Crises And Surprises
As it turned out, this was the start of a lengthy period in which the next off-field drama never seemed far away. The club came close to being put into administration more than once, and there were frequent changes in the boardroom. Against this background the fact that team maintained a place in the Championship, even achieving promotion to the Premier League for a year, was very creditable.
As manager, the new board brought in the high-profile Gianluca Vialli, previously in charge at Chelsea after a stellar playing career. But many of his expensively recruited players failed to perform as anticipated, and 14th place in 2001-02 was way below expectations. At the same time the Football League’s lucrative broadcasting arrangement with ITV Digital collapsed and Watford were badly exposed.
Costs had to be tackled urgently. Ray Lewington took over from Vialli as manager, with a much-reduced budget. His astute stewardship over almost three seasons was key to Watford retaining their Championship status in these troubled times. There was the unexpected bonus of semi-final appearances in the FA Cup in 2003 and the League Cup in 2005.
With Watford wobbling towards the end of 2004-05, the unknown Aidy Boothroyd replaced Lewington. Relegation was narrowly avoided. Boothroyd refreshed the squad significantly that summer, and to general surprise Watford were among the front-runners in 2005-06. After a memorable play-off semi-final win against Crystal Palace, promotion was sealed with a 3-0 victory over Leeds at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
2006 brought an unlikely promotion to the Premier League for the Golden Boys under the guidance of Aidy Boothroyd
Once again the Premier League experience proved too tough, and only lasted one season. The club sought an immediate return, and again stretched themselves financially in acquiring new players. But things didn’t quite click. Although 2007-08 began well, with hopes of automatic promotion, the team’s form fell away and Watford lost out in the play-offs.
The risks hadn’t paid off, and the club again found itself experiencing financial troubles. Eventually, after a sequence of boardroom changes, in 2011 the major shareholders agreed to sell the club in its entirety to Laurence Bassini, a little-known local businessman. Finances remained precarious however.
As manager, Boothroyd had been replaced in autumn 2008 by Brendan Rodgers, who made a promising start but then left for Reading. Malky Mackay stepped up in summer 2009 and his team achieved two further mid-table finishes with an attractive playing style. Mackay left to manage Cardiff as Bassini took over, and it was Sean Dyche’s turn as Watford again promoted from within. Dyche inspired the team to 11th place in 2011-12 – a major achievement given the very limited budget in which he had to work.
Lloyd Doyley made history when he scored the first goal of his career, in his 269th first-team appearance
By 2012, 25 years had passed since the finest era in the club’s history had ended. The period had brought successes which many other clubs based outside the major cities would have envied, notably the two promotions to the Premier League and cup runs. Even so, Watford had spent 20 of the last 24 seasons in the second tier of English football. If this had become the club’s ‘natural level’, it was nonetheless a division higher than the ‘natural level’ prior to the late 1970s. This improvement in status was one of the long-term legacies of the Elton John and Graham Taylor partnership.
Below the surface though there had been increasing instability, with frequent changes to the ownership structure. This ended in the summer of 2012, when the Pozzo family acquired the club.