Football: Taylor at home in realm of possible

Watford bank on a shrewd operator suited to the job of avoiding swift return to foothills
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The Independent Online
MONDAY EVENING and some of the Bolton faithful were carrying magnanimity to heroic lengths. As the train trundled away from Wembley with those clad in blue and white mingling good-humouredly with those parading red, gold and black, it can't have been easy for the vanquished father, young son clinging to him, to articulate: "Well done, Watford. All the best." But he managed it all the same.

It was uttered with sincerity, but no doubt with a belief that they were seeing Watford off on a brief sojourn to a paradise denied his team, not witnessing a permanent parting of the clubs' ways.

Perhaps that also explained an absence of triumphalism from the Hornets' fans, who cannot have believed they would see this day again, at least not so soon. All except the prophetic chairman Sir Elton John, who had declared just before Christmas: "With my manager here, I'd say we have very good chance [of promotion]. I'd back him against any of the other managers and we've got the players here to respond to him." It has worked out just as he forecast; yet, has the hard part been achieved? Or is that yet to come?

For the man who has spoken of the England managership as the "impossible job", could it be that maintaining Watford's Premiership presence will enter the same category of Herculean tasks? "Everyone says that when you get up, you've got to spend a fortune," the club's chief executive, Howard Wells, said after attending the Premier League's summer meeting.

"Well, what exactly is a fortune? If you spend that and still don't succeed, where do you go from there? If you get on that spending spiral and still fail, do you spend more or spend less? It's a very interesting conundrum.

"The whole issue is about spending money shrewdly. Watford's never been a big-spending club and you can't go from where you are to where you want to be in five minutes. But our strength is that Graham's a man with great experience. It's not going to be an impossible task, it's going to be a challenge."

Outside the environs of Vicarage Road, there is no doubt that it is merely au revoir to the Nationwide. By football's Law of Inevitable Returns, the Hertfordshire club will be back. And pdq. Since the formation of the Premiership, five of the seven teams who have secured promotion through the play-offs have come hurtling straight back down again, without ceremony, to the sage nods of the pundits. The exceptions were Blackburn who, until last month, had bankrolled not only their survival but a championship to boot, and the admirably managed and administered Leicester. The figures of those who gained automatic promotion are scarcely more propitious for next season's contenders, Sunderland and Bradford. Only four teams - Middlesbrough, who required two attempts and have been big spenders along with Newcastle, together with Derby and West Ham - have retained their status in that same period.

While clubs would once cling desperately to their Premiership prestige, increasingly there is a degree more insouciance about immediate survival. Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Leicester have all been promoted twice over the last seven years. The London club apart, it is evidence enough that relegation is not the calamity it was once regarded; indeed, it could have a galvanising quality.

"Having got there, there's no point in mortgaging themselves," said the former Wolves manager Mark McGhee. "I think it's worth them spending every penny of what they're going to earn from the Premier League to stay there [Watford have estimated that figure at pounds 12m over three years, even if they're relegated] but to put yourself under financial pressure for the next four years if you go straight down is crazy. A team like that should be looking to improve their squad next season, with a view that if they do go back down they'll have an even better squad to go back up again, a bit like Leicester."

McGhee knows precisely what it's like to manage a promoted club who have immediately slipped from the Premier- ship's Park Lane to the Nationwide's skid row. He joined Leicester from Reading in Dec-ember 1995, when the Foxes were already displaying ominous signs of distress. "They were already second bottom of the Premier. I didn't have a lot of money to spend, and I bought Mark Robbins for pounds 1m, but that was all. There's a false economy in trying to sign players who aren't going to get you out of the position you're in. It's very easy to waste your money.

"There's a certain inevitability at a club like Watford and Bradford that there's just no escaping. The problem is attracting the sort of players that can keep you in the Premier League even if you have the money to spend. If I'm a top player and I have the choice of going to Bradford or Everton, then I'd probably choose Everton, because taking the other option there's a chance you'll be relegated."

Like tents pitched in the path of a sand storm, Bradford and Watford will brace themselves with some reinforced steel pegs in the form of those steeped in Premiership experience. Graham Taylor is already trying to entice David Platt. But catching the right players, according to McGhee, is usually a question of Catch 22. "How do you stay up?" he asks. "You get the best players. How do you get the best players? By staying up."

He added: "I think Charlton's approach was very sensible last year. They bought a couple of players, like Neil Redfearn from Barnsley, who could score goals and was experienced and, if they went back down, was going to do a good job for them in the First Division. You must try to buy quality, but if you can't you're as well sticking with what's got you there. Charlton were absolutely spot on when you think how close they came to staying up."

To buy your security is now out of the reach of anyone who doesn't possess a sugar daddy. Even then, it is not flawless. Middlesbrough failed initially despite chairman Steve Gibson's enterprise, and Blackburn have not survived the rigours in the long term. "These are teams that used a sledge-hammer to crack a nut in terms of getting promotion," McGhee said. "They bought lots of big-name players. Leicester were different. They are an example to anyone. Martin O'Neill brought in Matt Elliott and Neil Lennon, who didn't cost millions. They've been very shrewd buys. It shows it can be done, but it's getting harder and harder to do that."

Watford believe they can emulate Leicester and, with Taylor influencing events at Vicarage Road, something tells you that the Hornets could turn out to be more irritant than acquiescent. As Wells put it: "I want to be around long enough to attend at least another one of these Premier League annual meetings."

GOING UP? HIGH LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF THE PREMIERSHIP NEW BOYS

1992: Ipswich and Middlesbrough won automatic promotion, while Blackburn finished sixth but went up through the play-offs as Jack Walker's massive investment began to bear fruit. Lennie Lawrence's Boro were relegated the following season; Ipswich lasted three years in the Premiership.

1993: Automatic promotion for Newcastle, thanks to Sir John Hall's money and Kevin Keegan's motivation, along with West Ham. Both were to remain in the Premiership. They were followed by Swindon, led by Glenn Hoddle and John Gorman to promotion through the play-offs, having finished fifth. To no one's surprise, Swindon went straight back, under Gorman. Hoddle had departed for Chelsea, en route for England.

1994: Alan Smith led Crystal Palace into the Premiership and Nottingham Forest were promoted under Frank Clark, only for the former to go straight back down and Forest to follow them three years later. Leicester won the play-off final, having finished fourth, but were relegated the following season.

1995: That year only one team - Middlesbrough - were promoted automatically. Runners-up Reading missed out - and also in the play-off final when they lost 4-3 to Bolton, who had finished third. However, they returned to the First Division the following season.

1996: Sunderland won automatic promotion, but lasted only a season before returning to the First Division while Derby went on to cement a Premiership place. So now have Leicester, who finished fifth but reclaimed their top-flight position via the play-offs.

1997: Bolton and Barnsley went straight up - and straight down again, along with play-off victors, Crystal Palace, who had finished sixth. Nightmare year for promoted clubs.

1998: Middlesbrough, complete with Gascoigne and Co, returned to the Premiership, and this time they survived, but Nottingham Forest, who were also promoted automatically, lasted only one season - as did Charlton, who had been successful in the play-offs after finishing fourth.

1999: This year it's Sunderland, beaten in the play-offs the previous year, Bradford and Watford. Statistics suggest at least two will not survive...

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