The old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin needs updating. “Nothing can be certain, except death, taxes and Watford changing their head coach.”
That is what football’s jury would have you believe, at least. The dissenting voices were as outraged as they were ill informed, just for a change, when it was announced Marco Silva had been relieved of his duties on Sunday.
Former Liverpool striker Michael Owen led the chorus, tweeting: “There are surprise sackings and then there is the sacking of Marco Silva! Regarded by so many in the game as one of the brightest young managers around and given the bullet so quickly by Watford. Good luck in finding anyone better…..”
The BT Sport pundit’s thoughts were echoed by colleague Darren Fletcher, who chimed in by tweeting: “Management used to be about building a club. Now it’s about instant success or you’re out. The games changed, I get that, but 6 months isn’t enough time for any manager in a sport where peaks & troughs are unavoidable. Maybe those recruiting should look closer to home.”
And, on the face of it, ten managers or head coaches since the Pozzo family bought out Laurence Bassini in 2012 is a lot. But, yet again, owner Gino Pozzo and non-executive chairman Scott Duxbury have made a brave – but correct – call in the face of criticism.
The decision was explained clearly in an insightful statement, the like of which is scarcely seen when a club changes its manager or head coach. Everton might not have been named, but it was clear the Hornets’ hierarchy felt the Toffees’ approach for Silva crossed a line and the team’s form never recovered.
“This has been a difficult decision and one not taken lightly. The club is convinced the appointment of Silva was the right one and had it not been for the unwarranted approach by a Premier League rival for his services we would have continued to prosper under his leadership.
“The catalyst for this decision is that unwarranted approach, something which the board believes has seen a significant deterioration in both focus and results to the point where the long-term future of Watford FC has been jeopardised.”
When Watford beat Arsenal under the Vicarage Road floodlights on October 14 with a last-gasp goal from Tom Cleverley, this would have been unimaginable. At that point Silva, with his side in fourth, was the golden boy of the Premier League. Sure, there was no way he’d be at Watford beyond the end of the season, a bigger club would snap him up, but supporters just had to enjoy the ride.
But at the start of November everything changed. Everton sacked Ronald Koeman and David Unsworth, promoted from the Under-23 team to keep things ticking over, was struggling badly. Presumably non-plussed by the way his Watford side had blown a two-goal lead at Goodison Park to lose 3-2, the Toffees board began a lengthy and very public flirtation with Silva.
The former Sporting coach was in no rush to nail his colours to the mast, though. “I know what is in my hands, and that is planning for the training session tomorrow,” he said when asked about the speculation following a 2-0 win over West Ham United.
It was not the sort of answer which filled Hornets fans with optimism. They had been here before, after all, when former boss Brendan Rodgers was linked with a return to Reading. The current Celtic manager vehemently denied he would take the vacant hot-seat at the Madejski Stadium.
“When I am asked about other clubs, people are questioning my integrity and one thing I have mentioned is I always have integrity,” he told the Watford Observer.
“I am loyal and find it disloyal when I am asked about other clubs when I am the Watford manager. There is nothing that has changed in that respect.” Less than a month later he was unveiled at Reading.
For Watford supporters there was a queasy sense of Déjà vu. However, despite persistent approaches from Everton – with some reports suggesting the Toffees would be prepared to pay more than £15million for Silva’s services – the former Hull City boss remained.
Five defeats in six followed though the blame was put at the door of misfortune; injuries and suspensions piled up, robbing Silva of key men Cleverley, Troy Deeney, Kiko Femenía, Will Hughes and Abdoulaye Doucouré.
A Boxing Day win over Leicester City might have been the springboard for improvement. But it never came and, although Watford have remained steadfastly in tenth, hopes of a European tour turned into very real fears of a relegation battle.
The same team which put Arsenal to the sword, drew with Liverpool and gave Chelsea a good game were thrashed at home by Huddersfield Town side who had not won on the road since the opening day of the season.
With the majority of the injured players back, save for long-term absentees Hughes, Femenía and Nathaniel Chalobah, the excuses had run out. Things came to a head when hapless Southampton came to Vicarage Road a fortnight ago and raced into a 2-0 lead before being pegged back to draw.
Something deeply concerning was at the core of Watford’s form which resembled that of a side firmly entrenched in the Premier League relegation zone. Three league wins in 14 games was a run of form Pozzo and Duxbury could not ignore.
Silva pleaded, if not demanded, new arrivals in January. But the club nailed their colours to the mast by releasing an interview with technical director Filippo Giraldi, stating the January window was a time to correct mistakes only.
“We usually use January transfer window to correct what has been wrong or if there is an issue like injuries,” Giraldi told Watford’s website.
“We are extremely happy with our squad; we have a talented and well balanced squad. We have to recover some of the injured players because if you look at the injury list, when they were playing, we were in the top five, top six in the table.”
The message was clear: the squad is good enough, now go and get some results.
In the event, Silva could not turn things around. A damaging story in The Times claimed the Portuguese had lost the dressing room when he refused to commit to Watford and even went as far as suggesting unnamed players had asked to join him at Goodison Park.
Naturally those reports were rubbished by the players but it was confirmation of what Watford fans feared and suspected. With his commitment to the cause not absolute, those who were meant to be following Silva had lost their way.
That is not to say the appointment was wrong in the first place, as the statement about Silva’s sacking stated: “The club is convinced the appointment of Silva was the right one.”
Silva was the right man at the right time for Watford. Until a better offer came along and the club was no longer right for him. When Rodgers defected to Reading eight years prior, Watford were not in a position to say no to a fellow Championship club. This time they were, but standing up to Everton did little good; the seed of doubt had been sewn.
The feeling among neutrals is Watford have almost cut their own nose of in spite of their face. With 14 games to go, the Hornets’ form could pick up and Silva could re-claim has status as the brightest young thing in management.
But the egos of the club’s key decision makers had to be put aside to give Silva the chop. Despite perceived wisdom decreeing Watford are a sacking club, that is simply not true. Although there was a growing sense that Silva’s union with the club had become a marriage of convenience, removing him at this point was the least desirable outcome by far.
If any criticism can be levelled at Watford’s power-brokers it’s this: they could have cashed in when Everton were desperate. The club’s model, with the head coach responsible only for coaching the team, means a change of coach causes minimal disruption and the start Watford had made suggested they would have coped again.
In each of the last two seasons it was inevitable the head coach, Walter Mazzarri last year and Quique Sánchez Flores the previous campaign, would leave. This campaign is mimicking the last two. A good start has given way to an appalling run of form which, allowed to continue, would have resulted in relegation.
The key difference is that in each of the last two seasons Watford accrued enough points to coast in the second half. This term the slump began in November rather than January.
Last term Watford limped home in 17th before confirming they would part with Mazzarri – a decision which, inevitably, drew criticism for all sides. Duxbury, the club’s non-executive chairman and CEO, spoke at length on Radio 5 Live about the decision.
“I don’t think we’re different in the sense that we simply have aspiration and ambition,” he said. “I think there’s been certain pundits recently who said we should be happy just surviving; with the crumbs from the Premier League table. I’m sorry, but we want more than just to survive. We want to be a club that is progressive and has ambition.”
However many changes of head coach there are, the club’s aim does not change.