too. It's fair to say that everyone is doing a very thorough job of being pleased with themselves.
The essential modesty and frugality with which Graham Taylor had governed was to be cast aside. You can sense the thrill of the shackles coming off and the platinum credit cards coming out. And let's again be clear that the board were not alone: the first chants of the new manager's name went up even before his predecessor had left, even as it became clear that Kenny Jackett and Luther Blissett would be leaving too. There will always be a section of supporters, of any club bar the most successful, which wants a higher profile, which demands visible ambition, which is energised by outside attention. It isn't a view of football that I share, but then perhaps I'm conservative and obstinate too.
The clear-out of players began. There would later be some dispute over the extent to which Taylor had advised Vialli on those to dispose of; given the previous campaign's decisively downward trajectory, though, much of it was beyond argument once you put sentiment aside. The departure of an out-of-contract Tommy Mooney had become inevitable anyway; Peter Kennedy left for Wigan; Nick Wright and Richard Johnson remained, but potentially (and actually, in Wright's case) career-ending injuries meant that they'd play no part. Robert Page, Allan Smart and Neil Cox were all transfer-listed. It wasn't really until Steve Palmer, that most willing of utility players, was posted off to Queens Park Rangers that it felt as if we'd gone too far.
The recruitment to replace those players was aided by £4.7m raised from a stock market flotation. As with the manager himself, and his head coach Ray Wilkins, those coming in had illustrious CVs. There were Champions League medals from Filippo Galli, a Scottish treble from Ramon Vega, a Premier League title from Stephen Hughes, a Scottish League Cup from Stephen Glass; Patrick Blondeau and Pierre Issa had played in the UEFA Cup Final. In short, they'd been there and done that. Well, as long as being there and doing that didn't mean playing in the Football League: only Marcus Gayle had any notable experience in England's lower divisions.
And therein lies the story of this ill-fated season. Or perhaps ill-fated isn't right: I'm not sure it's fair to blame fate. Perhaps just ill-planned. Vialli would be derided for referring to the club as "the Manchester United of the First Division", but he perhaps meant to describe the club's comparatively high profile among its competitors, rather than anything more presumptuous. If so, if there was an understanding that other teams might raise their game against us, it plainly wasn't taken seriously enough. For a multi-million pound enterprise, the naivety was startling.
Many of us had spent large parts of our lives watching - and, in truth, loving - the frenetic hack and scrap of second-tier football; we knew the laws by which the division was, and to a lesser extent still is, governed. That hard work nearly always trumps technical prowess. That teamwork nearly always trumps individual skill. That a tight eleven often trumps a star-studded twenty. That set pieces often trump build-up. That whatever you're doing on the ball, you'd better do it bloody quickly. That nobody respects aesthetics. That nobody'll listen to complaints about a bit of rough treatment. That everybody's got a big fella and a quick fella. And so on, and so on. You already know all of this. The main surprise, therefore, was that so few within the management of the club paid heed. There has never been a season in which the distance between the training ground and the matchday pitch, between theory and reality, has seemed so vast.
Before the season, Wilkins spoke of defending as a team and attacking as a team. What he didn't mention was that putting those two things together would result in, well, midfielding as a team. We did a lot of midfielding. I mean, we absolutely midfielded the hell out it. For supporters used to the more, um, direct methods of Graham Taylor, it was something of a culture shock; it's immediately apparent from watching the season's highlights that there's a far greater amount of football involved in each goal. The new approach would initially be granted patience, perhaps occasionally some appreciative cooing, but that gave way to irritation as it failed to achieve the expected results. Irritation on all sides, in fact, as Vialli's relaxed, jovial exterior was chipped away to reveal a soul rather sensitive to criticism, leading to tetchy responses to any negative notes and an ill-advised fall-out with Oliver Phillips at the Watford Observer.
