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Ciao, ‘franco 19/12/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

When a manager leaves, there’s usually a prevailing emotion that summarises the mood.  In my case…. Lewington: anger.  Boothroyd: relief. Rodgers: irritation.  Mackay: disappointment.  Dyche: bemusement.  That mood is rarely shared universally; after all, to coin a cliché, any group of football supporters will contain at least as many opinions as there are individuals.

But in the case of Gianfranco Zola it’s sadness, and whilst I don’t doubt there’ll be strident denials popping up in the comments section I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that that’s a sentiment shared by almost everyone associated with the club.  Irrespective of the appropriateness or otherwise of the decision, whether or not it’s time for a change, it’s a thoroughly upsetting development.

Slightly bewildering, too.  Sorry if I’m repeating myself…  my co-editor would do a much better job of this, but he’s up to his elbows in nappies (welcome to the other side of the fence, Grant…)…  it’s been a dizzyingly odd trajectory that’s still difficult to fully comprehend.

Last season was dramatic and thrilling.  Zola had arrived at Vicarage Road in July 2012, an appointment that had been rumoured, and amidst the frantic activity of that summer – the takeover, the ousting of Bassini, the raft of arrivals on the playing staff – that we had (again) appointed such a high profile figure was just one of many new ideas to get your head round.  The team took time to come together; many of the new arrivals hadn’t played much football over the last season or two and were slowly introduced to the starting eleven, experimented with as a potent recipe was sought.

That recipe came together at Huddersfield in September.  A change in formation to 3-5-2, the return of Troy Deeney and the introduction of Fitz Hall and Tommie Hoban heralded a gutsy, scruffy, dramatic win.  For most of the next few months the story was of gradual improvement.  It was evident over the course of time, the side growing in confidence and potency to the point where a glorious thirteen-pass move sealed a demolition of the same, initially obstructive opposition in January.  It was evident over the course of so many individual games, when Zola’s careful tweaking and shuffling from the bench invariably sent us out more effective in the second forty-five minutes.  It was evident in the performances of so many players.  Lloyd Doyley, adapting as ever.  Mark Yeates, from a virtual outcast on the wing to a a gutsy box-to-box midfielder back in the first team squad.  Ikechi Anya, from a precocious stereotypical winger, all pace and no end product to a real, potent threat and a full international call-up. Troy Deeney, suddenly the iconic talisman, the leader.  Ekstrand, Abdi, Vydra, Cassetti all emerged from period of virtual inactivity for one reason or another to play significant roles.

It wasn’t perfect, quite obviously.  Matej Vydra’s head was turned in January, and that combined with a greater attention afforded the Czech striker limited his effectiveness.  There was a suggestion that lower profile opposition weren’t afforded enough respect; only one point was gained from trips to the three teams destined for relegation in the second half of the campaign, and there was feeling that the team was running out of legs.

But in a sense, this didn’t matter.  As Ian described in his Yeovil thunks, the casual nature of the side was almost part of its charm, and whilst there were hiccups the general trajectory was upwards.  The second half of the campaign also featured glorious wins at Leicester and Hull, and the wonderfully loopy play-off semi-final.  All of which against a backdrop of this all being somehow a bonus… there was no panicky urgency, no desperation.  We hadn’t expected things to go as well as they did, we were ahead of schedule.  So whilst the horrific bad luck of the Leeds game and the let-down at Wembley were disappointing any dejection was short lived.  This was just the start of the story under Zola, and we were all gasping for the second installment.

Which is where the sense of bewilderment comes in.  It’s as if an author had written the first book of a glorious trilogy, a masterpiece, and then binned it a few pages into the second book, given up and gone off and done something else.  There’s a sense of feeling cheated

This season had started well enough.  Repeated exhortations from every quarter to keep guard on our expectations helped ensure that such failings as there were in the light of the departures of Vydra and Chalobah, the early loss of Abdi and the gradual bedding in of another raft of signings were more than tolerated, almost rejoiced in.  Look at us being all measured and sensible, and quite right too.  Whilst we continued to ship goals we weren’t having any trouble scoring them for the most part and if we were maybe drawing games we could have been winning we weren’t being beaten.  It’s worth remembering that prior to the visit of Derby we’d only lost twice over ninety minutes in fourteen league and cup games, and those both single-goal defeats away from home.  Hardly disastrous.

And that helps explain the bewilderment too.  It just turned so quickly, and absolutely.  A careless, sloppy defeat to Derby rapidly morphed into a situation where you just couldn’t see us getting any points at home.  Whilst our ability on the break was keeping us in away draws, visitors to Vicarage Road quickly learned that turning up and being disciplined and waiting for an opportunity was probably going to be enough.  For all the quality in the squad our forward line lacked pace, our midfield – minus Abdi  – lacked guile and our defence was always there to be got at. Several very limited sides have done just that.

