"He's gone where?". Words that were uttered over a thousand Italian sports pages over the last
couple of days.
So, one of those outlandish "Bergomi's coming to Watford!"-style rumours turns out to be true. First time
for everything, and all that. And, if we can barge our way through the crowd of gleeful directors eagerly
waiting to be photographed with their new star and the journalists who've finally got around to locating
Vicarage Road on the map, what do we find?
Well, few managerial appointments can have been quite as intensely thought-provoking as this one. If the
mailing list is anything to go by, there's been an almost instant polarisation of opinions among Watford fans.
Perhaps that was to be expected. Given that it's impossible to appoint Graham Taylor as his own successor, whoever
was chosen to fill the vacancy was bound to be the subject of intense scrutiny and debate. Nevertheless,
many of the stances being taken are somewhat simplistic.
Fortunately, Gianluca Vialli is used to such scrutiny. If you've played in Serie A, you've learnt to deal with
pressure. If you've been employed by Ken Bates, you've become used to justifying your decisions in the face of
irrational raging. Whatever other issues the appointment may raise, it has solved one fundamental problem. We
have a manager who will not be forever obscured by Graham Taylor's shadow. It's about balance, since it is also
to be hoped that he will not feel obliged to distance himself from his predecessor at every opportunity,
establishing his own identity for its own sake in the style of GT's last replacement.
There is an apparent kinship between Vialli and Watford, no matter how bizarre that may seem. For those of us who have no desire to see the club
awash with money and stars, nor to see a return to the stagnation of the "decade in between", it is the main source of hope for the future. At yesterday's press conference, there
was much talk about ambition and potential, as there is at every such event from Hull to Manchester. None of
that interests or impresses me. But there were other words too. In particular, "people" and "fun" were repeated
often and, having written some waffle on exactly the same topic in a match
report, they were words that I greatly welcomed.
They may, of course, prove to be empty words. But Vialli's past argues strongly against such cynicism. Even
in football's most competitive arenas - where there is a great deal to lose, including your integrity - he has
been consistently honest, modest and sincere. While his background may be very different, his core values are
not so very different from those of Graham Taylor.
In that respect, Vialli has much to gain from spending time at Watford. On his travels, he will have seen many places...but
he will not have been embraced quite so warmly as if he brings success to Vicarage Road. At Watford, there is
little distance between the club and the community that it serves, nor is there the kind of vast fanbase that prevents
personal contact. To some managers, that would be a nightmare. To Graham Taylor, it was something to be
enjoyed and, in the best possible way, exploited. You suspect that Luca might quite like it too.
Undoubtedly, there will be many people scratching their heads, completely baffled by it all. But perhaps it's not
so difficult to explain. At Watford, Vialli will have the chance to be a real manager. Not a media star,
not a chairman's puppet, not the leader of a group of stars with fat bank accounts. Just a manager. That is, someone
who coaches players, builds a team, wins things, makes people happy. You can see the appeal of that, I think.
I remain completely unconvinced that vast sums of money will be made available. The glee with which some have
greeted the prospect of replacing the entire team and plunging the club into debt is depressing, as if Graham Taylor's
tight control of the club's spending was an act of wilful joy-killing. There are many, myself included, who would
be thoroughly disillusioned by the abandonment of key principles, especially the sense of it being "our" team, in
favour of buying a side by credit card. Pleasingly, there are indications that the new manager understands the situation well
Really, he'd have to be a complete idiot to believe that there was a huge reservoir of cash to spend on new players. Thus far, his
comments have given the impression that he knows exactly how much will be made available to him...and that he knows that
it won't buy instant success. Would Vialli come to Watford without the promise of a blank chequebook? Yes, I think so.
As previously noted, he clearly wants to prove himself as a manager. Besides, it's worth remembering that, while anyone
who wins the "world's best player" award must be immensely talented, Vialli was also a proud, tigerish, competitive
little devil in his playing days. He likes a challenge, in other words.
Having started with a clear-out of the club's back-room staff, he's already made that challenge just a little
tougher. Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of the decision to get rid of Kenny Jackett, Luther Blissett and Tom
Walley, it shows a distinct lack of judgement. At a time when emotions are running high, it simply makes no
sense to rub salt into wounds by allowing three of the club's most loyal servants to leave. Bad public relations,
Luca. But for its sad by-product, yesterday's appointment would surely have been warmly welcomed by all.
We have not seen the last of Kenny, Luther and Tom, just as we haven't seen the last of Graham. For Kenny, you
hope that this is the opportunity to pursue his managerial ambitions, to make a fresh start on his own. For Luther, you hope
that employment within the game that he adores so much is forthcoming, that he's given the chance to build upon what he's achieved
with the reserves somewhere else. Wherever they go, they know that we'll be looking for them and willing them to
succeed. For Tom, well, the loss of such an outstanding coach will be keenly felt, even if his retirement had already
been decided upon.
Let's not end on that note, though. After all, Neil Warnock would've had a clear-out too. On the surface, the arrival
of an international star as the club's manager may appear to be uncomfortably close to the kind of folly that's been
commonplace elsewhere. But Gianluca Vialli is a man of considerable substance, not someone trading on past glories. As Graham Taylor's
final Watford game creeps closer, we can celebrate the past in the knowledge that the future holds many possibilities.
Welcome to Vicarage Road, Luca. See you in August.