As it turned out, there actually was a Manchester United of the division, managed by a famous name, boosted by some expensive signings. Kevin Keegan's Manchester City thumped us at Maine Road on the opening day of the season and went on to win the league by ten points, scoring 108 goals in the process. Not sure what's become of them since, mind. We didn't ever get above mid-table; we didn't win away until mid-October. We lost to all the bottom three, including a Stockport side which won only six games all season: they also claimed a point at Vicarage Road in a 1-1 draw despite not having a shot on target. Crewe did the double over us. A Gillingham team player-managed by Andy Hessenthaler, surely the hard-boiled essence of all we were missing, won at Vicarage Road on the final day.
If the new signings improved the quality of the squad, they did little for its character. Tellingly, all five of the players (Player of the Season Alec Chamberlain, a rehabilitated Neil Cox, Micah Hyde, Paul Robinson and Tommy Smith) who started more than thirty league games had already been at the club when Vialli took over. Marcus Gayle and Stephen Glass got near to that figure; however, the former's four goals were a poor return (although he'd win the Player of the Season award in a defensive role the following season) and the latter had only a fitful impact. Ramon Vega was energetic and committed, if not always helpfully so; Stephen Hughes was quietly ineffective and then quietly injured; Patrick Blondeau was no Nigel Gibbs. Pierre Issa contributed nothing apart from a funny anecdote about being dropped from a stretcher, although, to be fair to him, that anecdote was to prove the season's most lasting legacy.
In the early weeks, we squinted at the team selections and tried to fathom the peculiarities of this new-fangled squad rotation business. As it went on, it became clear that much of this was merely old-fashioned indecisiveness, an inability to settle on selections or formations and an eagerness to be seen to be doing stuff. So much of management is knowing what not to change, seeing what's right even when it appears that everything's going wrong; that part escaped Vialli and his staff altogether. He would repeatedly cite injuries as a key factor as we waited for it all to gel. Even taking that into account, it would be fair to say that he could've helped matters by expecting less flexibility from his squad. As I commented at the time, things don't tend to set when you're blitzing them with a whisk.
In one sense, we were ahead of our time: there's no question that the second tier has become more technical as parachute payments from the top flight have inflated budgets. It has become less uncommon to try to play your way out of the division, even if doing so with one eye on how you'll perform once you get promoted remains foolhardy. Less uncommon too to use the full depth of your squad. There's now a much wider spread of ideas and approaches...and nationalities too, for Vialli was to be one of only two non-British managers in the division that season.
In every other sense, though, it was a nonsense born of a combination of arrogance and ignorance. If Micah Hyde is your most aggressive, tenacious midfielder, you've got a bit of an issue. If there's no real fire in the bellies of the forward line either, at least partly because you're not sure what to do with Heidar Helguson if he doesn't have a traditional line to lead, then that's an awfully nice team to play against. Add some expensively-aged legs and easily-distracted minds to the defence and the idea that there's anything much to fear becomes a bit laughable. Perhaps Graham Taylor had advised us to clear out the guts of the squad, but we replaced it with fluff and tinsel. It was fluff and tinsel in a Harrods carrier bag, but still.
We played a version of football that'd appeal to purists. Very few of those purists were present on, say, New Year's Day as we were absolutely battered at home by a Millwall side which won every fight, then picked a few more to enjoy winning those as well. The team that day: Chamberlain, Blondeau, Robinson, Vega, Issa, Vernazza, Fisken, Nielsen, Smith, Gayle, Helguson. Robbo went off injured after twenty-five minutes; Vega got himself sent off late on. Millwall had Sean Dyche, Steve Claridge, Tim Cahill; Neil Harris, recently recovered from testicular cancer, came off the bench to score the fourth in injury time and disappear in the centre of a truly tumultuous celebration. Of course they battered us. Of course. They were everything that we weren't: street-wise, aggressive, hungry. We were a few things that they weren't too, of course, but we clutched our beloved passing game like a childhood teddy on a battlefield and it did us about as much good.
