Having examined how the Pozzos fared against the criteria I decided to judge them against at the start of last season, it seems only fair to do the same for the manager they appointed. In a post entitled ‘Dear Mr Zola’ I laid out five points I was hoping Gianfranco might ponder…
1) Do your homework
I was keen for the new boss to learn a bit about Watford’s history and traditions, as an extra bulwark against the possibility of the club losing its identity under the new regime. To be honest, it’s hard to tell whether he did or didn’t. All managers use interviews and programme notes to emphasis how much they appreciate the history of the club they’re lucky enough to be in charge of, and Zola was no exception. But in his case, I tend to believe him. He just seems like that kind of guy.
2) Give (our) youth a chance
I wasn’t the only one who was worried that opportunities for graduates of the Watford Academy might disappear, given the size our new squad. It’s true that the ‘lost generation’ of Academy graduates – Bennett, Mingoia, Hodson, Jenkins – found opportunities few and far between, and even though the latter two still have a year left on their contracts, I doubt we’ll see much of them next season.
But Zola skipped a generation to give game time to younger players whose talents were deemed more suitable to the new model Watford. Tommy Hoban and Jonathan Bond grasped theirs with both hands, Sean Murray less so, and Connor Smith had limited chances to shine. The only worrying thing is that they all suffered from injuries, with Bond’s arguably having a decisive effect on the outcome of our season. But with all four signed up for the next few years, they have a real chance to push on with Watford.
3) Find a decent penalty-taker
Missed penalties have been a miserable fact of life for Watford fans for longer than I can remember, but this season brought a big improvement. Abdi, Deeney and Vydra all scored two each, and if we did miss any, I can’t remember them. Another tick in the box.
(Oh, and the fact that we finally found a goalkeeper capable of keeping penalties out at the other end also came in handy.)
4) Keep us up
It’s hard to remember now, but for a couple of months there was genuine fear among Hornets fans that Zola wouldn’t manage this fundamental part of his job, as he struggled to shape a consistent and effective team from his enormous squad. But once he settled on a formation that suited his best players, he never looked back.
5) Don’t drop Doyley
Talking of his best players… Of course, Zola ignored my advice initially, just like every other Watford manager for the past decade. Lloyd didn’t feature much until late October, when the Italian saw the error of his ways. Then a rare injury kept him out of the team from mid-November until the New Year – but after that, playing on the right-hand side of a back three gave him the opportunity to show his defensive skills time and time again, and he was the standout player in our play-off campaign.
All in all, it’s hard to find much to complain about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Zola tackles next season, when his team will start as one of the favourites for promotion. That’s assuming we sign a few players, of course.