April 2015 saw Watford Football Club return to the Premier League eight years after a forgettable campaign under Aidy Boothroyd, which saw the club finish bottom with a mere five victories. A 2-0 victory over Brighton saw the Hornets secure automatic promotion under the leadership of Slaviša Jokanović following a run of 15 wins from 20 matches. Jokanović was only the third manager at the club to earn promotion to the Premier League after Graham Taylor and Boothroyd.
The players partied in the town later that evening along with their supporters as they celebrated their accomplishment. This was a family club that was proud of its supporters, and everyone debriefed in style. Promotion had been on the cards but was achieved quicker than expected. To complete the typical British night out, Scottish international Ikechi Anya managed to lose his wallet.
The Hertfordshire-based club owe their recent success to the arrival of the Pozzo family. The Italians, Giampaolo and Gino, who also own Udinese, purchased the club in 2012 when it was faced with the possibility of administration under the previous ownership, and soon went about transforming the ambition, landscape and public perception. Much needed impetus was injected.
The first decision made by the new owners was to change manager, despite Sean Dyche achieving Watford’s third highest points tally since the departure of Taylor in 2001. Ex-West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola was chosen as Dyche’s replacement and the club quickly used the extensive Pozzo family scouting network that had proved successful with both Udinese and Granada.
Experienced goalkeeper Manuel Almunia joined in 2012 after his release by Arsenal. More significantly, however, were the arrivals of 15 players on loan including the likes of Almen Abdi, Matěj Vydra, Fernando Forestieri and Anya from the Pozzo parent clubs. The arrivals of numerous players from both Udinese and Granada was met with anger by some managers within the Championship, who bemoaned the negative impact it could have on English football.
Ian Holloway was particularly inquisitive and critical about the transfer regime at Watford. He wasn’t the only one, and there were even fears from within that the club might be losing its identity and becoming a feeder club. The fact, however, was that this was a club in transition and supporters, despite their fears, needed to put their trust in the new owners.
Despite an indifferent start to the season, Watford took the league by storm and were battling with Hull City on the final day of the season for the final automatic position.
If Watford bettered Hull’s result then they would earn automatic promotion. Steve Bruce’s side faced Cardiff, who had already earned promotion and were managed by a former Watford manager. Would Malky Mackay do his old club a favour? The Bluebirds managed a draw but what transpired at Vicarage Road was unforeseeable.
Almunia was ruled out injured hours before the Leeds game meaning a start for England under-21 goalkeeper Jonathan Bond. The fans’ confidence remained but within the first hour the game took a turn for the worse. Bond was injured in a nasty collision with team-mate Anya and on came academy product Jack Bonham. Leeds went ahead and, despite an Abdi equaliser before half-time, there was an eerie inevitability about the result. As the home side pressed for what they hoped would be a winner they were hit on the break in the dying moments of the match.
Watford ended the season in third, compiling a league-best 85 goals, but had to prepare themselves for the drama of the play-offs. The Hornets welcomed Leicester City after losing the first-leg 1-0 knowing that Wembley awaited the victors. With Watford winning 2-1 on the day and the game edging towards extra-time, referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot and awarded a penalty to the visitors. Anthony Knockaert had the chance to send the Foxes to Wembley but, after a fine double save from Almunia, Watford immediately countered and through Troy Deeney won the game in the 97th minute.
The so-called richest game in football awaited the Hornets. After a tense and uninspiring display in which the Golden Boys froze, it was a former hornet Kevin Phillips who scored an extra-time penalty for Crystal Palace to send the Eagles up. Optimism on the day of the match had been replaced with utter deflation.
The following season never hit the same heights for Watford and a poor start ultimately led to Zola’s departure and the arrival of another Italian, Beppe Sannino. The 2014-15 season began well for the Hornets but Sannino resigned in late August amid rumours of player unrest at his coaching style.
What followed in the subsequent weeks saw Watford and its owners laughed at and three new managers take charge. Former Brighton boss Óscar García joined the club but after just a few weeks resigned because of health concerns. Billy McKinlay was immediately appointed as his replacement but the assistant manager of Northern Ireland and ex-Fulham coach lasted only two games before former Chelsea midfielder Slaviša Jokanović was brought in. The Serbian proved a hit with fans despite a poor start and proved to be both passionate and a clever tactician in the dugout, epitomised by several wins from losing positions.
Just two weeks after a vital 4-3 comeback victory away against Bolton, Jokanović’s side were back at it again. At a critical stage in the season and with Watford well placed in the play-offs, focus turned to achieving automatic promotion. After a dreadful start, which saw Watford two goals down within 20 minutes, fans were beginning to wonder if their side was going to throw a promising promotion charge away. But to their disbelieving eyes they were proved completely wrong with a thrilling victory settled by fans’ favourite Vydra.
Despite finishing runners-up after conceding a late equaliser to Sheffield Wednesday, Watford were celebrating a return to the top division of English football.
