The Italian Job: How Watford, A Small English Soccer Club, is Becoming a Large English Soccer Club

Watford, on the outskirts of London, has barely been Premier League club at all. But new ownership have brought in new expectations.

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Apr 1 2016, 1:00pm

Evan McGarvey

On the slow train out of London, asymmetric glass towers give way to industrial parks which give way to stooped rows of attached brick homes—and finally a football stadium. My destination was Watford. The town—quaint, tidy—is technically in Hertfordshire, a county just northwest of metropolitan London. But it also sits just inside the M25 ring road, a traditional boundary between the center of England and its provinces.

The Watford Football Club lies, psychologically at least, at the fingertips of London. But can a charming small club in a charming small town ride the wave of new Premier League wealth and "London" caché into undiscovered territory?

Watford hosted Stoke City two weeks ago in Premier League competition. Watford's last match had bene a delirious 2-1 FA Cup quarterfinal victory against Arsenal, Premier League royalty, a club that's as London as London gets. The semifinal will be played in hallowed Wembley Stadium. Watford will be there.

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However, the club has fallen this year in the Premier League, backsliding from strong early season form, when they were as high as seventh, into fourteenth place. Winning the FA Cup can't save them from the possibility of Premier League relegation.

The crowd on Watford's main street wasn't dense with supporters. Ninety minutes before a critical game for both teams—Stoke aiming for a European place, Watford trying to grit out a respectable mid-table finish—and the streets were filled with everyday Britain: A South Asian family carried Marks & Spencer bags, a cluster of rail-thin white teenagers laughed and smoked, errands were run, strollers were pushed.

I saw an older man sitting on a bench. He had the yellow, black, and red stripes of a Watford scarf tucked under his jacket. I approached him and asked him how he was feeling about the club. Alec Waring, 69, said that he's been a supporter of Watford since 1979, and that this has been a "fantastic season." He said that he's "very confident" in the club, and this year's goal to "stay where we are" (avoiding relegation), will be surpassed by the eventual dream of "getting into Europe."

Who can blame him for his optimism? Watford's rise from anonymity to trophy contention and sustained Premier League existence is special—but the reason for it comes from someplace far from the club's working class neighborhood. Since 2012, Watford has been owned by foreign investors whose power comes from neither petroleum nor finance, but from football clubs themselves.

The Pozzo family—father Giampaolo and son Gino—owns not just Watford, but Udinese in Italy's Serie A, and also Granada CF in Spain's La Liga. The scouting network among them is strong, in particular Udinese's. The Italian club recruited Arsenal's Alexis Sánchez when he played in Chile and did the same for Bayern Munich's Medhi Benatia when he was mired in the French second division. When the Pozzo family bought Granada in 2009, the club was in the Spanish third tier and on the verge of liquidation. They stabilized Granada and have made the club a consistent low table role player in La Liga.

Saturday in Watford. Photo: Evan McGarvey.

The transfer record among the three clubs is, shall we say, extremely friendly. And since joining the Pozzo fold, Watford has become the flagship of this portfolio. Watford's current star, and top six goal scorer in the Premier League, Odion Ighalo, was first loaned to and then transferred to Watford from Udinese. Just this year, three other players have come into the club from Udinese and Granada. In 2013, ten players were transferred from Granada and Udinese combined to help Watford fight for Premier League promotion.

The Premier League remains the prestige league in world football. The scope of its global TV contracts is staggering. Aside from the mega-clubs like PSG and Real Madrid, the Premier League provides the apex of the transfer market. The Pozzos have pushed their collective juice into Watford to see how far the little club can go in the world's richest, deepest league.

But the track record of foreign owners in the Premier League remains shady. For every plutocrat who diligently elevates a team to a global brand (Abramovich at Chelsea), there's a chicken consortium that sends a venerable club down to the Championship (Venky's at Blackburn), a human-rights-violating head of state (Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra year of owning Manchester City), and duplicitous American financiers content to load a club with debt (Malcolm Glazer at Manchester United) or to treat it like a dull, lucrative, asset (Stan Kroenke at Arsenal).

For a small club like Watford, especially one whose finances have been unstable in the past, the Pozzos appear to be a gift. The fans with whom I spoke said that they felt universally optimistic about club ownership. The roster bristles with international players and veterans of clubs like Napoli and Werder Bremen. The Pozzos assumed the Watford's debts when they purchased the club. Neither of their other two clubs have suffered financial disaster or impropriety.

