Premier League

Watford won't sack under-pressure Gracia despite reputation

 • by Tom Bodell
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By now you can set your clock by it: the annual write-Watford-off-for-relegation season preview piece, produced by every publisher and media outlet worth its salt.

Hornets fans revel in it. For four straight seasons their club has been earmarked for the bottom three, only to defy the odds and perceived wisdom.

The fact they’ve done so while changing head coach four times since promotion, well that’s just a bonus. While the football punditocracy gets its collective knickers in a twist, Watford fans sit back and trust what the club’s hierarchy is doing.

Watford owner Gino Pozzo is acknowledged by Watford supporters

And why not? Owner Gino Pozzo and chairman Scott Duxbury are in plenty of credit with Hornets supporters after rescuing, stabilising and now pushing their club forward; securing a best-ever Premier League finish of 11th last term while reaching the FA Cup final.

The supporters’ trust meant there was little in the way of discontent over the summer while Craig Dawson was the only first-team signing before the final week of the window.

Their patience was rewarded 48 hours before the deadline when England international Danny Welbeck was followed through the door by £35million club-record signing Ismaïla Sarr on transfer deadline day.

Yet two games and two defeats into the new season and it’s panic stations, at least if you’re a member of Watford Twitter. Dawson’s rubbish, Ben Foster and José Holebas are past it, Sarr needs to be starting, Gerard Deulofeu is a flop and coach Javi Gracia is a fraud.

It’s not been a good start and the 3-0 opening-day home defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion was particularly dispiriting for the reasons outlined here.

Nor has it been the start fans were expecting. Watford have always started well since winning promotion back to the Premier League in 2015. It’s the second half of the season which is usually cause for concern.

Roberto Pereyra of Watford walks off the pitch dejected after the Premier League match between Watford FC and Brighton

But there’s no reason to panic. A poor start does not have to define a campaign. As Harry Redknapp seemingly never tires of telling anyone who’ll listen, Tottenham Hotspur were bottom with two points when he took over in October 2008. They went on to finish eighth.

It was a similar story at Crystal Palace when Roy Hodgson took over from Frank de Boer in 2017, the Eagles having lost their first four without scoring. They finished in 11th.

What those examples have in common, though, is a change of manager leading to a surge in form.

Watford do not need a new coach and it seems improbable Pozzo and Duxbury will panic or pull the trigger yet.

Despite what the national press might have you believe about their record of firing coaches, the Hornets’ key decision-makers are not rash or impulsive.

Watford manager Marco Silva

Take the removal of Marco Silva in January 2018. The consensus from those outside of Vicarage Road was Watford should have been grateful to have a coach of his calibre in the first place, overlooking the alarming slump in form following Everton’s very public flirtation with the Portuguese.

Given every opportunity to turn things around, Silva was reluctantly relieved of his duties with the Hornets taking a very public swipe at the Toffees for their part in the whole sorry escapade.

A year later and Watford could look back on the decision with complete vindication having secured their highest placing in the Premier League and finished as FA Cup runners-up to the best team in the country.

Not that sentiment will come into it. The fact the Hornets’ hierarchy believe in Gracia’s ability as a coach and what he has achieved in uniting this group of players will.

It’s why they invested heavily this summer in Sarr. At a reported £35million, the former Rennes winger cost almost double the Hornets’ previous record signing, Andre Gray at £18million.

Sacking the man they hope will get the best from Sarr and fatten him up for market before he’s had a chance to properly work with him is nonsensical.

That’s not to completely brush supporters’ concerns under the carpet. Including the end of last season, a run of eight defeats in 11 Premier League games is relegation form. The slump had been put down to a loss of focus ahead of the FA Cup final but that is no longer a valid justification.

In Gracia, though, Watford have a coach they can trust who has a body of work with the club to point to. After steering the Hornets through choppy waters after Silva’s sacking, he re-built the side in his own image last season. The switch to 4-2-2-2 was inspired and he got the best from Deulofeu, Étienne Capoue and Holebas, among others.

This is his first truly poor run of form at Vicarage Road and given everything he has shown up to this point there is plenty to suggest this is little more than a blip. After just two games, a sense of perspective is needed.

Watford have a reputation as a sacking club but that is unfair. Supporters would do well to follow their owner’s lead at this stage and remain calm.

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