Takeovers by foreign businessmen have become commonplace in English football but few have aroused as much criticism as the Pozzo family's Watford Experiment. In a few short weeks following the Italians' summer arrival England's original "community club", with one of its most forward-thinking youth programmes, appeared to have become a feeder club for Serie A's Udinese.
The first act of the new owners, who also owned Granada, of La Liga, was to brutally axe manager and ex-player Sean Dyche, who had achieved a highly creditable 11th-place finish last season. Next they sent 10 players from Udinese (of seven nationalities) and two from Granada to Vicarage Road (though described as loanees, being cross-border deals these are technically no-fee transfers). Finally the Pozzos, though having spoken well of Watford's youth system, downgraded the club's EPPP academy application from category one to category three.
This sequence of events has made many people uncomfortable in the wider game, but who better to articulate a defence of the Pozzo method than Zola, one of the English game's most talented and popular foreign players? It thus appeared a Hornets' PR exercise when Zola and his staff, despite returning home at 3am Wednesday morning after a shattering defeat at promotion-chasing Cardiff City, losing in the 94th-minute after two players were dismissed, pitched up at Vicarage Road a few hours later to host a training session for journalists followed by a match.
The event was actually organised by club sponsors Football Manager and the press are there in conjunction with the 2013 edition of the computer game, with several having travelled from overseas. Nevertheless, Zola and his coaches put the media through their paces, then joined in the match with a good humour that belied the previous night's frustrations.
Showered and refreshed Zola then addressed the doubts surrounding the club's takeover. "There are more and more clubs in this country owned by foreign people and they may have different ideas, different ways to run football clubs," he said. "I can understand people may be unsure, but they are putting in their own money and want to do things in a certain way. As long as they improve the club, they improve the community where the club is playing, I don't mind. An open mind does not cause any damage.
"The academy downgrading is a bit that nobody has enjoyed, but I think that is part of the plan because they limit the budget for this year," added Zola. "It is a financial reason. If next year things go well we can go back to what we were before."
Since even Zola admits promotion this season is unlikely that prognosis seems optimistic. Category One academy budgets are in the region of £2m a year, category three is £250,000-£500,000, so downgrading is a significant saving for a club of Watford's size. The celebrated link with the Harefield Academy means Watford would still provide more than most category three academies, but there are inevitably concerns as to the message it sends out.
For the moment, though, academy coaches keen to retain and inspire their charges can still point to first-team graduates, with Tommie Hoban, 18, scoring at Cardiff, Adam Thompson, 20 last month, coming off the bench.
"The academy is brilliant," said Zola. "They do a remarkable job. The boys are used to playing football. When Adam Thompson came on at Cardiff he was very good."
Thompson is one of 30 players Zola has used as he tries to assess a squad bloated to 42 players (eight of whom are now out on loan) by the new recruits while also overhauling the club's playing style and, of course, attempting to win matches.
"The squad is too big," he admits as we sit in the dugout. "There are moments when it is difficult. When you have to pick the squad the day before the game, and there are seven or eight players left outside to train on their own, it is not easy, but there are advantages like now when we have a lot of injuries and suspensions but we still have options."
But there must be problems integrating the inherited players with the new ones, plus summer signings such as Manuel Almunia and Fitz Hall?
"I have a mature bunch of players, although there are moments that are not ideal, of tension when you have so many bodies and can only play 11. But the bond in the camp is getting better and better. There are a lot of languages but the majority speak English and those that don't are learning it."
Six of the 14 that played in Cardiff were "loanees", including both players sent off, Chelsea's Nat Chalobah and Daniel Pudil, fresh from Udinese. But it appears as if most players have been given a chance and the English ones may well have been disadvantaged by Zola's switch to 3-5-2.
A disciple of Nevio Scala, his coach at Parma, Zola wants his team to be adaptable in formation and to play from the back, neither attributes common in English defenders as Micah Richards underlined after Manchester City's defeat in Amsterdam on Wednesday.
"Foreign players are more prepared to take on board different ideas of football," said Zola. "They have been taught since they were young players to have more ideas. English players do have great technique, but only play one way. They know that system and don't want to change it when in football there are so many ways to win a game. The more ways you can play the more unpredictable you are as a team.
"I am asking players to change their mentality, to play in a different way. That does not happen in a month or two. You can do 20 days' training and it goes well, but at the first difficulty players go back to how they achieved results before. As a manager you have to enforce yourself and teach them they will be better players if they do what you say."
This, obviously, takes time and Watford's results have been mixed. They go into today's match against Blackburn Rovers in 15th place, but so tight is the Championship that is only four points off the play-offs. "This year is a transition year," added Zola. "The target is not to win the league or go up, we will have a go, obviously we will try our best, but this year we are trying to find a good balance, learning about the league and getting ready for a better go next year."
Some of the recruits from Udinese and elsewhere will be gone by then, but Watford have always sold their talent, with Marvin Sordell and Adrian Mariappa moving to Premier League clubs this year. Zola said his staff are his own recruits while he chose some of the "loanees", others he asked for a type of player, and was then given a selection to choose from. "It helps I do not have to go into the transfer market for the players," he said.
Is that unfair to the other clubs in the Championship? Watford fans might argue it is unfair that five of the teams in the division receive £16m in parachute payments while others like Cardiff, Nottingham Forest and Leicester City also benefit from overseas investment. These clubs simply buy players instead of taking them on loan. Nor is Watford's dependence on loanees unique, with Premier League clubs stockpiling talent. Working the loan market is a necessity for Championship clubs and it has influenced several recent promotions. As for the sacking of Dyche... Unfair it may be but Zola himself has lost his job following a change of ownership, after West Ham were taken over by David Sullivan and David Gold. Zola came ninth and 17th at Upton Park, then was replaced by Avram Grant, who took the Hammers down. "Experiences make you better and that was a hell of an experience," he recalled. "There were difficult moments, but those moments make you better, so that is good."
Now he is involved in another unusual and sometimes difficult experience. The jury remains out on Zola as a manager, and the Pozzo experiment, but both have perhaps been unduly maligned. While most Watford fans are unhappy at the nature of Dyche's departure, and the downgrading of the academy, they are aware the club was heading towards financial meltdown under the previous owners. Now it appears on a stable footing and they are seeing players such Matej Vydra, Almen Abdi and Neuton, who are a cut above what they have been used to. These players may be on loan but so, in recent seasons, were Ben Foster, Tom Cleverley and Henri Lansbury.
What is happening at Watford is not ideal, far from it, but nor are many aspects of the modern game. Until the game's wealth is more equitably distributed and its spending reined in it is hard not to have sympathy with those Watford fans who would prefer to be an offshoot of Udinese than the next Portsmouth.
Player Nationality Parent club
Almen Abdi Swiss Udinese
Matej Vydra Czech Udinese
Steve Beleck Cameroon Udinese
Daniel Pudil Czech Granada
Ikechi Anya Scottish Granada
Alex Geijo Swiss Udinese
Marco Cassetti Italian Udinese
G Mujangi Bia Belgian S Liege
Nathaniel Chalobah English Chelsea
Jean-Alain Fanchone French Udinese
Neuton Piccoli Brazillian Udinese
Lars (Joel) Ekstrand Swedish Udinese
Christian Battocchio Italian Udinese
Fernando Forestieri Italian Udinese
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