Kevin Affleck runs the rule over the Hornets' win over Everton, and why Javi Gracia is the perfect fit...
There were lots of comments flying around in the build-up to this maelstrom of a fixture. Some were helpful, others were not and some were apparently taken out of context. It was all smoke and mirrors, really.
Yet the one that slid harmlessly under the radar was one from Marco Silva’s pre-match news conference. It was easy to miss. He was asked about his relationship with the Everton owner, the chairman and the director of football and gave the following answer.
“When we have the possibility to meet we do; when not, we speak on the phone,” Silva said.
Now it’s none of our business how things work at other football clubs as there are different ways to skin a cat. Besides, Everton have won 15 major trophies and have been a top-half Premier League side since its inception. But what Silva’s comments do is provide an opportunity to shine a light on how things work at Watford.
Javi Gracia does not have to put in calls to Gino Pozzo, Scott Duxbury or Filippo Giraldi or try to sync their diaries to set up a meeting. The Head Coach sees his bosses at breakfast, at lunch, possibly in between and probably afterwards in what must be the most linear football operations set-up in the league. It would be harder to miss the executive management triumvirate at the training ground than it would be to see them.
Giraldi watches most training sessions and you rarely see him off the phone, while Pozzo and Duxbury are there working on the next move this progressive club will make, on and off the field, working at least one transfer window ahead. The wheels never stop turning. The arrangement results in what Duxbury referred to as “speed of decision-making” in an interview with the Financial Times this season. It underpins the whole operation.
It’s why they were for example, able to strike a deal with Domingos Quina at 10 minutes’ notice and why they were able to sense which way the wind was blowing when Everton made the “unwarranted approach” for Marco Silva in late 2017. Pozzo, Duxbury and Giraldi could see the “significant deterioration in both focus and results” with their own eyes. They lived and breathed it every day. They didn't need to put in a call to a trusted lieutenant at the training ground to gauge the temperature.
“For the security and success of the football club, the Board believes it has to make a change,” read a club statement in January last year.
Once the change was made, there was no installation of a caretaker, no conducting of, to borrow a phrase Manchester United used recently, “a thorough recruitment process for a new, full-time manager.”
Gracia was named as the new Head Coach within hours, suggesting the due diligence on the Spaniard had been done in advance, another example of the forward-thinking and forward-planning that goes on at this club. They weren’t about to leave a job as important as coaching the players down to chance or put it out to tender.
Gracia was hugely grateful for the opportunity and he didn’t think he was doing Watford a favour. He read the brochure from cover to cover and he knew the job of configuring the squad was above his pay grade and down to those with years and years of experience in the player recruitment business.
“From day one it was clear that Javi worked well with us and shared our vision of how to achieve success for Watford Football Club,” said Duxbury when Gracia signed a contract extension in November. “We are looking forward to continuing that work together for many years to come.”
He looks increasingly like the right fit by the game. He is without ego, never moans about injuries or transfers, has the likeability factor, fully understands the fabric of the club and you can’t imagine him throwing his toys out of the pram if and when a perceived bigger club comes in for him. The smile he gave as he exited the stage on Saturday was full of class and spoke of a man who fully got what Saturday’s game was all about. He privately knew the significance and yet he didn’t make the victory all about him, but yet acknowledged his role in it at the same time. He was the reluctant hero.
So now, with the possible exception of Ray Lewington, we have the man we’ve all probably craved since Graham Taylor left in 2001, the anointed successor to the great man who wins football matches together with the hearts and minds of the supporters.
With him in situ, we can leave the past behind and no longer wonder what that ex-partner is up to. You know the one. We don’t have to check their social media accounts, see when they were last online on WhatsApp or ask friends if we know what their movements are these days. We’ve finally had the big showdown meeting at the house for the first time since the bitter break-up, we’ve got a few things off our chest, told them exactly how they hurt us and now we’ve moved on. We can now draw a line under that relationship safe in the knowledge that we’ve now got a marriage seemingly made in heaven.
After all, the Golden Boys finished six places and eight points behind Everton last season. Now the team are four points ahead. As Derek Payne said on commentary: “The grass isn’t always greener.”
It was kind of fitting that three players who didn’t really nail down a regular spot under the previous Head Coach sparkled and shone on Saturday. While everybody was at least a seven out of 10, Étienne Capoue made more interceptions that anybody else, José Holebas capped an all-action performance at left-back by giving Richarlison a two-yard head start in the second half and still caught him up while Andre Gray came off the bench to score the winner.
“You can either sit and sulk or come on and try to make a big difference,” said Gray afterwards, summing up how even if you are out in the cold under Gracia, you are never in the deep freeze.
Gracia was sold on the Gray-Deeney partnership for the first eight games, but then Deeney injured his hamstring ahead of the game at Wolves and the landscape changed. The Head Coach didn’t feel Gray was suited to the lone-striker role, so he went with the more physically-imposing Isaac Success and asked Gerard Deulofeu to operate as an auxiliary striker. Gray has not been able to force his way back into the Premier League XI since, although his cause was not helped by a leg injury that ruled him out of the festive programme.
Gray is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s a goalscorer and the one player on the books who gets into the positions to score ones like he did on Saturday. His best work is done in the penalty box, it’s where he comes alive, and he might just be the player who takes those gilt-edged chances being regularly spurned early on in matches. Think the ones against Newcastle, home and away, at home to Burnley and away at Crystal Palace.
“Watford don't score enough of those goals,” said Payne. “Gray made a bit of a difference when he came on: it was more of a partnership [with Deeney]. It would be a surprise if he is not in the starting line-up in the next Premier League game. He has earned his place by his attitude and been an example in getting your head down and working hard. You’ve heard no complaints from him off the pitch.”
It was a similar story for Allan Smart in the famous 98/99 season. He was in and out of the side and had to bide his time and when he got his chance, boy did he take it at Wembley.
“Hardworking striker [is] Andre Gray,” Smart tweeted. “Good to see him on the scoresheet – there’s more to come from him. He’s got loads in the locker.”
But even if he hasn’t it’s fine. There is more to life than the form of a striker or a squabble over a former manager. The pre-match tribute to Emiliano Sala, the brave words of young Anton at half-time on bullying and mental health and the injuries sustained by two Watford fans after the match demonstrated that.