Watford, Rob Edwards, and the malice and malfunction of the Pozzo model


Here we are again: another Watford head coach has been relieved of his duties after an extraordinarily short tenure. But despite the déjà vu, this sacking feels different to those which have preceded it.

Where a strange sense of apathy characterised reactions to previous managerial departures — of which, of course, there have been many since Gino Pozzo acquired the club a decade ago — the response to the dismissal of Rob Edwards has been beyond impassioned and overwhelmingly negative. The fan-led fallout is still in its infancy and could yet grow more fervent when supporters attend upcoming matches.

Furthermore, just last week, striker Keinan Davis told the Watford Observer that:

“We don’t want a change of coach, definitely not … The gaffer needed to be given full control. He needed to be able to move things around. Now he’s got the opportunity to show he can take us up.”

Whilst Davis’ views can’t necessarily be considered representative of each and every voice in the dressing room, it remains to be seen how the playing squad will have stomached the news of this sudden change of direction.

Owner Pozzo has once more put his neck on the line, but while the accountability for this decision is all his, he won’t be the one paying the price with his job should it not work out as intended. Therein lies the problem here: the buck stops with the man at the top, but it’s his subordinates who are left to suffer the consequences of his actions, to pick up the pieces.

That is no fit and proper way to run any football club, let alone one which prides itself on its long-standing family values. If that fact wasn’t clear and obvious before, it surely is now.

The hope — and please excuse the naivety, because without that hope, fans would be staring straight down the barrel of despair — is probably that this latest fiasco serves as some kind of watershed moment, just as the appointment of Edwards was supposed to be in the first place.

However, it’s at best a hollow, fanciful hope when taking into account the track record of Watford’s owners. The trigger-happy Pozzo doesn’t look one bit like putting down his weapon any time soon, even if that didn’t put Slaven Bilic off walking straight into Edwards’ shoes on the same day as his short-lived predecessor’s departure.

To truly grasp the reasons as to why the events of this international break have so viciously boiled the blood of those with an affinity to Watford, we must cast our minds back to four months ago.

Edwards and fans alike were sold a vision at the beginning of the summer. Board-level acknowledgement of the failings of the season prior — in which the Hornets churned through three more head coaches and ultimately whimpered to relegation with a 19th-placed finish, a whole 15 points from safety — was accompanied by the implicit promise of a change of approach for which the 39-year old was supposedly the figurehead.

In an interview with the Watford Observer in June, club Chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury reflected on Edwards’ appointment by saying:

“We know that we could not carry on as we were. Watford Football Club needed its culture back. In Rob Edwards, we have appointed a manager we all totally believe in, and a manager who will lead and drive that charge.”

Whether or not it was naive to embrace that statement as gospel truth is quite beside the point. The transition from the then-74-year old Roy Hodgson to the youthful, promising, upwardly mobile Edwards was apparently symbolic of a new, modern blueprint detailing the immediate and long-term future at Vicarage Road that would, in theory, last beyond the 39-year old’s tenure.

And yet, four months and ten league games after his appointment, Edwards departs — taking with him the dream of a strategy shift — and Bilic becomes the 17th permanent head coach in the last decade, and the eighth since the sacking of Javi Gracia, the longest-serving in that period, in 2019.

That’s right, eight permanent head coaches in 36 months. It’s a staggering turnover rate indicating, and indicting Pozzo for, the high-level mismanagement which has characterised the club’s operation over the last few years. There’s much more to this story than just another Watford boss losing his job.

The most significant quote from Duxbury’s aforementioned interview reads:

“We will be backing Rob Edwards come hell or high water. We believe that he will deliver what we all want — sustained and successful Premier League football.”

The idea that the hierarchy had finally brought in someone they were prepared to support — with both patience and resources — over the long-term was strengthened by the fact that his appointment was finalised just four days after relegation was confirmed in May, crucially giving Edwards the whole summer to plot his rebuild.

Optimism was then heightened further with former Chairman Sir Elton John’s two ‘Farewell Yellow Brick Road’ concerts at Vicarage Road in July, the first of which was attended by Edwards. On that night, towards the end of the show, John — a lifelong supporter — embarked on a remarkable, heartfelt speech about the club’s state of affairs:

“Yes, we had a horrendous year last year, but we’ve got to put that behind us. We’ve got to back the new head coach, we’ve got to back the team and they’ve got to play with a lot more f****** passion than they did last year.”

Knowing that key figures at the club were watching on, the ‘Rocket Man’ spoke on behalf of all Watford fans when he demanded the start of a more enjoyable, at least more palatable, chapter both on and off the pitch following the sheer misery and mortification of the season prior.

Whatever the 2022/23 season had in store, faith was growing that the powers that be were adopting a longer-term strategy than that which had been utilised over the previous decade in order to arrest and reverse the club’s tangible downward trajectory.

The knowledge that failure to deliver on certain promises would lead to an adverse supporter reaction like none seen previously in the Pozzo era also predominated. Vicarage Road has come to host English football’s most notorious merry-go-round but it’s nothing to be proud of, with many increasingly desperate for the circus to end.

Lamentably, Monday’s news of Edwards’ dismissal indicates that it’s still very much in full flow. The threat of rebuke from the Watford faithful failed to deter Pozzo from his decision, meaning the pledged change of approach is no closer to being realised — and that leaves little reason whatsoever for the fans who pleaded for it to remain hopeful about the future.

Relegation in 2020 had shown that, however tempting when the odds are stacked against you, twisting isn’t always a shrewder choice than sticking. It provided vital lessons to be learned and an opportunity to rebuild stronger in the close season. Does that ring any bells?

