It's been almost a year since local entrepreneur and previous owner, Laurence Bassini, accepted an offer he couldn't refuse from the Pozzo family. Followers of Watford, used to seeing the likes of life-long fan, Elton John, run the club, were understandably apprehensive of the changes afoot. The unease grew when the successful Sean Dyche was sacked and Gianfranco Zola brought in. It wasn't long until accusations started that Watford F.C. had lost its soul. On the face of it, you can see why.
9 of the 14 players involved for Watford in Monday's defeat at Wembley were loanees. Almost all herald from either Udinese or Granada, the two other clubs that make up the Pozzo conglomerate. These temporary players have been the majority of Watford's match-day squad throughout the season.
There is nothing illicit about the scheme. In England, loans from foreign clubs are registered as transfers and so don't count towards the usual quota. The fear, however, is that by excessively exploiting this loophole, Vicarage Road will become a dumping ground for Udinese's young but inexperienced talent and those who have stagnated and are farmed out to the pastures of Hertfordshire in order to recoup some of their lost value before being sold on.
It's not only that home-grown talent may go unnoticed amidst the swathes of foreign players; the strategy has led to more fundamental changes. The new owners have already downgraded the club's highly developed youth academy two levels, meaning much less funding for the fostering of Watford's own youth.
Most of the criticism, however, has been voiced from outside the club. In fact, it is largely from rival managers. As is often the case, Ian Holloway's approach to the matter was my personal favourite.
Yet you can't deny the logic of the business model. Mutual benefits exist for all the clubs involved and player pooling will reduce spending and reliance on transfers. Nor can you deny its success, with all 3 clubs punching above their weight in their respective leagues. This success, whether noble or not, seems to be at the heart of the fan's seemed serenity.
Yet, there is a correlative danger. Because the conglomerate is effectively a very large shop window, when a player's value hits the magic number, they'll likely be out the door in a flash, much like a derivative in a stock market.
Udinese have a history of treating players in this manner and this is a worry for Watford. Though I am somewhat sceptical of the comparison (have you ever seen a trading floor?), the sale of Inler, Sanchez, Zapata, Asamoah and Isla for a cumulative profit of over £75 million in the space of 5 years suggests there is at least some truth in the claim.
Matej Vydra, then, must be a prime candidate to become the next Credit Default Swap. His 20 goals in the Championship this season are likely to see a number of offers come in for him and decision of whether to sell or not will likely be made from North-East Italy.
But departure to an external party is not the only risk in this model; Vydra and those successful like him may be merely transferred between clubs, dependent on who is fighting for greater financial reward (currently Udinese).
Operationally, Watford is now just a division of a multinational company. The allocation of players, and thus squad selection, is ultimately handled by Giampaolo Pozzo and his cronies. The managers underneath them have become puppet figures.
Moreover, the lack of continuity is a concern for the fans. The club may be winning matches but if the Hornets' nest becomes a mere revolving door for foreign talent, local support may begin to wane.
The greatest problem for Watford is the future. Just like the aforementioned equity world, sustained 'investment' rests on a knife-edge; one error of judgment and the whole thing could implode. So long as the Pozzo family remain committed, the issue of longevity is not such a concern. But if after a few seasons they decide to pull the plug and the loans dry up, Watford, like the global (well, Western) economy, really could go down the drain.
Even if they don't, there will be issues down the line. If Zola isn't kidding when he says the target is Europe, and provided Udinese maintain their current levels of success, there will have to be a change of tack at some point.
A similar venture, ENIC, was forced to divest its shareholdings after two of their teams (Tottenham and Slavia Prague) were drawn together in a European game in the late 1990s. It was ruled by UEFA and the European Commission that, 'for the integrity of the game', clubs with the same shareholders could not meet in European competitions.
It's certainly a high-risk, high-yield strategy for the Golden Boys. Everything seems pretty rosy at the moment but in the long run, the side-effects are potentially detrimental. Nevertheless, in a time of economic uncertainty and debt-laden clubs, the Pozzo family have managed to re-energise both Granada and Watford entirely within their own means. In my eyes, their efforts shouldn't be looked upon with anything much stronger than circumspection, at least not yet.Suggest a correction