A major element of my sponsorship package this year was a trip to Watford’s training ground. I was a little perturbed that it was scheduled for April Fool’s Day, but this was no prank. On arrival, Don and I were met by Martine and April from the Commercial department who took us to the canteen for a welcome cup of coffee and to meet up with Richard Walker, who was to be our guide for the day. We were told that a friendly match against Northampton had been arranged for that afternoon, so the first team players would not be arriving until lunch time.
We started with a tour of the facilities. When we reached the boot room we were handed a fluorescent orange monstrosity. I had no idea that these new-fangled boots were so light, my ballerina pumps weigh more. While we were there, Fernando Forestieri appeared. He stopped to have his photo taken with the only youngster in the group whose smile couldn’t have been wider.
When we reached the training pitches, Glyn Evans was on hand to tell us about the new pitches that they are putting in, a project that will cost £500K. The training ground only has natural drainage and, because some of it is clay based, that is not ideal. The new pitches will follow the model of the pitch at Vicarage Road, apart from the Desso addition. On arrival, we had seen the piles of coiled tubing in the car park waiting to be laid to provide the drainage. There was a question about the new East stand at Vicarage Road and it was stressed that this is a stand built for business reasons, rather than a vanity project as so many new grounds are. For that reason, it will be a simple “bums on seats” stand that has the possibility to increase in capacity if needed. The figures that they have suggest that it should make back the cost of construction within three years. They are also looking to make further improvements to the training ground. The current changing block was described as being to the standard of “a good council facility”. The physio area is an old changing room and the medical room is a converted shower. So the club is planning to build a new changing block with bespoke medical facilities including a hydrotherapy pool. They will also include a new gym block. This proposed investment in the training ground is impressive and indicates a long term commitment by the Pozzo family.
We then watched the youth team training under the guidance of Dave Hughes who, we were told, used to be a defender so gives fulsome praise for good defensive play in the drills and ignores the players who break through to score! The second year scholars have been told which of them will be given professional contracts, so it is a difficult time for those who are being released. Dave stressed that these lads were still working hard in training and that they would be helped, as far as possible, to find a new club. He pointed out that, during a footballer’s career, they have the prospect of facing decisions about their future almost every year, so this is an early introduction to a difficult part of a footballer’s life. Rich Walker said that the primary consideration when deciding whether to offer a scholar a professional contract was whether they were likely to play in the first team the next season. If they were not, then they would not be kept on.
Beppe then came to talk to us. He was determined to respond to us in English, bless him. He was asked what the difference had been on Saturday (at Sheffield Wednesday) that allowed us to win. He said that a lot of the problems were mental and that finally getting a win would really help the team. He reiterated that the win was for the fans who travel week in, week out. He was asked what surprised him about the Championship. He said the money in this division was a surprise to him and, consequently, the quality of players is much higher than you would see in Serie B in Italy. He also said how amazing the fans are. In Italy you don’t see people following their club around the country in the same way. Serie B clubs will have fans turn up if they are doing well, but you don’t see the same degree of loyalty and passion that he has seen at Watford. He was asked his opinion on referees. He said that the fourth official follows him everywhere telling him about the lines he should not cross. His next comment was really interesting. He said that he likes referees in England, because they are ordinary men doing a job, whereas in Italy they are all actors. He said that, since football began, people have made mistakes, whether they were referees, players or managers and he felt that mistakes made honestly should be forgiven. He then did his amazing impression of a referee’s whistle which is, apparently, how he finishes his press conferences. When the questions were over, he thanked us for our support. He really is a sweetheart.
We then visited the analyst’s room where we were told about this role and were shown an example of one of the packages that they use. It had the game playing live on one side of the screen, while a schematic of the moves taking place were shown on the other side so that you could see formations and how the players were moving. You could also superimpose lines joining up the defenders/midfielders/forwards to see how each of the areas were set up and the distances between the players at any time. He showed a graphic summary of the game that indicated successful and unsuccessful passes. At first look, it appeared to be a bit of a mess, as it was just a bunch of lines. But, when I looked again understanding what it was representing, you could see the areas of the ground where the home and away teams had success. There were statistics about passing success, interceptions etc. I asked whether they do any statistical modelling to predict the probability of success based upon various scenarios. I was saddened to be told that this is not part of their remit, so my follow-up questions about data input and logistic regression went begging.
While we were in the analyst’s room, Gian Luca Nani and Scott Duxbury came in and made themselves available for questions. Gian Luca was asked about his role and why they were using the European model of a Head Coach and Technical Director at the club. He described the split between the two roles. He said that the head coach works long hours and does not have time to be travelling around looking at players. The most telling point that he made was that, in the English model, the manager’s focus is the team and that they will be looking at what they need to succeed in the present season. In his role, he is looking at what is best for the club as a business in the long term. Both Gian Luca and Scott spoke about the ultimate aim, which is to be in the Premier League, but that there is no timescale on when that should happen. We had been told about the players’ routine at the training ground which includes breakfast, lunch, training and then yoga and pilates. Gian Luca was asked whether he does yoga or pilates. “I do breakfast and lunch.” J
At lunchtime, we ate in the canteen and the food choices were extensive and very tasty. As the first team players arrived for lunch, a number of them were invited over to talk to us. They were all delightful. I asked Anya whether he was going to appear in any more rap videos and he thanked me for watching his brother’s work (even though, as a woman almost as elderly as his mother, I don’t think that I am in their target audience). I told Troy that he nearly gave me a heart attack with his first goal at Sheffield Wednesday as it looked as though the ball wasn’t going to reach the goal line. He laughed, ‘Did I look worried?’ ‘I wasn’t looking at you. I was looking at the ball!’ Sean Murray and Luke O’Nien both had huge smiles on their faces. I also took the time to thank Nani and Duxbury for coming to the City Orns meeting, which was a fantastic event. Gian Luca went all “Italian” on me, recklessly inviting me to contact him any time I wanted to chat. Scott wasn’t quite as effusive, but he did say that he’d thoroughly enjoyed talking to us all in a relaxed environment as the fans’ forums are too much like press conferences.
After lunch, we watched the friendly game. These are practice matches, so you don’t learn a lot from them, but it did confirm what a great touch Riera has. Gary Woods played in goal and I was interested to hear how shouty he was, constantly making his defenders aware of the proximity of the opposition players. Cassetti was captain and was a joy. He executed one beautiful move when he twisted away from a couple of defenders before playing an exquisite pass that had the fans applauding. He also proved to be shouty in two languages including asking a rogue midfielder, who will remain nameless, if he wanted to play in his position. The first half featured pretty much a first team. There were a couple of substitutions at half time and the game finished with a number of the Academy boys on the pitch, including Tom Rosenthal whose father was on the sidelines watching him. The game was short on goal attempts, with Watford’s best chance being a shot from Abdi that came back off the post. When the full time whistle went, the game was goalless and it was time for us all to leave.
Anyone who knows me will be well aware that I am one of those fanatics who attends as many of the off field activities as my day job allows, so I felt like I knew quite a lot about the running of the club. But this day at the training ground was a tremendous experience. While being respectful to the day-to-day running of the club, we were given access to all aspects of the management and I learned a lot. I came away, as I usually do, with a renewed affection for the club but also with an assurance that my beloved club appears to be in very good hands.