It's amazing to Kevin Affleck that the Hornets always seem to go one better...
With so much positivity on the horizon, with so much to look forward to and get excited about, it seems a bit incongruous to look at the past but hear me out first.
What Tuesday night’s handsome win did was not only provide the perfect springboard to have right good crack at reaching the final of the FA Cup, but it relegated Fulham and laid bare just how difficult it is to stay afloat in this ultra-competitive division at the first attempt. The Hornets did it with ease under Quique Sánchez Flores and there was a lovely symmetry that on the same night they pushed Fulham through the trapdoor, they eclipsed the points tally they achieved under the stylish Spaniard in that first season back in the Premier League.
That season under Sánchez Flores was no mean feat and looks even better as the seasons pass, brought into even sharper focus when you see just how tough Fulham and, to a lesser extent, Cardiff have found it this season. Just ask Norwich City and Leeds United how difficult they expect to find it next season. And yet the Hornets were never ever in trouble that first season, not once flirting with the bottom three, finishing 13th, eight points clear of relegation. They even managed to find time to reach the semi-final of the FA Cup.
The survival bid was no fluke either. It was all planned to the nth degree. Troy Deeney said once that he felt it would have been too soon had the Hornets got up the year the team lost to Crystal Palace in the playoff final. Chairman and Chief Executive Scott Duxbury would argue against that. He knew that whenever the Hornets went up (and it was always going to be a case of when not if) they were ready to show the full force of their sprawling scouting network. For example, Sebastian Prödl was lined up about six months earlier. Same with Étienne Capoue. They had the contacts, they had deals in place. They just needed the prospect of Premier League football to act as a lightning rod.
They shrewdly figured that they needed one coach to get them out of the Championship and another to navigate the rough terrain of the Premier League. The name Duxbury came up with was Sánchez Flores. Everyone thought the Spaniard was hired on the strength of the body of work he put together at Atlético Madrid and Valencia, but alas it was his job in taking over at newly-promoted Getafe and keeping them in La Liga that caught the eye. He was hired with a specific task in mind and proved an inspired choice.
Next came the recruitment. In came 14 players, some we’d heard of, others who required a bit of googling. But the key was that Gino Pozzo and Filippo Giraldi knew who they were. They were not signed on a whim and it wasn’t a throw-enough-mud-at-a-wall policy. There was a method behind it. There always is.
Yes, Obbi Oulare, Steven Berghuis, Victor Ibarbo, Giedrius Arlauskis and Alessandro Diamanti didn’t work out, although Oulare is still on the books and can theoretically still be a hit. You can have a right old debate about whether José Manuel Jurado, Valon Behrami and Adlène Guedioura represented smart business and you would have a case either way. But any iffy signings were offset by the roaring success of Prödl, Miguel Britos, José Holebas, Capoue and, in the first season at least, Allan Nyom.
The fact that Holebas, Prödl, Britos and Capoue are still around emphasises just what judicious purchases they were and what a job Pozzo, Duxbury and Giraldi did selling the project to them in the first place. It’s an easy club to join now, an absolute no brainer. But it wasn’t then, there was doubt about the longevity of their Premier League stay. Prödl, for example, could have gone to Leicester. They all took a tremendous leap of faith and their time at this club should be looked on even more favourably because of that in the fullness of time.
If the fees provided by the transfermarkt website are accurate, and they more reliable than most, the Hornets spent £10.26m on acquiring the services of Britos, Prödl, Nyom, Holebas and Capoue. They spent around £34m in total. Fulham paid £22.37m alone for André Zambo Anguissa last summer. Cardiff splashed out £21m on Josh Murphy and Bobby Reid. Yes, transfer fees have risen since the summer of 2015, but in that same summer, Norwich paid nearly £20m for Steven Naismith and Timm Klose while Bournemouth parted with the thick end of £40m for Benik Afobe, Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel and Lewis Grabban. The Pozzo model just has an extraordinary knack of finding value. If you look hard enough, there are bargains to be had and nobody sniffs them out better than the Pozzos.
And in Sánchez Flores they had the perfect coach to integrate the raft of cosmopolitan, cut-price players signed that summer into a cohesive unit and he did a quite brilliant job. He laid the foundations for what we are enjoying now and that should never be forgotten. It would be great if he came back as a guest one day, if only to hear the rendition of that song. You just knew from the opening day at Goodison Park that the Hornets were going to be just fine, just like you did when the Hornets dug out a draw at Stoke in Javi Gracia’s first Premier League game in charge.
The search has been on since Sánchez Flores headed off into the sunset for the man to take the club to the next level, the right fit. In Gracia, another Spaniard, the club have found their man for reasons we’ve discussed at length in these pages. Gracia has gone past Sánchez Flores’ points tally and now has the chance to eclipse his FA Cup run, too. Roll on Sunday.