The Watford Football Club was only slightly set back after their 6-0 loss to Manchester City on May 18 in the FA Cup Final. Echoing the words of Head Coach Javi Gracia when he stated, prior to the match, “I don’t need to win a title to feel it was a successful season,” the team as a whole is celebrating a great season in spite the defeat at Wembley.
In fact, in the words of owner Gino Pozzo and CEO Scott Duxbury following the defeat, the FA Cup Final match was merely “the start of a new chapter.”
Watford FC is a relatively humble Premier League club with roots stretching back to 1881. The club gained international attention when it was owned by musical legend Sir Elton John from 1977 to 1987, with the legendary Graham Taylor as Manager. In 1984 they played their first FA Cup at Wembley, but were defeated by Everton 2-0.
Those glory days were followed by a period during which the club fell from grace for several decades, riddled with debt and adrift in the Championship division. But those Cinderella days came to an end when Pozzo purchased the club from then-owner Laurence Bassini in 2012. By 2015, Pozzo’s Hornets were once again squarely seated at the Premier League table, and by 2019 the Hornets had made one of football’s most impressive comebacks to face off against Manchester City in pursuit of an FA Cup.
So there’s definitely more to celebrate than to whine about at Vicarage Road. Let’s face it: as one of the poorest clubs in the Premier League, Watford was an underdog, not only on the playing field but also in the economic turf, shadowed by Premier League stars like Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal, and Abu-Dabi-owned Manchester United, the world’s wealthiest football club.
But Watford belongs to Gino Pozzo, a member of the Pozzo family, known for their miraculous formula of rebuilding European football clubs through an aggressive scouting and trading strategy. This strategy has proved its worth at clubs like Udinese in Italy, which the Pozzo family still owns, and the Granada FC in Spain, which the family bought in 2009 amid the throes of a huge financial setback, and sold in 2016 at a robust profit.
And Watford is undergoing a similar rise-to-fame story.
Mike Parkin, co-presenter of From the Rookery End, a popular podcast for Watford supporters, commented with regard to Pozzo, “I think a large percentage of Watford fans see him as a saviour, because of where we were when he took over. To rescue Watford and then transform the club into what we see today, I’m not sure there’s anyone who isn’t very grateful. Barely a matchday goes past when I don’t think about what would have happened if he hadn’t taken over.”
Because Watford can’t afford to purchase ready-made star players as supporters might wish, the Pozzo strategy is to buy outstanding, little-known players for less, nurture their skills and experience, turn them into star players, and then sell them at a hefty profit. This has proven to be a winning strategy.
Brazilian goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, one of the players that Watford signed for practically nothing who was on the field at the FA Cup final, is an example of the Pozzo model in action. A relative unknown before his stint at Watford, Gomes’ name is now a household word among fans of the Premier League
Scouting and trading is at the heart of Watford’s rise to success, and a trademark of the Pozzo ownership model at their other clubs. Watford deploys about 12 senior scouts in addition to dozens of junior scouts, who live in different locations around the globe, and scour the world for unsigned football talent, providing recommendations. These recommendations are brought before Gino Pozzo, who makes the final decision.
For a small club, the task is magnanimous, but Watford is more active at scouting and trading players than any other Premier League club. In fact, since their recent return to the Premier League in 2015, the club has purchased and sold more players on average than any other Premier League squad.
The Watford approach is definitely different from the norm, and riskier when compared to other clubs. “A lot of the bigger clubs, they will look at a player and they need a little more convincing, a little more proof . . . we’ll take a risk,” explains Duxbury. “If we just simply replicate what the bigger clubs are doing, we’re going to fail, because we don’t have their resources. We have to do something different. We can’t match them pound for pound.
At this point in Watford’s path to glory, after this highly successful 2018-19 season, key decisions must be made regarding who will stay and who will go in the coming seasons at Vicarage Road. While bigger clubs are now demonstrating interest in recruiting players such as Abdoulaye Doucoure, Roberto Pereyra, and Gerard Deulofeu, it may be more strategic at this point for Watford to hold on to some of their human treasures. While the Pozzos highly encourage players to make major career moves at the right price, it’s possible that right now, the best strategy may be to retain the core of this squad and continue to build on its success.
Watford has also seen a series of comings-and-goings among Head Coaches in the years since Pozzo ownership began to transform the club. Current manager Javi Gracia is signed until 2023, which bodes well for the club, given their improved performance under his guidance. And Gracia knows that working for Gino Pozzo means working with the players that Gino Pozzo selects. Still, he believes his influence and opinion is valued by Pozzo and Duxbury.
“It’s the way we can improve,” he explains. “They have to know my opinion, they have to know the way I see my team and my players. They have to know that my point of view in some moments can be different but always in a positive way and thinking about a way to improve.”
Following the FA Cup match, Gracia commented, “I think it’s a step forward for us to live this experience and I’m sure we’ll have more options in the future, not only in the FA Cup, but in the League as well. We want to improve and we want to do better next season and I think we’re in the right way with the players we have.”
If Gracia’s words are any indication of what’s coming, for the time being, it looks like the majority of the players that Watford supporters love most will be around to kick the ball again next season.