Last season Watford conducted their transfer business in a way that received criticism, scandal and derision from opposition fans and management alike. Many saw it as a loophole in the Football League regulations that allowed for an unfair advantage, and so accordingly clubs (including Watford) voted for changes in the rules to limit the number of international loans allowed to a club during a season, and at the same time limiting the number of players that can come from a single club. Whilst any FL club could have used the same ‘loophole’ without a similar ownership arrangement in place, being able to tap into the Pozzo resource pool of players certainly made it easier for Watford to do it.
The rules have now changed and the ‘loophole’ has closed. Opposition fans delighted at the prospect of cheating Watford being left with no squad after all the loan players returned to Udinese and Granada, and revelled in the un-researched opinion that a full transfer embargo was in place to stop us signing new players. All along the Pozzos, Scott Duxbury & Gianluca Nani had in mind a new way to conduct business, once again breaking no rules but which I’m sure will also be frowned upon by other teams.
Scott Duxbury has always been very up front about the reasoning behind last season’s loans. With the club takeover by the Pozzo family being finalised so close to the start of the season there simply wasn’t sufficient time to judge the potential ability or compatibility of the players, let alone complete the necessary paperwork to finalise the permanent transfers. When asked at the shareholders meeting towards the end of 2012 about whether the players would be signing permanently in the forthcoming January transfer window, Duxbury responded without question that it didn’t matter; “they’re our players”, he said. Last season was a perfect way to trial these new players and a totally new system with a promising but ultimately still managerially inexperienced coach, a season of bedding them in and seeing which players worked and which didn’t.
This summer break we’ve had (to date) the announcement of 14 permanent signings to Watford Football Club. The majority of last season’s loan players, alongside the new faces Acuña, Angella, Faraoni, Fabbrini and Iriney are all now contracted officially as Watford players for between one and five years. While permanently signing last years returning loan players made immediate sense – we were glad to see the return of all of them – tying the new players to the club in some cases up to the year 2018 was a bold move, and indeed also for the players themselves agreeing to play for Watford, a Championship club from a small town outside London compared to the glitz and glamour of Serie A.
With the new loan rules in place a team can only have a maximum of five loan players in an 18-man match day squad, with a maximum of four from any one club in the course of a whole season. So why sign all these players permanently, when these new faces could easily be covered as loan signings?
The Pozzo approach is to manage players as resources. I mentioned earlier about the pool of players from which they are able to move players around, and as a club Watford are only newcomers to this situation. We have seen the benefits to this system; a selection of fantastic players that would otherwise be out of reach of a club like Watford – either financially, or simply that the players wouldn’t give the club a second look without the guiding hands of the Pozzo family reassuring and encouraging them – and are yet to see any downside of having our best players stolen from us. It’s not in the interest of the directors to weaken one team to the benefit of another, but purely an exercise on drawing on the players available to fill any gaps in a squad, or to utilise the clubs position as a proving ground or shop window for appropriate players.
With the wealth of talent available on the books of the three clubs it doesn’t feel that one club is the priority. We would be forgiven as Watford fans for being uncertain at first as to whether we would indeed be a feeder club for our Serie A-playing, European competition-qualifying brethren in Udine, with a constant revolving door of loan players changing from season to season, the required consistency and momentum needed to build on the previous season and improve on a squad’s experience never being given a chance to form, and therefore never advancing us as a club. But we have built a team with players that have dramatically improved the squad, and yet (until the murmurings from Udinese fans at the signings of Angella, Faraoni and Fabbrini) had barely registered on the radar of our Italian cousins.
I return, however, to the title of the post to ask exactly what these permanent signings mean as part of the bigger picture. We have nothing to question or undermine the longevity of the Pozzo plan for Watford. They talk about clearing the club debt, developing and increasing attendances to justify the completion of the south east corner and the ultimately the building of the new east stand. We’ve heard this before, but with the track history that the Pozzo’s have with Udinese and Granada, it really could happen this time. Let’s be honest, we’re not hurting by only having three stands in operation. The outstanding increase in season ticket sales (the club today announced that to date we now have 11,700 season ticket holders for the forthcoming season) has only just started warnings that there would be limited numbers of match tickets to non-season ticket holders, so it remains to be seen how ticket sales and attendances average throughout the season, and if many (or any) games will indeed sell out. While the south east corner and the east stand as they are are no things of beauty, the football on the pitch is making up for it. Should we go one better than last year and actually make it into the Premier League this would change the situation, and we would initially miss out on increased attendances when the big boys came to town. I’m sure that, especially after the success of the 2012/13 season, those in charge will have a plan in place should this happen.
So with such long term plans underway, it marries up with the longer contracts handed out to the Italian players – players that the Pozzos know to be of quality. By signing them until 2017/2018, it keeps them in the Pozzo pool either for Watford, a return to Udinese, or a better negotiating position should their performances bring attention from Premier League or European clubs. We can’t say for sure about the in and outs of the deals between Udinese and Watford for these players. Some reports suggest a nominal transfer fee with a buy back clause equalling the same amount allowing for easy transfers back to Udinese should the player or management so wish, but with each transfer a new contract would need to be signed, with signing bonuses attached, and so could prove costly to do so too often.
Playing the devil’s advocate, what would be the situation should the Pozzo’s lose interest in Watford and decide to cut their losses? These clauses, if in places in the contracts, would be able to remove them from Watford and would leave the club in a wholly precarious position. There is no hard guarantee that Gabriele Angella will still be playing for Watford in 2018 as his contract suggests, but likewise when is this the case for any player signing a contract with a club. Ultimately, the permanent signings to Watford are only as permanent as the Pozzos want them to be, but from what we’ve seen we have no reason to believe that with the club’s best intentions at heart, the right players, and the best players, will be at Watford as long as the Pozzos feel they need to be.