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The Petchey years
By Ian Grant
There's been one hell of a lot of water under the bridge since Jack Petchey bought Watford Football Club from Elton John in 1990. The return of Elton, announced before Saturday's game with Bury, brings to an end an era that has seen the club in decline - whether it brings an end to the decline itself remains to be seen.

Covering the losses

You won't find many Watford fans that are sorry to see Petchey depart. In fact, it's probably unlikely that you'll find any at all. In some respects, it's easy to forget that things could've been worse - Robert Maxwell was sniffing around Vicarage Road for a while - and that Petchey took control of a club that was already far from healthy. I'm not about to heap praise upon our former chairman - anyone who read my letter to the Watford Observer and continuous e-mails about lack of investment earlier in the season will be aware that I was far from thrilled with the off-the-field events at the Vic. But, equally, I don't intend to enter into vitriolic criticism where it's not appropriate.

Jack Petchey made many mistakes. The worst of them was to buy the club in the first place. Not only did he rapidly discover that non-Premiership football clubs are far from thriving - take a look at Nicholas Ralph's extensive dissection of club finances and think about those losses for a moment or two - but he was also to find out that you get very little thanks in return for your efforts. Ultimately, this was to lead him to a complete withdrawal of support for the club, with puppet chairman Stuart Timperley taking most of the flak in his absence.

As it stands, nobody has any real idea about how much money has changed hands in the new takeover deal. But, personally, I consider it highly unlikely that Jack Petchey has made any great profit from his seven year reign - and I'd dismiss the idea that the club has been in any way 'asset-stripped' as simplistic (apart from anything else, it's just not that easy for money to 'disappear' out of a relatively high-profile business). Essentially, his loans to the club to cover the operating losses (losses that include transfer fees) kept Watford alive for several years - whether it kept Watford healthy is a whole different argument.

So let's not fall into the trap of calling Jack Petchey a crook. He did many, many things wrong during his time. I don't believe that he ripped us off, though.

In addition, Petchey was responsible for the re-development of Vicarage Road from the crumbling ground that he inherited to the relatively swanky surroundings we currently enjoy. Sure, he didn't have to put all that much money in himself - the Football Trust had a big role to play - but that doesn't negate the efforts made to raise that finance and to plan the stadium changes.

Emotional investment

If you're reading, Jack, those are the good bits - I'd turn away now, if I were you. Because, while Vicarage Road is now your authentic Theatre Of Dreams, the football played on its lush grass is your authentic Stuff Of Nightmares.

Glenn Roeder's second season aside, Watford have consistently battled against relegation to Division Two and finally succumbed last year. There's been a lack of dynamism, a lack of passion and a lack of pride. Much of the blame for that lies at the doors of the various managers but the same characteristics were reflected at the top of the heap by an owner who rarely appeared genuinely interested in on-the-field events. He is a West Ham fan, after all.

Fans often talk about 'investment'. I'd argue that the word means far more than just financial commitment. It means having an emotional stake in the club. And, during the Petchey years, Watford was emotionally neglected - it was a club that was owned by someone who didn't really care, who didn't turn up to games with any regularity, who didn't make us feel at all wanted. After a home defeat against Plymouth earlier in the season, Stuart Timperley called a small protest by fans 'unwelcome and unhelpful' - that just about sums up the staggering lack of, for want of a better word, warmth over the last seven years.

All of this would've been bearable had the club been given some genuine direction away from the playing side. But any attempts to reduce the losses met with utter failure. Petchey may have kept the club afloat with his loans but he did precious little to improve its long-term prospects. The marketing department's activities became increasingly less imaginative, the community relations were allowed to disintegrate after the stunning achievements of Graham Taylor, the fans handed their money with a growing resentment towards the absentee owner.

If lower division clubs are to survive, they must become dynamic, active small businesses. If they stand still, they'll simply find it impossible to avoid financial ruin. During Jack Petchey's ownership, Watford Football Club stood still while others moved forward. We became 'just another club' and our finances were every bit as appalling as most - it's worth noting, for example, that last season's losses were well in excess of any that AFC Bournemouth have ever recorded. So, if I hope for anything from the new consortium, it's a sense of radicalism and imagination, a feeling of setting about the challenges with real determination - in many ways, that's more important for the future well-being of the club than a huge influx of cash.

A club without a heart

Ultimately, much of Petchey's reign leaves a distinctly sour taste in the mouth. Two of the key incidents are enough to remove any sympathy that I might otherwise have.

The treatment of Wealdstone was disgusting. Sure, the ground-share agreement was the product of unbelievable naivete on the part of the non-league club's directors - but that's no excuse. If Petchey had been similarly callous towards Watford, we'd have been talking about him in the same way that Brighton fans talk about Bill Archer. What was once the original 'family club' was reduced to kicking a neighbouring club in the nuts and walking away with 2.5 million quid.

Similarly, the handling of Glenn Roeder's dismissal left much to be desired. The argument about whether he should've gone or not is irrelevant (and I certainly don't want to get involved in that debate again), the argument that you don't hold on to an employee while you're negotiating behind their back to replace them is something that I'll feel strongly about for a long time to come.

If you treat other people and other clubs like shit, then you can't expect too much sympathy when your own fortunes take a turn for the worse - hence, for example, the difference in fans' responses towards the crises at Millwall and Bournemouth. Watford Football Club used to have a heart. That's something that Jack Petchey never really understood.