It should do, because the summer just gone brought an eerily similar predicament: there had been three more unsuccessful head coaches overseeing woeful performances in a season marred further with more supporter disillusionment and dressing room disharmony.

That Watford have come full circle over the last two years is indicative of the club’s recent failures; standing still in football really equates to taking large strides backwards. The notion that the issues driving said failure required a thorough, long-term fix rather than a temporary expedient was, once more, glaringly obvious at the end of the 2021/22 campaign.

Edwards was supposed to be the solution, but his sacking inaccurately and unjustly portrays him as the problem. The idea that head coaches alone can be held wholly culpable for on-pitch failings is nothing short of ludicrous, especially at a club where, due to its operational structure, the buck stops at board level.

In his ten league games at the helm, Edwards was admittedly far from perfect. A win rate of 33.3% failed to engender confidence that his pre-season promotion contenders would live up to expectations. Furthermore, uninspiring performances lacked any imprints of his tactical philosophy which, indeed, was cited as one main reason for his dismissal in an official club statement:

“We felt Rob had enough time to show us the identity of his team, however performances haven’t reflected our hopes and ambitions.”

But the whole point of his appointment was, it seemed, that he should be backed through any inevitable trials and tribulations in order to enable both himself and the team to develop concurrently and to the benefit of each other. Most poignantly, the 39-year old was supposed to be given the opportunity, the tools and the time to create a culture which would outstay him at Vicarage Road.

Alas, it was all in vain. It didn’t have to be this way; had Edwards remained, even in the event that results and performances didn’t improve, the hierarchy would at least have been able to say that they stuck to their word, something which may well have gone a long way towards rebuilding the bridges burnt between themselves and the fanbase.

Plainly the board adjudged both hell and high water to have arrived and decided against sticking by the man they said they would. It is likely the last time such a promise will be taken seriously, let alone accepted or believed, by Watford fans. Trust has been decimated by years of high-level mismanagement encompassing far more than just managerial turnover.

The clear and crucial caveat to Edwards’ subpar performance as head coach is the lack of backing he received from his employers, right from the outset. Let alone patience and encouragement, he was deprived of support in the market. As it turns out, expectations of immediate success with square pegs in round holes and an imbalanced squad doomed Edwards from the moment he took the job.

His title-winning stint at Forest Green Rovers in League Two last season had made evident the 39-year old’s preferences in terms of both tactics and personnel: the key cogs in his favoured system were ball-playing defenders, flying wing-backs and physical, clinical strikers, none of which — bar, perhaps, Davis in the latter category — were recruited for him at Vicarage Road.

Edwards was sold a dream and served a (short) nightmare. He is not the first head coach to fall victim to the hierarchy’s outright refusal to undertake proper squad management, let alone its ruthlessness, and nor will he be the last. Transfer-related blunders have typified the last few years, and the increased involvement of agent Mogi Bayat has only compounded matters.

Although Duxbury has denied any exclusive relationship with Bayat — “he doesn’t have exclusivity … but it’s natural that Gino will build relationships with agents who deliver good players”, he informed the Watford Observer — the fact that he oversaw nine incomings last season alone demonstrates his high level of influence when it comes to the club’s transfers.

Watford are playing a dangerous game dealing so heavily with a man who is under investigation by Belgian authorities for money laundering and fraud, charges for which he already holds previous convictions.

Overall, the head coach played much less of a role in the club’s recent downfall than this agent and de facto Sporting Director, so the fact that the former should be hung out to dry and ousted before the latter feels shamefully immoral, regardless of its predictability.

In truth, the endurance of figures such as Bayat renders the person in the hot seat totally unimportant; it’s Pozzo and his crew who have, and always have had, full and incontestable power at Vicarage Road. The hope that Edwards would be placed at the centre of a new, more effective operational structure is no more. Nothing, not one bit, has changed as a consequence of this saga.

Leopards don’t change their spots; the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; use whatever phrase feels apt, but the bottom line is that the traditional Pozzo model — in which Gino assumes total, unconfined power, exercised by his trusted cronies — no longer works. Results over, yes, eight different head coaches in the last three years speak for themselves.

And by sticking so stubbornly to the way he’s always done things, the owner is gradually destroying all that he had done so well to build over the first seven or so years of his reign.

All this begs the question: what is Pozzo doing? What drives these decisions despite their apparent lack of logical foundations? Question his actions to your heart’s content but the Italian is no fool. What’s at play here is a chasm in both perspective and priorities between owner and supporters.

Pozzo is a businessman first and foremost, an avaricious figure obsessed by profit for which Watford is his principal source. That is fundamentally why he has wielded the axe so early: under Edwards, the Hornets haven’t looked like a side destined for an immediate return to the promised land and financial paradise of the Premier League.  That — rather than ensuring the long-term health and stability of all aspects of the club, perhaps the main concern of the fans — appears to be the owner’s primary motivation.

But he surely can’t be under the impression that even more turmoil will break Watford’s vicious cycle. This decision merely places yet another feeble stopgap in front of the multiple deep-rooted, long-term issues penetrating and damaging the club. Essentially, what all the tactical deficiencies, poor performances, recruitment shortcomings and financial difficulties boil down to is Pozzo’s money-driven mismanagement and the ensuing malfunction of his model.

Only when the owner himself grows humble enough to accept that fact will things start to brighten up again at Vicarage Road.

Follow us on Twitter @ProstInt


About Author

Comments are closed.