Troy Deeney knew the procedure well. Last season it had become a customary part of each and every Watford player’s regimen.
As Liverpool were dragging Watford towards a 6–1 pummelling, Deeney wandered towards the Anfield sideline to collect the coach’s orders. He was received, there, by not just Walter Mazzarri, an animated, flustered figure, but, too, by the Watford Head of Sports Science, Gianni Brignardello. Mazzarri’s lack of English, plus Deeney’s clear lack of Italian prompted the member of Mazzarri’s staff, his countryman, to render the commands to the bemused Deeney.
Away from matches, that was, more often than not, the role of Lorenzo Libutti, officially termed ‘Player Liaison Office’: Tasked with translating his press-conferences, his team talks, some training ground exchanges and everything in between. Stefano Okaka and Miguel Britos, a one-time Napoli defender, also, gave assistance when needed.
It was a coherent initiative taken by Mazzari, “a way of respect”, he’d insist, to supply a completely sufficient reply. Looking back, though, it serves as a token of where things turned sour.
It was the communication or absence of that acted as the stumbling block between him and the squad. The mood grew desolate, dispirited, sterile. In the end, there was simply no existing relationship between him and his players. Many, privately, were said to have been heading for the nearest, fastest exit door.
“It is important to speak English if you are a manager,” Heurelho Gomes told the BBC at the time of his sacking. “They cannot pass on instructions to the players but he tried his best and we thank him for it.
Under Marco Silva, the early signs have been promising. The first thing he set out to do is make sure no such issues will be had by this current group. 20 different nationalities occupy the University College London Union sports ground, Watford’s training facility. On campus, Silva has standardised the speaking of English, the only outlier being when he needs to talks with his Spanish players, “but that [his Spanish] is not perfect,” he has admitted.
It is not this, exclusively, of course, that has led to Watford’s reshaping. Other factors have had an influence.
Gomes singled out Silva’s man management as a key factor in the colossal turnaround, the expertise, he bore throughout his tenures at Estoril, Sporting CP, Olympiacos and, most recently Hull City. Abdoulaye Doucouré, the revitalised French midfielder, spoke of an altered mindset, a refined outlook. “The mentality has changed and the squad has too. We’ve had very good signings over the summer,” he said. “Everybody is ready to play for the manager who is very honest and it’s very good for everybody to play with this team.”
Indeed, the arrival of a collection of sparkling, young players of bottomless promise — the dynamic Brazilian Richarlison, 20; the gifted midfielder Will Hughes, 22; the spirited Nathaniel Chalobah, 22 — blended with a body of a few more seasoned presences, notably, Andre Gray, Andre Carrillo and Tom Cleverley has resulted in a squad, at the very least, primed for a battle.
It’s something that could not be said last year. Relegation was, rightfully, an actual risk. Mazzarri revealed the side didn’t hold nearly the same drive or determinations his previous club’s boasted. In matches, they would, too often, resemble a host of individuals, poorly, impersonating a team. Should the opposition draw first blood during one of their games, defeats looked to be a formality. It was not a team readied for a tussle.
Almost four months into Silva’s second term in English football — a 6–0 trouncing at the hands of a dazzling, formidable Manchester City aside, (a trouncing Cleverly has described as the “best single performances I have played against.”) irrespective of the fact it was, on no account, a uniformly bad performance, — it’s difficult to suggest they are anything but readied for a tussle, flaws in his methods have been genuinely hard to come by. His team lies graciously sixth in the league table, five points shy of the front-runners, Man City. Defensively, he has created rigid, compact unit. He has, so soon, contributed to a new record: Three wins, in the top flight, away from Vicarage Road. They are, some will say most critically, winning the games they shouldn’t and, without question, wouldn’t have won last season.
On Saturday afternoon, whilst Richarlison, Silva’s new crown jewel, raced behind the Swansea goal, en route to the Watford fans, brandishing in the air the sheeny red jersey he had been sporting for the previous ninety minutes, it was a sort of telltale moment of the Marco Silva Watford, so far. He knew it had just scored a goal against the run of play, he knew he had just scored was a goal he shouldn’t have, so too did each of the 20,372 spectators packed into the Liberty Stadium.
It was in these situations, by Mazzarri, that Watford crumbled, deteriorated, perished.
Though, what mattered, here, above all, was not that that clinched a winner in the dying minutes of the game nor, really, that they had won the match. No, what was most noteworthy was how it was achieved.
“In the last minutes we scored and it shows to me our players never lose the focus and belief,” Silva uttered in the wake of his men’s triumph.
“Every time this is important, and we are lucky in this instance, but when you believe, anything can happen.”