There is no doubt that Watford have been failing this season. The Championship’s pre-season promotion favourites sit 10th and have won one of their last seven league games – and that thanks to a goal deep into stoppage time. Having kept hold of João Pedro and Ismaïla Sarr, two forwards whose combined value has been estimated at upwards of £50m, they have been outscored by 14 sides and had more shots on target than only three. Performances have been incoherent and wildly unimpressive, with the Hornets’ possession consisting largely of central defenders passing the ball among themselves until the crowd grows restless and one of them in desperation shanks it straight to the opposing goalkeeper.
Yet still fans reacted with fury to the dismissal of their manager of 10 league games, Rob Edwards, on Monday. Not because they have appreciated his tactical stylings but because they have grown tired of the club’s constantly spinning managerial carousel and know that blame for the team’s poor start has to be shared. And more than anything because they had been encouraged to believe that he would be allowed to stay and to grow, to put together a play of several acts. Yet here was the curtain falling after little more than the prologue.
“We had hidden behind relative success, but it wasn’t significant success,” the chairman and chief executive, Scott Duxbury, said in June of the process that led to Edwards’ appointment. “What we needed was continuity behind a coach that we believe in and the supporters believe in. We also wanted somebody who could grow with us. We know that we could not carry on as we were. Watford Football Club needed its culture back. In Rob Edwards, we have appointed a manager we all totally believe in, and a manager who will lead and drive that change. We will be supporting Rob Edwards come hell or high water.”
But not, it turns out, come late September. Not even, in fact, in the summer transfer window, which closed upon a flimsy and top-heavy squad bereft of anyone who could perform the wing-back roles that had been crucial to Edwards’ success at Forest Green Rovers. (Over the last few years the club’s transfer dealings have been strange, with some brilliant signings – Yaser Asprilla, the young Colombian midfielder with a wand of a left foot, looks like the latest – but several others that have bordered on the inexplicable, and a puzzlingly high-spend on agent fees).
It was notable that the brief quote in the statement announcing Slaven Bilic as Edwards’ successor came from the club’s normally taciturn owner, Gino Pozzo; given his pronouncements of the early summer Duxbury could hardly have done the welcoming, and he will surely appreciate that one of the casualties of this decision is his own credibility. Another is the fans’ faith in Pozzo, who in 2012 rescued Watford from the toxic ownership of Laurence Bassini and three years later delivered them to the Premier League. This now is a club where every bond is unravelling.
Even last season, when the squad was poor, managerial appointments bizarre, performances and results dismal, this was the deeper and greater issue. Relegation in 2020 and promotion a year later had been witnessed only by empty stands. These teams, even the one that won 14 of its last 18 games on its way back up, were not very good, entertainment was poor and emotional investment impossible at a distance. The connections between the key groups upon which any club depends – board and team and fans – frayed and tore. Nothing was done to repair them as crowds returned to games and Xisco Muñoz was replaced by Claudio Ranieri and then Roy Hodgson. Instead these groups came to realise that they didn’t actually have much in common any more – and that, for any club, is a real problem.
Last season was characterised by meek performances, and by players who emerged from the dressing-room before each match as if desperate to be first back into it when it ended. Managers, too: after relegation was confirmed at Selhurst Park, Hodgson, the grimmest and most graceless of the 16 coaches so far sacked by Pozzo, applauded the home fans and completely ignored his own. For most Watford supporters perhaps the strangest thing about a season that featured a remarkable run of 11 successive home defeats was how little it hurt. More than anything, it was boring.
When it ended they voted to give the player of the season award to Hassane Kamara, an Ivorian left-back who arrived in January, scored one goal and made no assists but played wholeheartedly and occasionally acknowledged their existence. It was a decision that made sense only as a desperate plea for attention and for people who give the impression that they are keen to build relationships and reputations rather than just personal fortunes. Duxbury seemed to have heard them – “What happened last season,” he said, “was almost an epiphany”. But inside Pozzo’s head, the carousel kept spinning.
Bilic could yet turn the season around, and there is enough attacking talent in the squad for promotion still to be a realistic target. What he must do – what any of Watford’s revolving cast of coaches has needed to do – is instil in the team a clear identity, and for that identity to remain consistent, and for the same coach to remain employed long enough for supporters to reengage. Recent experience suggests this is unlikely. At Vicarage Road, like Greenland in midwinter, there is never much time between the new dawn and the sunset.