Although I doubt many (any?) Watford fans enjoyed last season, I have to admit that the events of the last week have lifted a little of the gloom I have felt since the Watford FC Board made their catastrophic decision last year. Perhaps time tends to dull your memories of pain, but I have to say that for me the last season has been the hardest to bear of the more than thirty that I have followed Watford from the terraces.
Undoubtedly the Bassett appointment was a bad moment and the subsequent gutting of a strong squad - apparently on the basis of "Did you think GT was a good manager? Yes? You're history then." - made for a disastrous, depressing season. But even amidst all that gloom I could still bring myself to hope that things would get sorted out. I am sure I booed Bassett but I did cheer the team as well. Apart from Trevor Senior.
When GT announced his retirement last year I was sad, but not totally surprised. Had that season been the other way round, with a poor start and a terrific finish, I am sure he would have stayed. As it was, the dismal run of form from just before Christmas was not met with the traditional GT bounce back and I wondered if this reflected a tiredness in the man himself. The retirement therefore made sense, even if it felt too soon to many of us.
I remember the speculation among the fans as we left those end of season games as to who would take over. Many felt that Kenny and Luther should take over - after all, the reserves had just had a stonking season under Luther and Kenny had several more years of managerial experience since his first attempt. Others talked about an outside manager coming in to work with the current management team, something that sounded good to me, although I wasn't sure how many experienced managers would be willing to do this. A few others actually favoured a clean sweep, a high profile manager, etc. I recall being particularly amused to hear that Vialli was being touted as a possibility. I mean, get real!
I felt certain that for our businesslike Board the lessons of the Bassett era had been learnt. We needed to sort things out in defence but basically had a good squad. There was no need for major changes. I was particularly reassured to see Tim Shaw quoted in the press (in the Metro, to be accurate, but it's nearly the same thing) as saying that any new manager would be required to work with the current team and that continuity was the top priority. A week later, Vialli was appointed and most of the management team was sacked, to be replaced with an assortment of less qualified and less successful cronies. I was horrified.
I wrote to Tim Shaw to make my views known and, much to his credit (and my surprise), he actually replied. He tended to focus on the departure of Kenny and Luther in terms of its manner rather than its implications for club policy but he did admit that:
1) the board had changed its policy (because Vialli was such a strong candidate) and
2) they were taking a punt (my words, not his) and that only time would tell (his words).
A lot of comment has been made about the Board, along the lines that they are rich businessmen who should be dipping into their pockets to bail out the club, etc. The view seems to be that their crime is not digging deeply enough into their own coffers. In my view, they should be heavily criticised, not for their financial contributions but for being very bad businessmen - certainly in this case.
They had formulated a policy - continuity. They had seen this work elsewhere (Liverpool post-Shankley comes to mind). They had seen its opposite go badly wrong elsewhere (that name Bassett comes to mind again). What sort of manager is it that lets all their business sense fly out the window the instant a famous face with an exciting foreign accent walks through the door? A poor one.
Next, at the risk of sounding like an accountant, what sort of Board lets their manager use capital funds for revenue costs? Vialli was given a war chest (derisory in size for the Premiership, but big by our standards) of £5m or so. This was a one-off sum of money, to pay for things which you buy once (a capital item). Wages (particularly on two or year year contracts) have a habit of recurring; they are an ongoing revenue cost. Vialli spent very little money on transfer fees but used his extra funds to pay for one year of extra wages, while committing the club to two (and some cases, three) years of similar costs. Oh, and our parachute money ran out at the end of the season as well. What sort of businessman allows his company to commit to costs which it has only limited hope of being able to cover? An imprudent one.
Under different circumstances (ie more than eight people watching football on ITV Digital) there would have been more revenue than now looks likely and the player purchases might also have had some resale value, although selling a player who has underperformed is not that easy in any market. A year ago, the TV money looked secure but the Board were still sanctioning expenditure which they knew they could not cover from standard revenue. The ITV Digital collapse has merely exacerbated a problem which was there from the start.
And those famous Vialli plans. Am I alone in noticing that Vialli was always referring to his two year plan at the start of his tenure? Some time round Christmas it suddenly became a three year plan. If the constant reshuffling of the side, the apparent total lack of knowledge of the likely opposition tactics (how many half time substitutions did we have last season?), the alarming habit of playing people out of position and the constant failure to accept that performances were often poor was anything to go by, I doubt there ever was any plan other than "Ray, how about we shave our heads again?".
I presume our Board of hard-nosed, successful businessmen regularly checked progress against the X year plan (where X is an unknown). Perhaps they would care to share it with us some time....
I also have to say that the Board also win prizes for hypocrisy with their recent attempt to renegotiate player contracts. As the league chairmen attempt to sue Carlton/Granada for breach of a contract they refused to renegotiate, they happily push to renegotiate their own contracts with the players. Of course, the wages of many players are obscene and even further beyond our means than they were when first drawn up but at least the Board should not act all offended when someone points out that they are trying to worm their way out of a contract without any legal basis for this.
So let's not forget that, although Vialli and Wilkins have to take a lot of blame for the rubbish served up this season, the Board cannot shirk their responsibilities for our pain and the club's plight. They took a very bad decision a year ago, a situation that was totally avoidable. Mr Shaw and his friends should not be given any credit for their current actions until they admit the full extent of their blame for the mess in the first place.
A final plea to Tim Shaw and the Board. Please, please, please, please, please think before you commit to a new manager. We don't want or need a succession of inexperienced ex-players, chosen to keep the fans happy and to do everything they are told from on high. We've tried that one too and it doesn't work. No more punts. Look for a young manager (sorry, Mr Lewington) who has learnt his trade in the lower divisions (where money has always been tight), who has shown consistent success (and again, Mr Lewington - the LDV Vans final doesn't count; how did our reserves do this year?) and who has vision, drive and enthusiasm. We got it right once before, let's do it again.
Please give us some hope next season.