Managerial appointments are often gambles, and can never be seen as a guaranteed certainty of success. You can though, with time & consideration reduce the chances that your new boss will fail.
However, when faced with replacing their most successful manager of all time, Watford failed, twice.
Hornets fan David Cameron Walker tells the story of the worst decision his club ever made:
“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time”
The words of George Bernard Shaw, Nobel Prize winner and co-founder of the London School of Economics.
How does this relate to Watford FC?
Well before I get to what is in my opinion the biggest mistake my club has ever made, let me first take you back to 1987. Graham Taylor, having presided over a decade of extraodinary success at Vicarage Road, which saw The Hornets rise from the 4th Division to the 2nd in the first division and a place in the UEFA Cup, had informed then Chairman Elton John that he would be leaving the club to become the new manager of Aston Villa. It is thought that privately Taylor never really wanted to leave and could probably have been talked round, but instead of coercing his manager into staying put; Elton chose to move fast in replacing him with none other than Wimbledon manager, leader of the Crazy Gang, Dave Bassett.
This was an utterly disastrous appointment. Bassett’s Wimbledon were a bastardised version of Taylor’s Watford. Though they too rose through the divisions, they employed a far cruder version of the high-tempo attacking football Taylor had ruffled feathers with at Vicarage Road. The feeling among almost everyone at the club, bar Elton John, was that he was not the right man for the job, and so it proved to be as Bassett went about dismantling all of Taylor’s hard work almost as swiftly as Elton John had been in appointing him.
The most successful era in Watford’s history came to a shuddering halt. Bassett was out the door within 6 months and the club never recovered, until Taylor waltzed back into Vicarage Road in 1995 to embark on a journey that would again lead this small club into the upper echelons of the English game against all odds.
Fast forward to June 2001. After leading the club to successive promotions from Division Two to the Premier League, Graham Taylor has announced his retirement and once again the club are faced with the task of replacing the man the supporters call God. This time however, rather than search for a poor man’s Taylor as Elton had done with Bassett, the directors appointed a man who could quite readily be described as the antithesis of Graham Taylor. Benvenuto, Gianluca Vialli. The former Chelsea manager and Italy striker was the most unlikely of appointments at Vicarage Road and it has to be said that the same glamour that blinded the board also blinded a large percentage of the fans.
I can vividly remember the excitement at reading the Watford Observer when it became clear Vialli was heading to Vicarage Road.
Watford had money to spend thanks to the double whammy of parachute payments and the new ITV Digital TV deal. No longer would we be forced to build a team around free transfers, loans and bargains from the lower leagues. We could go out and buy premium-quality goods. We were going to, in Vialli’s words, become the “Manchester United of the First Division”. Well, as many of you will know, it didn’t quite turn out like that.
We were stuffed 3-0 by Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City on the opening day of the season in front of the soon-to-be defunct ITV Digital cameras. The blue half of Manchester went on to be champions while Vialli’s Watford went on to finish in a very un-Manchester Utd-esque position of 14th.
Huge money was wasted on big contracts for the likes of Ramon Vega, Patrick Blondeau, Pierre Issa, Stephen Hughes, Stephen Glass, Marcus Gayle, Paul Okon and Fillipo Galli (though I shall refrain from criticising Galli as despite pushing 40 he was exemplary on and off the pitch, in a manner you’d expect from a man who used to partner Franco Baresi at Milan).
Stalwarts of Taylor’s team such as Robert Page, Steve Palmer and Tommy Mooney were discarded in a manner that paid no respect to the blood, sweat and tears they had given the football club. Same goes for club legends Kenny Jackett and Luther Blissett from the coaching staff. Everything that made Watford Watford was once again thrown on the scrapheap.
We had comprehensively failed to take even a cursory glance at our own history and we’d made the same mistake as we had in 1987. When replacing someone who had such a profound effect on a football club as Graham Taylor did, twice, at Watford you have to get it right. You have to take your time and make sure you get the right man. It’s not easy so perhaps the first time can be forgiven, but the second time, can most certainly not.
Instead of taking advantage of the miracles Taylor had performed to secure the future of the club they gambled its very existence.
ITV Digital would infamously go on to collapse, Vialli’s bunch of unmotivated, overpaid misfits would serve up largely tepid football and Luca, with many of his expensively recruited failures, left after just a season in charge.
Reserve team boss Ray Lewington, and director Graham Simpson, came to the rescue as they assumed the positions of manager and chairman respectively.
Captain Neil Cox had to convince the playing staff to take a 12% wage deferral in order to save the club from administration. We had to sell our ground, a move which many a club will tell you is one to avoid at all costs, and a little while later we were relying on Elton John playing a concert at Vicarage Road to raise funds so we could actually buy a player.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and maybe I’m being harsh on the board here, some may credit the ambition, some may say that a new direction was needed if we were to step out of the shadow of Taylor. However, I cannot help feel that they were guilty of rushing the whole thing. In a move that only served to undermine the retirement of the greatest manager the club had ever seen, Vialli was appointed before Taylor’s last game. They simply couldn’t wait. They didn’t take the necessary time and care over what was an absolutely vital decision.
With our Premier League parachute payments and strong nucleus of a squad we should have been able to absorb the ITV Digital collapse and could have been in a strong position to bounce back in the manner of Bolton and West Brom, clubs who were in a similar position to Watford back then but have both since gone on to enjoy prolonged spells of Premier League stability.
It simply wasn’t necessary to hand Vialli the keys to the safe, and we nearly paid the ultimate price for our recklessness.
We went from riches to rags in the space of a year. And it was all because the people entrusted with the upkeep of this proud club, a genuine family club, failed to show an appreciation of where it had come from, what it stood for and what it had got wrong before.
Be sure to follow David at @D_C_W and also download the We are going up podcast which he co-presents.