Ultimately, as the Sheffield Wednesday thunks reflect, it was difficult to envisage any other outcome after Saturday.  None whatsoever for anyone who’d heard Zola’s utterly defeated, hapless post-match comments.  The belief, the spark, the fight had gone and Zola left with them, the echoes of his exit from Upton Park under similar circumstances almost deafening.

And yet if there’s any justice, he’ll be remembered extremely fondly.  Ultimately, being a football fan means being part of something.  Winning helps, but enjoying the ride is more important and there have been few more enjoyable rides than last season whatever the disappointing denouement.  

My co-editor would want me to point out that the situation has changed.  That the job required at Watford is different to the one Gianfranco was hired to do, and requires a different man to do it.  That man might be Giuseppe Sannino, let’s see… in fairness, and contrary to what some blinkered, dogmatic, lazy, cheap and downright pitiful reporting would have you believe, the Pozzo/Nani/Duxbury team really hasn’t gotten a lot wrong so far.

But that’s what comes next, and this piece has been retrospective.  We all need to snap out of this and get focused pretty damn quickly;  I don’t doubt that Sannino’s already working on that one.

In the meantime, ciao Gianfranco.  Molte grazie.


1. Luke - 20/12/2013

Yes, sadness. Spot on. Even my wife, a life long Bradford City supporter watched SSN on Monday night in disbelief. Trust me, I know when she is upset. My teenage son spent the evening upstairs, mostly slamming doors. Our house was a miserable place. Good luck GFZ. Thanks for everything. I think it is not going to be quite the same without you.

2. dan - 20/12/2013

‘The thirteen pass move’ was something i will never forget and was,without a shadow of doubt, the most beautiful thing I have seen at vicarage road. Deeney’s play off semi goal may have been even more enjoyable, but it still doesn’t top the beauty of the lead-up to battochio’s goal. For his part in that and everything else these last 18 months I thank GFZ.

3. Roger Smith - 20/12/2013

I’m not sure it was GZ’s tweaking that improved our performance in the second half – some of his subs were quite bizarre – more that we played better when we played with a sense of urgency. The downward spiral started when urgency turned to desperation.

Let’s hope that the Pozzo’s alchemy will turn the team back to gold, as Pottechini has done at Southampton contrary to everyone’s expectation.

Where I think Gianfranco will be most missed is in his ability to attract class players for world-class coaching. So, like you, I’m sad to see him go, but will get behind the new man and give him every chance.

4. Simon - 20/12/2013

Great piece and once again absolutely spot on. You should really write a chapter in a book about Watford…oh wait…. 😉

5. Harefield Hornet - 20/12/2013

A great man, dignified to the end, but in terms of longevity at this level his term was always going to be akin to the life-cycle of a May Fly in one of those wildlife docs on BBC2. Full of beauty and dramatic followed by a sorrowful drowning. If we’d managed to go up last year he may have flourished further but unfortunately when other less talented teams has sussed us out he ultimately had no answer. Personally I was hoping he’d try and tough it out and turn things around. According to the rather insightful piece by Frank Smith in the WOB this morning his replacement is a bit of a tactician who’s fought his way out of the lower echelons of Italian Football. Lets hope the squad rally behind him.

Thanks for the ride GFZ.

6. Steve - 20/12/2013

Must admit mixed emotion yes the ride was good whilst it lasted however as they say all good things must come to an end at some point! Reading between the lines whilst GFZ was certainly a nice guy but seems he may not be disciplined enough to ever be a successful manager.

If reports in the WatOb are correct players have a day off 48 hours before a match and the team only ever preparing tactically for one hour a week. Seems to me that might the reason right there we had no apparent ‘Plan B’ or seemed indisciplined or had a lack of understanding in what each other was doing.

Such a shame really seems like an easy thing to fix all other things considered!

7. hornetboy84 - 20/12/2013

Just like The Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy I for one would have been happy to write off this chapter knowing that the first was great and the third could have been spectacular.

I feel cheated. It’s not been great lately but hey I have seen enough dross in 36 years following the horns to know these are the good times and would patiently have waited for chapter 3 next season.

Ciao and thank you also mr Zola – for I fear we may never see the likes of such fantasy zolaball entertainment again.

8. drewoneone - 22/12/2013

Really good tribute Matt. I still have THE Leicester game on my planner and watch the last few minutes over again to cheer myself up when things haven’t gone well. It almost sums up the Zola time at Watford – amazing goals, skilful proper football, some despair and frustration – but a lot of joy and hope as seen in the fans faces as they ran on the pitch. Just a shame about the final game at Wembley……what might have been.

Thank you Gianfranco for one of, if not the, most enjoyable season (apart from Wembley) I have witnessed since becoming a Watford fan in the late Sixties.

9. wheathampstead hornet - 26/12/2013

Great post Matt. Nothing more to add.

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