|FA Cup final on the BBC: Man City v Watford|
|Date: Saturday, 18 May Kick-off: 17:00 BST|
|Live coverage of Manchester City against Watford in the FA Cup final on BBC One, including highlights, across the BBC Sport website and app; live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and local radio; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.|
It’s June 2012 and Watford’s future is hanging by a thread.
Hornets owner Laurence Bassini has threatened to pull out of a deal to sell the club to the Italian Pozzo family, with debts rising and a winding-up petition looming.
Bassini says it’s off, journalists are being told it’s on. A game of brinkmanship is unfolding and, if the deal collapses, so could the club.
At that point, seven years ago, the chances of Watford, then a Championship side, following a fourth straight season in the top flight with an FA Cup final against Premier League champions Manchester City looked pretty remote.
But now it’s reality, as Javi Gracia’s side prepare to line up at Wembley on Saturday in their first FA Cup final since 1984.
“The one thing I have been really keen to point out to everybody is that this season is not our day in the sun,” says chief executive and chairman Scott Duxbury, appointed by the Pozzos to oversee the running of the club.
“This is the start of what we want to do. This is where we should be and will be competing. We are not going to wait 35 years for another cup final.”
None of it would have happened if it were not for a tense, nervy seven-day race to beat a winding-up petition back in the summer of 2012.
“It had become apparent the club was in real danger. Debts were mounting,” said Geoff Doyle, sports editor at BBC Three Counties Radio.
“The atmosphere around the place was tense and there was a realisation the club was at a huge risk of going under. The future looked bleak.”
On Friday, 22 June, then owner Bassini told a local newspaper: “[The Pozzos] don’t have the money, so I’m not doing the deal.”
Giampaolo Pozzo and son Gino – the latter the driving force behind Watford’s ideology since the takeover – frustrated by what they saw as public posturing, responded: “There is no issue with funds. Both parties hope to conclude shortly.”
In truth, Bassini actually needed the go-ahead for the sale from a board of bond holders, who dealt with a large part of the negotiations and helped see it over the line.
On Friday, 29 June the deal was finalised, winding-up petition averted.
“Eventually it got to the point that a day before we were completing, the club was facing a winding-up petition from HMRC, which crystallised the true extent of the urgent debt. That was over £1m,” said Duxbury.
“Unless that was paid the club was facing liquidation or administration. It was that which prompted the final sale of the club on the Friday morning to avoid the winding-up petition.”
And that was the starting point for a journey that has seen the Hertfordshire side become established in the Premier League and anticipating a big day at Wembley, even if for a time the effects of the previous regime were still being felt.
Bassini, who recently failed in an attempt to buy Bolton Wanderers, handed over a club with £1.2m of debt and a litany of creditors, with each invoice having to be individually investigated to check its legitimacy – a painstaking process.
For instance, in November 2015, 18 months after the sale to the Pozzos, the club was ordered to pay £900,000 to a lender from deals Bassini had not announced to authorities.
Bassini was eventually banned from involvement in football for three years – about the same amount of time it took for the new owners to fully understand the depth of the problem they had inherited.
There were also fresh issues to deal with: two years ago, former chairman Raffaele Riva was banned from football, and the club fined £4.3m, after he was found guilty of forging bank letters as evidence of funds for the takeover – the Pozzos were cleared of any involvement or knowledge.
Criticism was then aimed at the club for its policy of signing players from Spanish team Granada and Italian side Udinese – clubs also owned by the Pozzos.
Ten players arrived on loan from Udinese in the Pozzos’ first season, prompting the EFL to change the rules around international loans.
And there were the multiple managers – Gracia is the ninth appointment in the Pozzos’ seven years at Watford.
|Watford’s managers under Pozzos|
|Gianfranco Zola – July 2012-December 2013 (75 games)||Quique Sanchez Flores – June 2015-May 2016 (44 games)|
|Giuseppe Sannino – December 2013-August 2014 (36 games)||Walter Mazzarri – July 2016-May 2017 (41 games)|
|Oscar Garcia – September 2014 (four games – left because of illness)||Marco Silva – May 2017-January 2018 (26 games)|
|Billy McKinlay – September 2014-October 2014 (two games)||Javier Gracia – January 2018- (60 games)|
|Slavisa Jokanovic – October 2014-June 2015 (36 games)|
To the critics, it was the sign of a club with a scattergun approach to team leadership, to the club it was just a different type of model, with player recruitment handled by a central, backroom team.
“When we have the much documented changes, we actually do have a complete level of stability. It isn’t the turmoil that the media like to portray,” said Duxbury.
“The same office staff, the same way of training. It is just finding that head coach who fits in and really works with our ideology; few days off, recovery on a Sunday immediately after a game. In Javi we have a person who fits that, who loves coaching and has a real passion for working with the players.”
According to Doyle: “Pundits and the media were so critical at the time but it was mainly as a result of a crazy autumn in 2014 where I recall four different coaches in charge in two months. It seemed like there was a new manager press conference every other week.
“Other fans poured scorn at the frequent coach departures but Watford supporters understood.
“The board were ruthless in their pursuit of success; if the head coach wasn’t improving the side season on season they would be gone.”
To exemplify the fluidity of Watford’s head coach recruitment, Slavisa Jokanovic left the club just six weeks after taking the Hornets back to the Premier League for the first time in eight years.
Quique Sanchez Flores, Walter Mazzarri, Marco Silva and now Gracia have been at the helm across four top-flight seasons, with the most recent 11th-place finish the club’s highest for 32 years.
“In year one in the Premier League, we had to bring in 10 to 15 players. That has now gone,” said Duxbury.
“Every summer we have a war cabinet. We re-evaluate the squad, where the weaknesses are, and look to address them.
“This summer we might bring in two or three players just to supplement what is already a very talented Premier League squad.”
A victory in Saturday’s FA Cup final would secure Europa League football next season, putting the Hornets in a major European competition for the first time since the 1983-84 campaign.
“We want to qualify for Europe, then we want to win the Europa League, then we want to qualify for the Champions League. It may never happen, but if you don’t have that ambition and desire, what is the point? There really is no point,” said Duxbury.
“We were fighting for something special all season and I think we can achieve even more with this talented squad in the future.”
But what is the ceiling to Watford’s ambition? It is, after all, a club based on the fringes of London, competing with the fanbase of Tottenham and Arsenal, and in a stadium that, while unrecognisable from the three-sided ground of five years ago, has a current capacity of just under 22,000.
“If we all have concrete-built 60,000-capacity stadiums and everyone is saying ‘we are big, we have history’ – how boring,” said Duxbury.
“It is good to have clubs that are, in some people’s definition, smaller but doing things differently.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t be big and have big success, just because our stadium is boutique, just because we live in a smaller town rather than a big central city, it doesn’t mean we can’t have big success and can’t deliver big things. And we will.”
Regardless of what Watford can achieve in the coming years, there will be a dreamy disposition among Hornets fans as they bustle down Wembley Way on Saturday, conscious that if it were not for the intervention of the Pozzos seven years ago, all of this would be very unlikely to be happening.