Colney Chat | M'Baye Niang

by Kevin Affleck

Nearly 34 years ago Watford were powerless to prevent AC Milan from poaching Luther Blissett, their top marksman.

The offer of £1m was just too good to turn down. How times have changed. These days the Hornets are able to persuade the Italian giants to do business over one of their coveted young players. 

M'Baye Niang, who is not 23 until December, may have fallen slightly down the pecking order at the San Siro but it's worth remembering this is a player who Milan pulled out all the stops to sign in 2012.

"I was on trial at Everton from Caen," recalls Niang. "I also did one test with Arsenal but then Adriano Galliani [the Milan vice-president] came over on a private jet and took me to Milan. It made me feel very special and that's what made my decision. If not I would have signed with Everton."

The Toffees were back in for him again last month. "I had other offers, from Everton and West Ham," said Niang, "but they did not get to the same level as Watford in terms of how much they wanted me."

Watford also had an ace up their sleeve in their head coach. "It was mainly the manager [Walter Mazzarri] who got me here," says Niang. "He was very determined to have me here and it was because of him that I made the decision to come."

Niang scores on his home debut against Burnley

And aren't Watford glad he did. "I am very pleased," said technical director Filippo Giraldi.

"He's potentially a player that can play in the top teams in England and in Europe. He needs to grow, he needs to develop and he needs to be consistent but he has all the potential. It's up to him to work hard during the week and behave in the right way."

Behaving in the right way is probably the key. You only had to watch Niang against Burnley to know he has bags of potential. It's harnessing that talent and extracting every last drop out of it that remains the great challenge for players of Niang's ilk.

To that end, he admits jumping off the balcony of an apartment into a swimming pool was probably not the best idea when recovering from an ankle injury he sustained in a road traffic accident. He puts it down to the callowness of youth.

"I was on holiday and I was with my friends and we were having fun," he said. "It was a mistake and I won't do it again. I was coming back from a bad injury and it was not the best thing to do. I know that now."

You get the sense the penny has dropped and that he's not about to follow in the footsteps of another enfant terrible who has played for Milan.

"It's not fair and not true to compare me with Balotelli," he says. "I am the way I am. I know the things I've done and the wrong things I've done but there is only one Mario Balotelli. I am myself. It's all in the past now."

Settling down with Emilie Fiorelli, his fiancee, has seen him turn a corner. "She helps me a lot," says Niang. "I've never had any problems since she has been with me. She speaks to me a lot."

He's also found common ground with Abdoulaye Doucoure. They were born in the same place in Northern France two years apart. "It's good to have Doucoure here as he speaks French and this helps me a lot," said Niang. "I grew up in the same place as Doucoure but we did not know each other back then. We both grew up playing on the streets and because of playing street football, when I go to the pitch I only think about having fun."

It was on the streets where he was spotted by a scout from Paris Saint-Germain. He ended up at Caen and such was his obvious potential, he was offered a professional contract at the age of 16. A hat-trick in a trial game sealed the deal.

"One was a header, one was a shot from outside the box and the other one was from a cross," he recalls on the treble that changed the course of his life.

Niang made his debut for Caen in Ligue 1 at just 16-years-old

He made his debut for Caen Under-19s at the age of 14; became the first-team's youngest ever player at the age of 16 and 114 days and is the second-youngest scorer of a goal in Ligue 1.

He's also the second-youngest goalscorer in Milan's history at 17 and 350 days. He also took just 15 minutes to score on his debut for the France Under-21 team. He's already a player of some pedigree.

The Hornets are able to take advantage of a first-refusal on Niang at the end of the season, which, by the sounds of it, would suit him down to the ground. 

"This is a club that is very organised and I'm enjoying it very much," he said. 

First Team 20/02/2017

Colney Chat | Filippo Giraldi

By Kevin Affleck

Could you name Watford FC’s Technical Director without the aid of a match programme or a glance online? No – thought not. And that’s just how he likes it, really. Meet Filippo Giraldi.

For someone with such an influential role – he was the driving force behind the signing of M'Baye Niang and is the one helping to mine young gems like Aly Malle and Adalberto Penaranda – he's a modest, humble man, one who prefers to remain in the shadows. He's not after baubles or bouquets.

"I never worry about the job title," said Giraldi. "It's more what I can do that is important. The job title doesn't mean anything – it's about being a person of value."

Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury clearly value the unheralded and unseen work Giraldi does in co-ordinating the small army of scouts the Hornets have, particularly those abroad. They elevated him from chief scout to technical director last year. "As a chief scout you travel more and make lists of players," he said. "As a technical director I'm more involved with the deals. It's not the part I'm crazy about, the economic side, but it's part of the job and I'm happy with it."

Giraldi (left) observes a training session alongside Sporting Director Luke Dowling

Giraldi is much more comfortable doing the hard yards, watching games, studying training and fielding calls from scouts. He's a doer. So trusted is he and so ingrained in the fabric of the club that he was the one who watched the Hornets on behalf of the Pozzo family six months before their takeover in 2012 was ratified.

