The Takeover: One Year On

It is now just under a year since the Pozzo family secured control of the club and provided positive answers to a number of questions that we raised. Not only were their answers positive but they have also been backed by their actions.

The state of the Club’s finances and the way in which the club was being run have been the subject of much reporting in the press and as a consequence of the Football League charges against Mr Bassini and the Club for breaches of the financial rules. Nobody other than Mr Bassini and his close advisors were privy to the way in which the finances were being operated and the conclusions of the Football League Independent Tribunal were damning.

We knew that the takeover was not straight forward and we must be grateful for the patience shown by the new owners in achieving the acquisition of the club

We knew that the takeover was not straight forward and we must be grateful for the patience shown by the new owners in achieving the acquisition of the club. The episode is now behind us and we can look forward to a much more stable period.

The influx of players on loan from Udinese and Granada, which attracted so much criticism mostly after the team began to climb up the league and deliver some fantastic performances on the pitch, was a necessity created by the delays in completing the takeover. The new owners showed their commitment to Watford’s academy and academy graduates by signing several on long contracts. There has also been opportunity for youngsters to make the step up but this has been interrupted by unfortunate injuries. The players who have come in have been able to play the way in which Gianfranco Zola had hoped and most have made a very favourable Cialis impression with a significant number wanting to sign permanently. The quality of the football has been excellent and that has resulted in success on the pitch and higher attendances with record season ticket sales. The foreign loan players certainly did not play like mercenaries who did not care about the club. The hope now is that the home-grown youngsters will be able to reach the standards that would bring them starting positions in the team with the help of the excellent coaching available.

The owners and the management have recognised the importance of Watford as a family club and have continued with that theme. They also recognise the importance of the club’s community role and the players have been great supporters of initiatives such as the BEST project which we sponsored.

The club have also been very open and transparent in their dealings with us and others as well as bringing a highly professional approach to management on and off the pitch. We have had regular discussions with the management and have been consulted on a number of issues and initiatives. The management have also made significant steps to bringing the club onto a more sustainable cost basis with no need to sell players for knock down fees in order to balance the books.

We said in our statement before the takeover “We need an owner who will buy in to the values of the club and provide an extended period of financial and organisational stability. The Trust will do everything in its power to ensure that this is what happens.”

At the end of the first year we can say that this looks to be exactly what we have got and the Trust are very happy to play a part in what we hope will lead to many happy times at Watford FC.

Chairman’s Post Season View: 2012-13

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were writing the pre-season view since so much has happened this season and all of it positive. At that time we were getting very positive messages from the new owners and their management team but things were still in a state of flux with the delayed takeover of the club. We knew that the academy was seen to be important but that has been reinforced by giving several of our talented scholars 5 year contracts. The family nature of the club was recognised but not fully understood by the new owners. The family days changed that and Scott Duxbury was particularly excited after experiencing Watford’s unique family feel.

We have had regular meetings with the club management and we have been very impressed with their plans for a sustainable club.

We have had regular meetings with the club management and we have been very impressed with their plans for a sustainable club, and in contrast to the previous year, their openness and willingness to share what they were doing and the philosophy behind the plans. Some of the plans have had to change and projects delayed but we have always known why and there has always been a good reason. This inspires confidence that the new owners not only see Watford as their number one priority at this time but that they will create a sustainable and secure future for the long-term. The way in which the new season tickets were handled certainly confirmed that filling the ground was a key objective and who would have anticipated that the family stand would be sold out by the end of May.

Pre-season we acknowledged that Gianfranco Zola was a very good coach but that he would need to adapt to the demands of the Championship, which is so different to the Premier League. Even with so many changes in playing staff he has managed beyond anything that we had anticipated. His relationship with the players and the way that they want to do their best for him as well as themselves and the fans is a testimony to his quality and personality. This squad are Watford players and not just temporary journeymen as many in the press would have had us believe. We have seen the best football that we have witnessed at Vicarage Road and we have certainly been entertained by the most entertaining team in the Championship.  Although the play-off final was a disappointment we have to remember we have a very young and inexperienced team and getting to the final when so much seemed to be going against us was fantastic. Who will forget the home semi-final against Leicester and how Zola, with the help of the fans, managed to get the players up after the disappointment of the Leeds game when the world seemed to be against us. Now we need to support the team in the new season and be patient again even though there will be significantly greater expectation.