From the outsider's perspective, however, the Watford experiment can feel like the end game of a calculated European business plan by the Pozzos, a steady climbing of a pyramid at the top of which rests the English Premier League. Such a plan is likely less risky than the individual whims of individual owners, but knowing that this club, your club, is another 'smart buy' by a conglomerate sours, a little, Watford's quirky, outsider identity.

But on Saturday, that narrative had to be paused. Watford needed a win to help ensure their place in next year's Premier League. The Pozzo family's ambition could do little for them on the field.

Outside the supporters' pub The One Bell, a banner read "SAVE OUR PUB SIGN OUR PETITION." That crowd inside was split between the very young and the old. Streams of fans walked to Vicarage Road, Watford's stadium. I've never heard this many fans this quiet as they marched to a home game.

The match began inauspiciously for Watford. The visiting Stoke fans sang and brayed with a Visigothic devotion. Ighalo slumbered, waiting for long balls from midfield. Stoke's Giannelli Imbula robbed Watford of possession and catalyzed Stoke's own attack. Like Watford, Stoke City has been signing the kinds of players previously inconceivable to their supporters.

In the eighteenth minute, four Watford defenders failed to stop a low cross. Stoke's Jonathan Walters hacked it into the net. The home fans, already hushed, fell silent. When Watford did make a move, Stoke's defense and their commanding young keeper, Jack Butland, nullified it.

Stoke had a second crucial goal ruled offside. Minutes before halftime, Ighalo gave Watford their best chance. He received the ball, turned his defender, and played midfielder Jurado in on Stoke's goal. But Jurado ballooned his shot over the crossbar and into the stands.

At halftime I chatted with Aaron Cruickshank, 21, about Watford's future.

"You're not an idiot if you own a team in Serie A and a team in La Liga," he said of the Pozzos.

When I asked him if Watford is a London club, he paused before he answered. "To the owners and the players, yes. To the fans, no. We are an attractive club, a family club, and they [players] can be in London. They want a big city, media attention."

In the first minutes of the second half, Ighalo headed the ball over the Stoke goal. The crowd brightened up.Then, cruelly, Stoke turned a woeful Watford goal kick into a lofted pass and a chipped goal. 2-0.

Immediately after the Stoke goal, recent transfer Nordin Amrabat came on for Watford. His careening runs opened space for Ighalo and for captain Troy Deeney, one of the few pre-Pozzo Watford players. Amrabat tried his hardest to swivel and bully past the Stoke defenders, but Ighalo bungled possession and a weak shot from Amrabat wobbled into Butland's arms.

Tubes of gray clouds filled the sky. The wind picked up, and Watford mascot Harry the Hornet banged a small bass drum to try to instigate a chant. Filled with young families and the jaded middle aged, my section managed a polite "WAT-FORD" in time with Harry's cadence.

The simple old days. Photo: Evan McGarvey.

In the 85th minute, Watford substitute Ikechi Anya dribbled past his man and crosses into the box. Deeney, a player more filled with burly energy than with grace, headed the cross into the net.

Finally, Vicarage Road awakened. Two small children behind me howled, "PLEASE, WATFORD." Harry got his drum again. Stoke wasted time, tackled hungrily, drew a yellow card, and returned to their stereotype as the Nelson Muntz of the Premier League. The final whistle blew. Stoke 2, Watford 1. The stadium emptied swiftly. Troy Deeney walked to the edges of the pitch and applauded the home fans.

I took a last look at the photos commemorating Watford's history, hanging from the interior of the Graham Taylor Stand. A locker room shot showed the 1978-79 team on the day that they earned promotion from the third to the second division. They looked softer than today's athletes, with mutton chop sideburns and matchstick thighs. A few bottles—maybe champagne, maybe sparkling cider—were in rotation. The locker room was small. Another sign honored the 1999-2000 Premier League team that was relegated. The pictures on that sign, however, were all celebration shots, memories of small goals and small wins stacked up against a bottom line of departure.

They were a minor club in a minor town in between London and somewhere. They've changed colors and nicknames across their history. Elton John used to own them and now an Italian family conglomerate does and has folded them into an assortment of European clubs. If Watford remains in the Premier League, the experiment continues. The Pozzos will keep investing, will keep pushing their collection of players across three clubs into Watford, will keep trying to move Watford closer and closer to the heart of the Premier League. If they're relegated, who knows? They could float in the adjacent purgatory of the Championship, the next rung down the league ladder, or they could fall even farther.

Come April, Watford Football Club will play in Wembley. They will fight to stay in the Premier League. Maybe more players will come. Maybe some will leave for sunnier places or for bigger clubs within reach of the Thames. For now, Watford Football Club stands just inside the lucrative edge of the Premier League, but very far from its center—another club doing its best to survive in the slate-grey middle distance.

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