Getting to know… Watford

And last but not least… Get the lowdown on one of the pre-season promotuon favourites, a Championship side with most of a Premier League squad (and yet another new man in the dugout).

Quick facts

Founded: 1881 (as Watford Rovers)
Ground: Vicarage Road (since 1922, capacity 22,200)
Second tier seasons: 26 (+13 top flight)
Major honours: N/A
Last season: 18th in Premier League

2019/20 recap

Watford should not have gone down last season. And that’s not simply because their squad was better than that on paper; they were actually in a great position to stay up when lockdown hit. But having won four and drawn three of their ten games up to that point – which included taking Liverpool apart to end their quest for an unbeaten season – they lost seven out of ten after the restart and had their fate sealed on the final day.

The Hornets ended the campaign with Hayden Mullins in temporary charge, following Nigel Pearson’s out-of-nowhere sacking with two games to go – which followed Quique Sánchez Flores’ dismissal in December… which followed Javi Gracia’s in September. Chopping and changing has been the Watford way for almost a decade – Gracia’s 18-month tenure is the longest since the departure of Malky Mackay in the summer of 2011 – but they’ve taken it to new extremes with five permanent managers in the last three years. Questions have been raised about players’ attitudes too, meaning our Three Counties neighbours come down looking good but needing to apply themselves.

The gaffer: Vladimir Ivić

Age: 43
Appointed: August 2020
Previously managed: Maccabi Tel Aviv, PAOK, PAOK U20 (Greece)
Played for: PAOK, Aris Thessaloniki, AEK Athens (all Greece), Borussia Mönchengladbach, Partizan, Proleter Zrenjanin (both Serbia)

Watford fans have become accustomed to unorthodox managerial appointments under the ownership of Gino Pozzo, but Ivić might be the most unorthodox so far. After winning consecutive Israeli Premier League titles, the former Serbia & Montengro international was up for a new challenge – and he should certainly get that in the Championship. A stern-faced disciplinarian, he doesn’t look like one to put up with any shit from his players – then again, nor did Pearson. Let’s just see how this one goes… At least the Watford board have been sensible this tie and only given him a one-year deal.

Fan thoughts (with Mark Hancock)

So Watford find themselves in the Championship for the first time in five years. In a nutshell, what went wrong last season? In some ways, it may be easier to ask what didn’t go wrong. One of, if not the main reason that myself and many fans feel last season was such a disaster was lack of investment in our central defensive areas. Until we signed Craig Dawson from West Brom last summer, the last centre-back we had signed was Adrian Mariappa at the very end of the summer window in 2016. This combined with us also having one of the oldest squads on average last season was never going to be a good combination. Another key pitfall was the appointment of QSF. The first game against Arsenal where we came back from a 0-2 deficit (much to Matteo Guendouzi’s embarrassment) looked promising, but from then on it fell apart. There were rumours of dysfunctional training and odd team selections were highlighted by the exclusion of Ismaila Sarr from the starting line-up for most matches of his short tenure.

Your sixth permanent manager in that time is another left-field choice. What do you make of Vladimir Ivić and is there anything to suggest the board will give him more time than his predecessors? Left-field is certainly an accurate description. From what I’ve read about him and his history as well as what I’ve seen so far, it’s looking promising. He’s done well at every club he’s been at. The statistic that stood out to me was the low number of goals his teams conceded when he was at Maccabi Tel Aviv. This is exactly what we need as during the last couple of seasons, we have been conceding silly goals that have really cost us, especially towards the end of games. I know friendlies aren’t very reliable, but I was especially impressed by the way he was getting the players to get back and defend when the ball was lost during the 2-1 win against Spurs last week – something we haven’t seen enough of for a while.

From what I’ve read about his contract, it seems that there is an option to extend it beyond a year should we win promotion back to the Premier League. It also seems that if the season goes to plan, he would be game, but only time will tell and with Watford it can be hard to tell.

At the time of writing, there are still a lot of players in this Watford squad who should tear up the Championship. But then they should have stayed up in the Premier League… Do you worry about a lack of the attitude/mentality needed to get out of this division? I was a little concerned, I must admit, but it seems that the team is going through a complete revamp with far more youth players being brought in that, as yet, haven’t had a chance. Last season, we had too many players not pulling their weight. Two examples come to mind in the form of Roberto Pereyra and Abdoulaye Doucouré [who’s just left for Everton], who both had underwhelming seasons to say the least. Having said that, there were some odd team selections as well, which didn’t help.

We do have some players that look to be getting more of a look-in who are younger and showing the right qualities for the Championship, a league where you need a certain amount of grit. Will Hughes is one player who has developed well since moving here from Derby, where he got a lot of experience and, as a result, is no stranger to Championship football. Another is Ben Wilmot, who had a good season at Swansea and is also is no stranger to the league. He, like Hughes, is being branded as ‘future captain material’ as well. This mixed with some more senior players makes me fairly confident for our fortunes this season and in the future.

You’ve made just the two signings so far: young right-back Jeremy Ngakia on a free from West Ham and Glenn Murray on loan from Brighton. I guess quite a lot will depend on who still leaves, but is there anywhere else you still desperately need to do more business? With the signings that we have brought in so far and the squad that we already have, I can’t see any areas that we really need to strengthen. We have since signed another striker in the form of Stipe Perica as well as a new cente-back, Francisco Sierralta – both from Udinese. So we have more or less covered the main areas of weakness in the team.

However, as you said, it will be dependent on who we lose that will determine if we need to strengthen further. Étienne Capoue and Troy Deeney being linked with moves away to Valencia and West Brom respectively. If Deeney were to go, we’d more than likely have enough to plug that gap, but if Capoue were to leave then we would have difficulty finding someone of his ability to fill his boots. Another potential player at risk of leaving would be Sarr, but so far there hasn’t been too much movement there and he seems happy to stay (fingers crossed).

Finally, how do you think the season will go? There’s pressure to bounce straight back up to the top flight, but we all know that’s easier said than done!

If all stays as is then I don’t see any reason for pessimism this season and I’d say that we are in a good position to bounce back. I think that the lowest we should be aiming for is the upper play-off places, if not 2nd, but I’m well aware the Championship is a very difficult league to get out of with many good teams. When I look at clubs like Norwich – who have been able to keep their key players – and Brentford – who narrowly missed out on promotion last season – these are going to be the key fixtures that we will have to battle tooth and nail in.

There is also added pressure financially as well as in terms of club development to get back at the earliest opportunity. We’ve seen teams in the past relegated from the top flight stagnate or, in some cases, collapse under their own weight and this is something that we need to avoid at all costs.

Previous meetings

The last time the League Cup got underway before the league, Watford were our opponents. Chris Iwelumo’s extra time goal at Vicarage Road sent us packing in what was our only meeting since last playing in the same division in 1997/98. We’ve never beaten Watford; in fact, we’ve only ever picked up two points against them – in goalless draws at Adams Park. Fear not, though, we’ll have the chance to go one better next month…

Did you know…?

Former Hornets defender Steve Palmer played 11 positions in the aforementioned 1997/98 campaign, starting the final home game in goal (with Watford yet to wrap up the title!) and wearing every shirt number from 1 to 14.

Header photo: Greger Ravik via Flickr

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