The charges brought by the Football League following discoveries about the actions of the previous owner were only a small concern and the judgement showed that the new owners were exonerated from any implication in wrong doing. We now wait to see whether the League officials will be content and allow the club to follow procedures and make the signings we need with the minimum of delays.

We are delighted with the initiatives to create a singing section and well done to Roy of The 1881 (www.the1881.com) for organising this. In addition the club have signed up to a willingness to investigate safe standing. We have had discussions with the club on these initiatives and we are very supportive of both. We have been involved with the latter for a while through the national association of Supporters Trusts, Supporters Direct. It will be great to see the South West corner progressing and we wish the club luck in finding a partner for the redevelopment of the East Stand. This will be very important if we achieve promotion to the Premier League for several reasons and we hope to get the chance to work with the club and supporters to provide feedback on the proposals when they are available.

We will be looking forward to the new season and the Trust will do all it can to help and support the club in the second year of the new era.

Note on possible / probable takeover

Over the past few months the board have been very active in making contact and holding discussions with a number of people, which has included attending executive meetings, meeting senior employees of the club and members of the board and maintaining close links with the media. We have been active in trying to make sure that all promised payments have been made and that developments (such as the new pitch and the SW corner) are fully funded, whilst at the same time trying to ensure that funds for more peripheral activities (such as possible future revenue streams) are not likely to cause short or long-term financial problems.

In this respect we have been seeking to increase the transparency in the operation of the club and its dealings and in so doing we have also had several discussions with Mr Bassini. We were not prepared however to fuel any of the rumours, particularly since we have had a reasonably successful season and we are continually trying to maintain stability in the club after considerable instability in many ways.
It is always difficult at a time of rumour and speculation and we have been investigating the rumours for substance, including speaking to Mr Bassini. The culmination of the rumours  you will now have seen as emerging stories in the press regarding the possibility/probability of a change in ownership of the club with the new owner likely to be Signor Pozzo who owns Udinese in Serie A and Granada in the Spanish first division. There is still uncertainty about this and it is not a done deal at the time of writing. This is a fluid and rapidly changing situation after a period of comparative calm on the surface.
Will this be good or bad for the club?
At the moment there has been no sale although it may be imminent. If the club is sold to Sr Pozzo we will have an owner with a general interest in Football. There is a strong possibility that he would want to bring some of Udinese’s younger players on loan to Watford, which is what he has done with Granada. This has implications for Sean Dyche’s control over placer recruitment and the academy development of young players. Two or three talented young Italians who have to fight for their place in the team may have advantages in introducing players who have a high technical proficiency. However, if they have to be played under instructions from the owner, who currently seems to see Udinese as the focus of his operations, then this would be bad and we would simply become a nursery club for Udinese. It should be noted that Granada just missed relegation last season. It is also unknown what he would think about the community involvement of the club and any withdrawal of support from the Community Trust would be a serious undermining of the role and position of the club in the Community, something that Watford FC is rightly admired for.
It is unclear just how much money Mr Bassini has put into the club and there is considerable secrecy over the finances. There are indications that some of the conditions of the purchase of the club by Mr Bassini have not been met in full, e.g. delays in payments and deadlines. While this in itself is not necessarily a cause for concern, it is indicative of having to operate very close to financial limits and it is possible that the operation has been financed through player sales. Again this is not necessarily a cause for concern because it is fundamentally what we were doing before Mr Bassini took over – but previously there was complete transparency, which as sole owner Mr Bassini does not need to embrace. However, such failures could trigger action by the bond holders to take back the club or to take control over key assets against which the sale has been secured, such as the ground. It is also of concern that if there is a cash flow problem that the pitch replacement could not be completed or the club could acquire a debt that it could not pay on time.
The Trust Board have been aware of events unfolding having been in close contact with the club and having spoken with Mr Bassini.  While rumour and speculation should not be a reason to react prematurely we have been monitoring the situation and have been in regular contact with a number of key people. We will be using our influence to try and ensure that any deal will protect the club and its interests. If there is a new owner we would seek a very early meeting with the new owner and/or his representatives and we would want to see members of the current board retained on a future board to ensure continuity and representatives who would champion the Watford Way and what the club stand for.
We need an owner who will buy in to the values of the club and provide an extended period of financial and organisational stability. The Trust will do everything in its power to ensure that this is what happens.

