I was proud of myself for preparing most of this column a week early.
Like the planned visit to my mum in Norfolk over Christmas, it’s had to go back to the drawing board.
Part of my preview was an assessment of why Watford’s manager won Manager of the Month for November, and was obviously valued by the club’s owners.
When we talk about the curse of that award, we generally mean the manager promptly losing a game. We don’t think of him promptly losing his job.
Let me return to Watford’s lively record with managers after a brief diversion about why I volunteered for this column, and some memories of our Boxing Day opponents.
When someone asks me where home is, I answer without hesitation “Norfolk”. Yet I’ve lived most of my life more than a hundred miles away. University, then work, took me from the great county; maybe I’ll return permanently someday, but I have a life and friends elsewhere.
More specifically, in Watford.
For the past 35 years it’s been my local team. Never my team, but my local one.
I know Watford’s ground well (though I’ve actually spent more time next door in Watford General). Like City, they’ve had the same home for a long time; in the case of Watford with Vicarage Road, since 1922.
I’m not always a fan of stand naming, but two of the Vicarage Road stands are surely aptly named – in honour of Elton John and Graham Taylor respectively.
Elton was and is a true fan, committed to the club not only financially but emotionally (not dissimilar to Delia and Michael in our case). He found an inspired ally in Taylor, who led Watford from the fourth tier to the top tier in six years. And was also one of the nicest men in football.
These days, the Rookery End is for home fans – but it wasn’t always so. My most vivid memory of Vicarage Road is also one of my greatest memories of football.
On 29 April 1972 I sneaked off with a few friends to Watford, to witness the final game of the season that took City, for the first time in our history, into the top flight. Dave Stringer’s header, in front of us, secured the title.
“Us” was several thousand. Our chant that day was no exaggeration: we did take The Rookery.
These days, Watford’s fortunes revolve around the Pozzo family. Giampaolo was the driving force in the creation of their football empire; his son Gino is now in charge.
From a distance, and especially this week, it’s easy to caricature the Pozzos as remote and capricious football owners. The truth is a little more nuanced.
True, they have a football empire within which some “interesting” dealings take place. They own Udinese in Italy as well as Watford here, and for several years owned Granada CF in Spain. Convenient switches of players between the clubs have been a recurring feature, a current example being Gerard Deulofeu’s loan from Watford to Udinese.
And as illustrated last Saturday, Watford shouldn’t be high on the list of any manager looking for an extended tenure. Since June 2012 when the Pozzos took control of Watford, Norwich have had three changes of manager; Watford have had thirteen.
While Norwich have had two managers since January 2015 in Alex Neil and Daniel Farke, Xisco Nunez has just become the ninth “permanent” occupant of the chair at Watford in that time.
[A trivia question for real buffs: without cheating, name those nine. Answers at the end.]
For balance and in fairness, the Pozzos are well regarded around here. Partly because they’ve presided over a lot of success and Premier League football for Watford fans, but also because of their genuine commitment and contribution to the community.
Unless you’re a manager, they’re far from the worst owners in football.
Setting aside managerial shenanigans, most observers would be unsurprised at the current Championship table after 20 games, with the three relegated clubs all in the top six. But they ought to be surprised; it rarely happens that way.
Relegation brings upheaval both on and off the field. Most damagingly, perhaps, the losing mentality of relegated teams is hard to shake off. Credit to all three clubs for their records so far – above all, arguably, to Norwich who’ve done it without a change of manager.
With better reason, observers would say that both Norwich and Watford escaped relatively unscathed from the summer transfer window. Both lost a couple of major assets (Godfrey and Lewis in our case, Doucouré and Estupinan in Watford’s), but held on to others who many expected to depart.
In addition to keeping their record signing Ismaila Sarr, Watford still have Ben Foster, Tom Cleverley, Will Hughes, Etienne Capoue, Andre Gray and a host of others to call on – plus their talisman Troy Deeney. It’s a strong squad.
So, an important Boxing Day for both clubs. Watford’s strength so far has actually been their defence; together with Swansea and Middlesbrough, they’ve conceded the fewest goals in the division.
But this time I’m optimistic. City are on a roll, and I fancy Teemu Pukki to be able to show us the goal celebration he surely had planned last weekend in honour of his new daughter.
I’ll say 3-1 Norwich.
Meanwhile, that list of “permanent” Watford managers since 2015. I’d have got around half of them – big respect to those of you who’ve done better:
Slavisa Jokanovic, Quique Sanchez Flores (twice), Walter Mazzari, Marco Silva, Javi Gracia, Nigel Pearson, Vladimir Ivic, Xisco Nunez.
PS Sorry not to offer any insight into the latest manager. Can’t say much, other than him being an even better Scrabble hand than his predecessor.
Meanwhile, my warmest wishes to our readers for a peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and happy New Year.