"I was working in Italy [with Brescia] and I was called to see if I would be interested in evaluating a team," Giraldi said. "Gino was interested in two clubs and I started to follow both but then it was clear Watford was going to be the team. I watched them home and away and analysed the group, so then when the deal was finalised, I joined the club and had lots of information on the players and understood the Championship."

The 42-year-old has been part of the inner circle ever since, part of the key decision makers who convene every day round the circular table in the top right-hand corner of the canteen. "I think we have a very good structure at this club," says Giraldi. "It's a very vertical structure with Gino and Scott.

"Everyone knows what their job is and what they have to do. Gino is probably one of the most intelligent men in the world of football. It's very easy to speak with him as he understands football and when is the right time to do things. Watford is one of the best places to work in football."

Giraldi speaks to fans at a recent At Our Place event with Scott Duxbury and Sebastian Prodl

The absence of layers to the management structure means Watford can push the button quickly when Giraldi gets a call from one of his eagle-eyed scouts. 

"We speak on a daily basis," he says. "The scouts know they can call me if something interesting happens or a player comes up. Once they see something incredible they call me during the game. That's the beauty of the Pozzo system. If I see a player I like, I call him and he says 'Go on'. We don't need a board meeting.

"We can go and close the deal very quickly – that is why we are very effective. I like to have the final view most of the time just because I know what our team is about. But if it's a young player, we know that being quick is being effective. We can close a deal quickly on a young prospect."

Giraldi is reluctant to reveal names, job titles and even locations of his scouts as that would be giving away trade secrets of the unique Pozzo model. "It's like a spy story," Giraldi jokes. "I don't like to say their names or where they are based, but I can tell you we cover everywhere. The only continent we don't cover permanently is Africa. We have a good contact in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana and send someone there when there is a big tournament."

Walter Mazzarri and Giraldi in discussion ahead of Watford's fixture at Sunderland

It's safe to say then that the net is cast far and wide in the mining of players of all ages. It's unlikely there is a highly-promising teenage player on the planet who Watford or Udinese are not aware of.

"It's a big structure," Giraldi explains. "We have main scouts and then others who just work for us on a matchday. The most important thing is we cover the most important zones, like South America. We have a head of recruitment there. We speak to him on a daily basis. He will help us more in the long-term. We cannot sign the top players from South America so we find young players." Just like Udinese discovered Alex Sanchez in Chile and Penaranda in Venezuela. 

Penaranda, 19, will be integrated into the Watford squad as soon as he is granted a work permit. He was signed 12 months ago in a classic Watford window. He was signed for a rainy day while the likes of Nordin Amrabat and Costel Pantilimon were brought in for the here and now. Mario Suarez is evidence they don't always get it right.

"We try to get the best out of every transfer window," said Giraldi. "We can always try harder but I'm focussed on going out watching players and choosing players. I need to have a technical opinion on every player. I will make mistakes, like every human being, but I try to work harder to reduce the mistakes. I think we have a very good group of players here."

So much so that Amrabat, arguably the player of the season before he got injured, has a fight on his hands to get back in the starting XI. You've also got Roberto Pereyra to fit back into the mix next season. The upgrading and fine tuning of the squad by Giraldi and co. has left Walter Mazzarri as the most well-resourced coach in the club's history. 

Giraldi joined the Hornets in 2012 and previously worked in Italy with Brescia

"I try to help the coach," said Giraldi, who is very hands on. He regularly runs the rule over training, attends team meetings and is a presence in the dressing room. "I'm close with the Head Coach as that is what I love to do. I will do my best to help them in every aspect. We will have confrontation but we want to have one voice from the club to the coach.

"I think every coach who worked with us can be happy with us. We respect their decision making but we do challenge and question them as we are here every day. I am happy with Walter. He likes the confrontation and is happy to change if he sees things are not going well."

When the Hornets do change the Head Coach and stress test their model, the recruitment knowledge, the scouting network and the all-important relationship with agents doesn't go with the outgoing coach. That remains in the building under lock and key with the likes of Giraldi who ensures continuity.

"Lots of technical directors and sporting directors stay on the coach's side as that can be an easy way for them to have a career. If the coach moves, they will go with him. I am clear since the beginning that I am a club person, a club man," says Giraldi. 

You can tell that by watching just how animated he gets during a game. "It's terrible," he says. "I really suffer a lot. Thank God I have no camera on me. I really enjoy it, I live with great passion. I love the club and I feel the shirt."

Giraldi coordinates the Hornets' vast scouting network

Putting new names on the back of the shirts, though, is where Giraldi really comes into his own, where he earns his corn. 

"Recruitment is crucial," he says. "We are fully active and we are doing more than planning ahead of summer – we are already identifying players we want. We have money but we must be clever in spending that money. It would be stupid to go and spend money on players who do not deserve that money.

“Sometimes we have to do business and spend a bit more just to close a deal and solve a technical issue with the team. We have a list of 10 players minimum per position but we are not Real Madrid and sign whoever we want. We try but sometimes it's difficult. I'm happy when we can sign our third or fourth choice. That means we have done a good job."

"THREE TOP PLAYERS FOR WATFORD" - Read more from Giraldi on Aly Malle, Adalberto Penaranda and Isaac Success.