Chairman’s Pre Season View: 2012-13

Much has happened over the past few weeks since we issued our statement outlining our initial concerns and the subsequent positive response from the club’s new owners. The Supporters Trust remains a critical friend and will not hesitate to question decisions that we feel might be detrimental to the future of the club. The new owners and management team have been both open and positive in our conversations to date. I have had several discussions and am in regular contact with them. My experience has been very different from our immediate past encounters and the philosophy of the new owners seems appropriate for a club of our size and financial position.

The financial situation at the club was such that these have been introduced more quickly than had been anticipated initially.

Many changes have happened in recent weeks. The financial situation at the club was such that these have been introduced more quickly than had been anticipated initially. However, at least the financial stability of the club has been assured in the short-term and I believe also in the long-term. From the information received by the Trust’s Board it would seem that we have had a lucky escape and we look forward to the prudent and sensible business plan that is being put in place.

The Harefield Academy

There has been dismay expressed by many fans at this week’s decision not to pursue category 1 status for the Harefield Academy under the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). In conversations with Gian Luca Nani and Scott Duxbury this week, I have been assured that this does not signal a change in the importance of the academy to the club. However, it does reflect a reality check regarding the onerous conditions and significant costs of achieving category 1 status, which was not guaranteed in any case. For a club that has lost money consistently for years the management team believed the cost commitments of maintaining category 1 status to be onerous. While the club may lose potential recruits to other academies, the opportunities for early first team involvement remain a very strong selling point for young players. As a result, we expect our U21 players to be pushing for a first team place rather than playing in the U21 league being established under the EPPP. While our Academy teams will not be playing regularly against the top opposition, there will be opportunities to work around this (for example by arranging friendlies). Of course, in future if there are benefits in seeking a higher category registration then this is still open to the club.

Expectations for 2012-13

While a significant number of new recruits have arrived this summer, I have been assured this is based on financial sustainability. While the current squad will almost certainly need to be slimmed down to maintain this sustainability, the Trust’s concern that the club would simply become a feeder club for others has not been realised so far. The new recruits do indeed bring increased skill and experience which we hope will be a help to our home-grown youngsters. Achieving greater financial sustainability will reduce the need to quickly sell players to fund running costs, as happened with Marvin Sordell last year.

While Gianfranco Zola remains unproven in the Championship he is a good coach and clearly has the confidence of the players. He will need time to get the team to where it needs to be (just like any manager) and he will need to adapt as he learns about the Championship. However, at least the club has greater resources available than before and that has to bode well for the future.

We all wish Gianfranco Zola and his squad the best of luck against Crystal Palace and through the season.

Best Regards

John Fawell
Chairman, Watford Supporters Trust.

Breakthrough! The Trust meets Laurence Bassini at last

Laurence Bassini

Laurence Bassini, owner of Watford Football Club

On December 13 we finally achieved what we have been striving for since March. Chair of the Trust John Fawell and Vice Chair Graham Sterry were finally granted a meeting with Watford football Club’s owner Laurence Bassini and Richard Walker WFC Head of Media and Communications. A full account of the meeting has been sent to all Trust members but if you missed it you can read the report here.