It isn't as if we hadn't had a taste of what we craved. In November, a line-up not too far removed from that which capitulated to Millwall beat top flight Charlton under floodlights in a Worthington Cup tie which deserved to belong to a far, far more momentous and memorable season. Even now, even with so little residual fondness for it all, it's impossible to watch the highlights without punching the air at some point. We attacked with a directness and, more than anything, a ferocity that was almost entirely lacking at any other time; Charlton played their part too, perhaps more willing to stand toe-to-toe and trade blows than our regular league opponents. Paul Robinson had the game of his life: we were familiar with seeing him plough opponents into advertising hoardings, but here he flew at them from all angles, scoring one with an arcing run into the right side of the box, winning a penalty, hitting the post in extra time. Lloyd Doyley can be seen hurtling forward on overlapping runs too. The smiles are broad and genuine, Vialli punching the air at the final whistle. It was a giddy, thrilling night.
And then we made sweeping changes for the televised quarter-final tie against Sheffield Wednesday and lost 4-0. And, well...for a club which at that point hadn't reached a semi-final for the best part of fifteen years, that really hurt. Sometimes, you have a sense that a manager understands the club and the town, even if they aren't steeped in it. That they get it. It might be instinct, it might just be that someone makes the effort to listen to the rhythm of the place. And sometimes, you have a sense that a manager is simply out of step with it all, that you're having a conversation in which neither side is quite grasping the other's meaning. "I thought we played reasonably well," said Vialli in his next set of programme notes. He'd lost us.
By February, several of the highest wage earners - Vega, Gayle, Issa, Nielsen and Baardsen - were on the transfer list. Some of them would be branded as mercenaries, a view that's largely been cemented into history since. There's something to that, clearly. It's hard to escape the mental image of Ramon Vega arriving late to training waving a banknote to pay his fine. But perhaps it says just as much about where we were as a club, for we were caught between what we were and what we wanted to be, between the limitations of an essentially small club and the ambitions of a bigger one.
The model that we were comfortable with - a tight squad, strong spirit, hard work ethic, all of that - had taken us so far and then had failed us; it'd do the same again under Adrian Boothroyd a few years later. We discovered that the top flight was less ripe than it used to be, less easily punctured and punished. Watford Football Club had been a career high point for a lot of players; many of them are rightly still our heroes now. To reach further, to actually bridge the gap rather than leap and fall, would take a different type of player, and that player would probably not see our club as more than a temporary home, and that player would probably need to be paid fairly handsomely. We would have to stop seeing them as mercenaries, eventually.
We weren't entirely wrong to spend the money, then. Rather, we chose the wrong manager to give it to. You can shuffle the jigsaw pieces around endlessly, looking for a way to make them fit together, but it comes down to this: Vialli signed the only type of player he understood, the only type he knew. He admitted in pre-season that the campaign would be "a learning experience", but it was already too late by then. The finances had already been committed, for one thing. For another, the divisions that would run deep within the squad were already laid out. We'd allowed the manager to approach the task in hand - to build a squad capable of challenging for promotion again - without sufficient knowledge, and it was up to his potential employers to anticipate how badly that might end.
A particular frustration, long lost in the mists of time, is that there were signs of Vialli and his staff proving at least moderately adept at coaching some of the younger and - how do I put this? - less illustrious members of the squad. The transformation of Paul Robinson from a full-back who hid a multitude of sins behind his unquestionable commitment into a genuinely impressive, occasionally thrilling wing-back was especially remarkable. Tommy Smith continued his journey from willowy youth to confident pro, and was the only player whose goal tally hit double figures. Pierre Issa's anecdote has Lloyd Doyley's debut as its footnote, but it really ought to be the other way around. The season also saw the development of Lee Cook, Gary Fisken and Jamie Hand. Right at the end, Anthony McNamee took our breath away with his impish, impudent wing-play. This was not entirely a sweeping aside of the old ways, then. Something was there.
As the season drifted into a premature post-mortem, there was much talk of a three year plan. There was absolutely no mention made of it back in the summer, of course. And if it had been a three year plan, something born of long-term strategy rather than short-term giddiness, then it's possible that we might've shown more restraint, held ourselves back from blowing all of our cash right away. It's possible that we might've benefited from the manager's learning experience rather than merely funding it. It's possible that we might've found a productive meeting of minds, that we might've built something.
