Affleck's Angle: It’s Funny How Things Pan Out
By Kevin Affleck
It’s funny how things pan out.
Quique Sanchez Flores’ first game back at Vicarage Road on Sunday pitched him against Unai Emery who, as it turns out, was in the dugout when Sanchez Flores first sized up the technical area at Vicarage Road. Emery was then in charge of Sevilla in what was the Hornets’ final pre-season friendly before their Premier League adventure began at Everton.
Sánchez Flores’ mother Carmen was a dancer and his famous aunt Lola was a showgirl, but we're not even sure his familial thespians could have come up with a script that matched this one, with all its rich subplots and the theatrical nature of the finale. A highly emotional return had a bit of everything and a certain kind of symmetry. There will be a musical about his life one day. We all know what the soundtrack will be.
What the reunion with Emery did provide was a neat reminder, if nothing else, of how quickly things change in football let alone life. Emery is now the other side of the London Colney fence at Arsenal after a spell at PSG, Sánchez Flores has taken the circuitous route back to WD18 via Espanyol and Shanghai while Jose Antonio Reyes, who was in the Sevilla squad on that balmy night in August 2015, tragically lost his life in a car accident four years later. May God rest his soul.
Reyes was part of a highly sophisticated Sevilla side who finished that season, the 2015/16 one, by beating Liverpool to win the Europa League for the third successive time and, to top it off, reached the final of the Copa Del Rey where they lost to Barcelona. That’s no disgrace. Nearly half of their top nine record departures featured in that stellar side while Ever Banega would surely have topped the lot had he not let his contract run down and join Inter Milan on a free transfer.
Watford, on reflection, did well to lose only 1-0 to Sevilla that night given their prowess but that was Sánchez Flores’ mantra: make yourselves difficult to beat and never get properly rolled over. While that season represented something of a zenith for Sevilla – the side was gradually broken up and they are now on their fourth coach since Emery – it marked the start of a rollicking journey for the Hornets. Sánchez Flores noticed how much the club has changed before he had time to even unpack his rucksack on his first day. “They have ambition and they still want to grow,” said the Head Coach.
The training ground has been significantly upgraded, the Vicarage Road pitch was voted the best in the league, there are six new hospitality offerings and all four corners of the ground have been imaginatively filled in, projects all driven by Chairman & Chief Executive Scott Duxbury.
The squad, while underperforming, is, according to transfermarkt.com, the 13th most valued in the Premier League, with their conservative estimate appraising the playing staff to be valued at nearly £215m. And that's before you factor in the hard bargain Gino Pozzo and Duxbury drive when it comes to selling a player. The squad, according to a study by CIES Football Observatory, cost £168m to put together. Only three clubs have spent less. The club finished 11th last season and reached the FA Cup final.
Sánchez Flores is particularly impressed with the depth of the squad. He had a bench containing Giedrius Arlauskis, Rene Gilmartin, Juan Carlos Paredes, Sean Murray and Connor Smith for the game against Sevilla. Four years later, his biggest task on Sunday was which internationals to leave in the stands in what was the most eagerly anticipated team selection of the club's Premier League era. For varying reasons, Domingos Quina, Sebastian Prödl, Danny Welbeck, Isaac Success and Pontus Dahlberg didn't make the 18 while the bench featured seven internationals. That is not a squad that should be propping up the Premier League.
Hence why Pozzo and Duxbury made the bold and brave call to Sánchez Flores to come back and ask him, for the second time, to make the whole more than the sum of its parts. They are not concerned about the flak they will take or how it looks. The PR doesn't matter when it comes to retaining top-flight status for the club they have completely transformed in the last seven years. They know livelihoods are at stake if the team is relegated.
“They are so ruthlessly determined to stay in the Premier League they will do what it takes,” said Daily Telegraph journalist Jason Burt on BBC Radio 5 Live earlier this week. Phil McNulty, Chief Football Writer at BBC Sport, wrote: “Behind the scenes there is a tried and trusted scouting and recruitment network that means much of the club's affairs work smoothly whoever is in charge of coaching the players. It has ensured Watford have established themselves in the Premier League... they will not want to risk that hard-won status.”
Adrian Mariappa has seen enough reigns at this club during his 10 years of service to know a good one when he sees one.
“We as players have got complete faith in what they are doing,” he said. “They've got the club to where it is today on the back of this model and you can see what they are doing. The job they have done is there for everybody to see. They are really hungry and want to kick on.
“You can see how driven Scott is and every time you speak to him you can see just how ambitious he is. He wants the club to be successful and works really hard to achieve that. They have all done wonders for this club. Just look at the recruitment. The club is going in the right direction on the back of the decisions by Gino, Scott and Filippo.”
Weekend goalscorer Tom Cleverley, on loan as a Manchester United starlet here in 2009/10, added: “I've seen this club go from over-achieving to finish mid-table in the Championship when I was on loan to an established Premier League club.
“It's constantly improving. It's good to see how far the club has come; the training ground, the stadium, the playing squad. The ambition is constant. You got to say hats off to the club for doing that and creating that drive to improve the club.”
There have been bumps in the road and there will be more - including giving Arsenal a two-goal head start – but, as Duxbury said in an interview with talkSPORT: “I’ve always said that together we can achieve special things.”
And never was that togetherness more evident than in a barnstorming second-half at Vicarage Road on Sunday.