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You're kidding, right?
By Adrian Spender
The immediate questions were obvious: Why Watford, when Vialli had been linked with a return to his former club Juventus? Would he bring in his own staff? Would the academy youngsters' chances be stifled by the importing of foreign players? Vialli's managerial record with Chelsea was undoubtedly good - he is the most successful manager in Chelsea history. However, he achieved all of this with the not-inconsiderable backing of Ken Bates' wallet. What's more, rumours abounded that his unceremonial exit from Stamford Bridge was more down to his inability to control a mounting dressing room mutiny, than Chelsea failing to win in their first five Premiership outings in 2000/01.

Even those who initially welcomed the appointment were concerned about the long term. Even if Vialli truly wanted to prove his coaching ability without the artificial boost of mountains of cash, surely he would depart for pastures greener as soon as the right offer came along? Watford was a convenient place for him to tread water, close to London, his home and adopted city.

The Watford board obviously thought that it needed a man with the pedigree and character of Vialli to overcome the disability of Taylor's legacy. However, they also realised from the start that no matter how good a coach and manager Vialli was, opting to go down a route that would match their ambition would need additional funds as well. After all, even Graham Taylor, the club's greatest manager, had failed to keep them in the Premiership, a place they wanted to get to again, and stay. In fact, Taylor himself publicly admits that the game of football has changed - much to his obvious dislike - and that his "old-fashioned" approach that proved so successful in the '80s is no longer as effective. The 2.3million signing of Alan Nielsen by Taylor at the start of the 2000/01 season was perhaps a hint of his realisation.

Whilst the board made funds available for transfer signings, allowing Vialli to plug the defensive gaps that so hindered the side in the previous season, they also insisted that the club's wage structure only be moderately increased and kept in control. The final year of parachute payments from Watford's previous Premiership season allowed for such prudent expansion, but the board would not bet everything on the promise of the huge amounts of television money available should promotion be achieved. In fact, Vialli's reputation and draw attracted more than one player willing to lower their wage demands significantly to work with him.

Naturally, Vialli sought to bring his own men in to work with. Much of the success of Taylor's second reign was based upon the solid back room structure. At first, the signs looked ominous with first team coach Kenny Jackett, reserve team manager Luther Blissett, and coach Tom Walley all leaving. Did Taylor not like that. Blissett may have had most reason for disappointment - after all, he played in Italy against Vialli when at AC Milan, and was an England teammate of new assistant manager Ray Wilkins. Jackett accepted a managerial position at a Third Division club - a wise step for a man whose management blooding had come too soon when he oversaw the season when Watford finished thirteenth in the Second Division. Many people feared for the fate of the reserve team, aware that Vialli favoured a first team rotation system, but with the experience of his new coaching qualifications and perhaps a realisation that the unrest that led to his departure from Stamford Bridge was a result of the unpopular system meant that the reserve team stayed. More importantly, Vialli maintained the staff of Watford's highly successful youth academy, at the stipulation of the board of directors.

Vialli's team made an immediate impact on Division One, and by Christmas were firmly placed at the top of the table. Vialli's close season signings plugged the defensive gaps, and the new striker's partnership with Tommy Smith - a player who was surely on his way out of Vicarage Road until Vialli arrived - provided the goals. Of course, the squad was restructured to some extent, with some familiar faces leaving, but it was noticeable that a significant number of the previous season's squad still featured strongly on Vialli's team sheet. Most the departures were what one could consider fringe players. The net effect being an increase in the strength of the squad that helped the team greatly through the winter.

The team was performing so well that even Chairman Elton John attended games on a semi-regular basis, a sure sign that things were on the up as the extravagent pop star had been criticised by fans for showing an apparent lack of interest in previous seasons. On most occasions, he was seen enjoying the game from the directors' box with a long time friend, one Graham Taylor, who still made regular appearances at Vicarage Road on match days, perhaps unable to resist the temptation.

As we know, Vialli's Watford easily gained the First Division title, and have had what can only be described as a solid opening season in the Premiership, securing thirteenth place. Insiders say that the board had been willing to release funds obtained through television rights for player purchases, as they were encouraged and convinced that Vialli respected the importance of the club's youth system. This was an encouraging gesture of faith, given the loss of gate receipts due to the redevelopment of the east side of the ground, and a gesture that has been repaid with retained Premiership status.

Of course, last week's departure of Vialli to take up the managerial job vacated by the firing of Carlo Ancelotti at Juventus will have come as little shock to Watford fans, and one suspects the board. Nobody doubted that Vialli was open to offers, and the Watford board now find themselves looking for a manager again. This time, however, Watford Football Club stands as a much more attractive proposition, and one suspects the board have had plenty of time to plan their move.

One thing is for certain - even though Watford fans will still greet their greatest manager with a chant of "There's only one Graham Taylor" when he takes his place in the new Rita Taylor Stand at Vicarage Road next season, Gianluca Vialli will always be welcomed with open arms if he ever brings his Juve team here on European duty. Harry Bassett had better stay clear though.