As I say, there were signs. We brought in Wayne Brown on loan from Ipswich, hardly the kind of player that Vialli would've accommodated at the start of the campaign and yet a signing that reverberated through the squad, a call to arms for those willing to put in some hard graft. Filippo Galli suddenly found his lost youth in what must be one of the most deliciously ill-matched defensive partnerships in the club's history. Fresh strawberries and Marmite; velvet and sandpaper. More quietly but no less significantly, Gavin Mahon arrived too, and the midfield suddenly became an engine room rather than a creative arts workshop. We won at Palace, which never happened. A certain pragmatism emerged, born of that learning experience. A few whiffs of team spirit, now that the bad apples were being left to rot on the sidelines. Could we have made it work, perhaps, if we'd been less spendy-wendy at the start and thereby had some room for manouevre now? What shape might a second season have taken?
But, of course, we couldn't have kept our powder dry. The very nature of the appointment made it impossible. No manager of Vialli's stature would arrive without an accompanying flurry of signings. No manager of Vialli's stature would take recruitment advice from those with more relevant, but less glamorous, experience. No manager of Vialli's stature would come without a "philosophy" to implement. And no manager of Vialli's stature would submit without complaint to the kind of belt-tightening we increasingly required. And thus, as it became clear that we couldn't adequately finance a second phase while picking up the bill from the first one, the relationships that'd been so flushed with new romance back in May quickly soured. Those aren't criticisms of him necessarily. They emphatically are criticisms of those who appointed him.
Any possibility that all of this might have a happy, or even faintly amicable, ending hit the buffers with the collapse of ITV Digital, which entered administration in March with £180m still owing from its eye-watering £315m deal to cover Football League games for three years. We were not alone, certainly, nor is it reasonable to be overly critical of the failure to see into the future. Nevertheless, we were more exposed than most, having spent heavily on players we weren't easily able to offload, and the consequences would be severe and long-lasting. In order to survive, we would have to become a very different club, and that club would need a very different manager.
Programme notes are rarely as quietly melancholy as those for Vialli's final game, that defeat to Gillingham. His thoughts drift towards where it all went wrong: "Next season expectations will be less and that will lead to a reduction in the pressure on the players. Who knows, that may be the key." (Just a thought, but it might actually have been your rather well-paid job to know.)
You can almost see his eyes wandering off into the middle distance, hear the sigh of resignation: "This is the last game of the season, and I don't know whether we are supposed to have a lap of appreciation or not..."
They were, and they did...albeit after an inappropriately long post-defeat post-mortem, stuck in the dressing room while everyone waited in the stands, which somehow symbolised the failure to entirely grasp how it all works at a relatively small club. The expensive signings trailed around at the back of the parade. The manager's name was sung by the Rookery, still, even now.
Elton John resigned as chairman. Over the coming months, Haig Oundjian and Brian Anderson would decline the, erm, opportunity to put more money into the club to cover the hole in its finances. Graham Simpson and Tim Shaw would be required to make a "huge commitment", as the latter put it, to save the club from administration.
Gianluca Vialli was sacked in mid-June. In conveying his disappointment at the decision, he commented that "my work at Watford was still in its early stages"...which was a remarkable interpretation of the situation, to put it politely.
We can perhaps be less polite about his subsequent decision to take legal action against the club as negotiations to settle his contract broke down. Sure, his wasn't the only signature on that contract; nobody had forced our hand. Nevertheless, it underlined - I'd say in red biro, but he'd never use anything so cheap - his failure to grasp anything substantial about the club he'd managed. It may not have been an action born of vindictiveness, but anyone with half an ounce of empathy would've looked at the club's position, nearly bankrupted and just about stumbling back onto its feet, and understood that it would be seen as such.
We ought to be able to forgive the rest, at least by now. The mistakes, the misjudgements, the ill-advised punts. Even the inherent arrogance of it all, the willingness to be paid handsomely to learn on the job and the unwillingness to take the resulting criticism on the chin. But it's much harder to forgive that.
Ray Lewington was named as Vialli's successor. Within twenty-four hours, in a statement of intent that couldn't have been more obvious if he'd painted it on the pitch in ten-foot letters, he'd made his first signing: Sean Dyche.
NO MORE NONSENSE.
This article is taken from Volume 5 of The Watford Treasury. To purchase please click on the link below