One paramount and unwavering figure in recent history is club captain Deeney. The former Walsall front-man forward is the figurehead of the side. He connects well with the fans and, despite opportunities to leave, has stayed loyal to a club that gave him a chance when he needed it the most; Deeney served a three-month prison sentence in 2012 after being involved in a drunken brawl.
Watford’s promotion was thanks to the man from Birmingham who finished with 21 strikes and made it three successive seasons with 20-plus goals. Watford were a fast evolving club and Deeney was symbolic of this.
One of Gino Pozzo’s promises to fans on his arrival was that they would bankroll the development of a new stand to replace the old East Stand, which was fast becoming an eyesore. All he asked was that there was a regular attendance of 15,000 for every home game. With that a reality, by the end of 2014 the new stand was fully open and named the Sir Elton John Stand after the club’s former chairman and rock star.
Watford’s achievements, despite all the managerial turbulence in the background, had shown the players that unity could power anything. The question now was: would Jokanović remain in charge?
The answer was no. By this stage, Gino was the sole owner at the club as his father Giampaolo concentrated his efforts on Udinese and, as recent history proved. he wasn’t afraid of changing manager. With Jokanović sacked ruthlessly, and perhaps unfairly, the club moved to bring in another manager to take the club forward in the Premier League.
Quique Sánchez Flores was quickly earmarked by those at the top of the club. Flores won the Europa League with Atlético Madrid in 2010, calling upon the likes of Sergio Agüero and Diego Forlán.
This time around, Watford’s strikeforce comprised of little known Odion Ighalo and Deeney. What Flores achieved between his arrival and January 2016 was remarkable, thanks largely to the goals of Ighalo. The Spanish manager had no previous experience in the English top-flight and his task increased after the club’s recruitment policy went into overdrive during the summer break.
A total of 16 new faces, including established internationals Étienne Capoue, Valon Behrami and Miguel Britos, arrived at Vicarage Road. In total, the squad consisted of 22 different nationalities. Nevertheless, after a difficult start, victories started to arrive and after a comprehensive victory over Liverpool to secure a fourth consecutive league win, Watford were just a point outside the top four. The club finished the year in ninth and expectations grew for a top-half finish. All seemed rosy.
Inevitably, however, results and performances dipped after the turn of the New Year but the club progressed through the FA Cup and were almost safe from relegation.
Watford had last reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 2007. Back then they were held at neutral venues but this time, against Arsenal in 2016, the club was playing for a place at Wembley. The competition had taken on greater significance for Flores and his players as they neared Premier League survival.
Ighalo gave Watford the lead against the Gunners as he struck his first goal in nearly 600 minutes of football. The correlation between Watford’s dip in form and his profligacy in front of goal had been striking in recent weeks. Adlene Guedioura then hammered in a bullet of a strike to double the advantage and send the visiting fans ecstatic. The final 10 minutes of the game were arduous and nerve-shredding. Relentless pressure was put on the plucky Watford defence and, despite a Danny Welbeck goal, it was a deserved victory for the Hornets.
In the semi-final, Watford were once again defeated by Crystal Palace at Wembley, and despite a better performance than in 2013, there was a feeling of regret at missing out on an FA Cup final and a potential route into the Europa League.
With the season over, it was surely time to prepare for the following season under Flores. For most clubs the answer would be yes, but not for Gino Pozzo. Voices were emerging from the club that the hierarchy was not satisfied by the second half of the season, and Flores was duly sacked in May. Supporters were respectful of the progress made under Flores but refused to criticise the owner, showing their gratitude to both on the final day of the league season against Sunderland with huge banners of Flores and Pozzo.
Now under the tutelage of former Napoli manager Walter Mazzarri, the Hornets are trying to maintain their Premier League status once again. The Italian is regarded as a traditional disciplinarian faced with the challenge of improving on last season’s 13th place finish.
The summer transfer period once again saw several new international faces arrive at Vicarage Road but impressively the club had held on to its two most prized assets in Deeney and Ighalo. Deeney was a target for champions Leicester City who were willing to pay upwards of £30 million for his signature. Watford stood strong and eventually Deeney committed himself to the Golden Boys, signing a new five-year contract.
Ighalo had excelled in the Premier League and was a target for the riches of the Chinese Super League. Shanghai SIPG were determined to add Ighalo to their roster of big-name signings this summer and offered a staggering £38 million, but again Pozzo refused. Perplexing maybe, but it isn’t easy to find players capable of scoring almost 20 goals in their debut Premier League season.
The Pozzos sold Granada earlier this summer, allowing for even more resources to be allocated to helping Watford push on. Significantly, there are no remaining players from either Udinese or Granada who arrived in the summer of 2012 as the transformation from controversial Championship side to self-sustaining Premier League side was complete.
With the fans more connected to the club than ever before, Watford’s future looks bright under the leadership of Gino Pozzo. How times – and opinions – change.
By Mathieu Wood. Follow @MathieuWood