Kevin Affleck pulls together the reasons why Javi Gracia has been rewarded with a new contract, with help of the Hornets' players' thoughts from across the season...
Javi Gracia strode purposefully into an interview last week and proudly claimed he had picked up a new English phrase. “Let's, crack, on,” he said.
He may have only just grasped the translation for it, but it's been a maxim of his time in charge.
He didn't need to call Nordin Amrabat, his former charge at Málaga, to find out about life at Watford when he was offered the job in January. There was no text to Quique Sánchez Flores to find out how the land lies at Vicarage Road. He just wanted to crack on.
He was parachuted into the role and had just four days to prepare for the FA Cup game at Southampton, but there was no mention of that pre or post-match. While others would have whinged and delved quickly into the book of excuses, he wanted to crack on
A first peak inside the treatment room must have matched the scene in Accident & Emergency at Watford General Hospital on a Friday night; there were limbs and bandages everywhere, as many as 15 players out injured, but not once did he moan about the casualty list or the lack of new recruits. He was happy to work with the players he had got and, yes, you've guessed it, crack on. He was grateful to be here, pleased to be given the opportunity and didn't rock up with the persona of someone who was doing the club a favour.
He was even touch and go to make his first league game at Stoke as he'd been hospitalised in the week with illness, but he wasn't missing that game for the world. He wanted to stand on the sidelines at the Britannia and show his players that if he could do it on a cold Wednesday night in Stoke, then so could they. And that wasn't all. His plans were disrupted that night as Ben Watson, his captain in his first game at St Mary's, returned from the team hotel to complete a move to Nottingham Forest, resulting in Carl Stewart being hastily driven up by the media team to make up the numbers.
It was quite a backdrop against which to take charge of your first Premier League game. Yet he never mentioned his health or the 11th-hour transfer activity afterwards. He even made light of the inclement weather, joking it was much colder in his last assignment in Russia. He was on board with the club's model from day one. He wanted to build bridges, not burn them and he knew what he had signed up for. He had read the brochure from cover to cover.
Gracia was more than happy to coach the players he had and didn't use the media once to petition for new players. He didn't even really bat an eyelid when Richarlison left. I mean, how may coaches would not bemoan the loss of their most coveted asset? He didn't plead the money to be reinvested either.
“Whether we get new players in or not, we are going to be a good team with identity, soul and energy to compete in the Premier League,” he told the Watford Observer.
The fact he was given the chance to show he could do more than firefight, to show he could build a team and coach this lot into a cohesive unit was testament to the impact he had around the place.
On the face of it, his results at the end of the season were not much to shout about and not much better than his predecessors. He only won one of the last nine. Sanchez Flores rounded off the 2015/16 season with two wins in 10 while Walter Mazzarri ended with one win in eight. It would have been easy to agree a settlement on the remaining year of his contract, say 'thanks for steadying the ship' and get the next bloke in, but the club didn't.
Already big admirers of the job he did at Malaga, training ground residents Gino Pozzo, Scott Duxbury and Filippo Giraldi had seen enough in training to suggest the curve was going in the right direction. They'd also gauged the temperature of the dressing room. There was not that ‘already on their holidays’-type feel to the place. This felt different. Gracia had stemmed the bleeding, patched up a few sores and was now starting to resuscitate the team. He had big plans for pre-season and wanted to be afforded that period to fully stamp his mark on things, to really show what he could do.
The management had seen the Spaniard offer a glimpse of the future by playing two up front against Newcastle in the final home game of the season. He'd also settled on a centre-back pairing of Christian Kabasele and Craig Cathcart by the end. You could see his vision and the spine of the side was starting to take shape. He must have done something right as Gerard Deulofeu would not have been short of offers in the summer yet he chose Watford above everyone else.
Gracia had won the hearts and minds of the executive team and, perhaps most crucially, the players. José Holebas is a hard character to please as he sets high standards, but Gracia had him on board early on.
“I like the manager right now, he is strict, he explains things game by game,” the left-back said in an interview with The Times this week.
There are always going to be unhappy players at a club, those who feel they should be in the team but you don't hear too many moans and groans at the training ground. There are no stories being leaked to the media via agents and no interviews with foreign publications from unhappy players. Gracia, they say, is hard but fair and it's difficult to have the hump with him. You just have to look at the performances of the fringe players in the Carabao Cup to see how everyone is on-board.
He goes that extra mile, too. For example, he made a point of meeting Ben Foster's wife and children when he arrived from West Brom.
“He is a really nice guy,” said Foster on talkSPORT. “He's very calm, very down to earth and you can approach and speak to him. He never gets too excited one way or the other. I respect that more than those that shout or bawl at you. You know where you stand with him.”
Foster has also been impressed with how adaptive Gracia has been, how he is a bit of a Swiss Army knife of a coach.
“He coaches and sets his team up on the basis of the players he's got to work with,” he said. “Too many are rigid and have a set way. His style suits us.”
Troy Deeney was in-and-out under Mazzarri and Marco Silva, both coaches seemingly unsure whether it was time to move on from being over-reliant on the big No. 9, but Gracia recognised his value on the pitch and in the dressing room.
“This gaffer has come in and been honest with me from the start,” said Deeney in an interview for the BBC with Ian Wright. “We haven't had a sit down chat, but it's just little things, like the way he drops into the media that I'm his captain. I was like, ‘Right, I owe this guy’.”
It's difficult to teach an old dog like Deeney new tricks, but Gracia and his fitness team have got him looking fitter and leaner than he has done in years.
Most of the club's purchases would definitely cost more now because Gracia makes good players better. He allows them to flourish and he has enhanced the value of the squad. He backs the tried and tested network of scouts under the Pozzo watch and then backs himself to integrate new signings and make them better. If you are Cucho or João Pedro you probably cannot wait to be coached by Gracia.
The Spaniard makes players feel 10-feet tall. He thinks the reborn Étienne Capoue is one of the best central midfield players in the league. He says he wouldn't swap his midfield two for any other in the league. He firmly believes he has the best squad in the division and he said he feels like singing along when the crowd chant ‘Hughesy for England’. These are not just soundbites to create headlines. He genuinely believes what he is saying, choosing his words very carefully. More importantly, the players believe it, too. They run that little bit further and jump that little bit higher for him.
“Javi is really down to earth and he's a good person first and foremost,” said Adrian Mariappa in an interview for the programme against Liverpool. “He is so passionate about his job and he works so hard on the training field. He demands that the lads have respect for each other and that everyone puts in 100 per cent every day.”
Gracia leads by example on that front. He is regularly in at 7am and is often the last to leave at 7pm. Even after that goalless draw at Stoke City, which was so important in stopping the rot, he was in by 6.45am the following morning, ready to plot the downfall of Chelsea, ready to crack on.