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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

Javi Gracia is following in the footsteps of Graham Taylor to end Watford’s managerial merry-go-round

Football's Front Lines: "Everyone is on board and it feels like we're all finally together. The fans, the manager and the players"

“Javi Gracia, he drinks sangria, he came from Russia to Hertfordshire,” was the soundtrack to Watford’s win over Crystal Palace on Saturday.

It was a momentous win that booked the Hornets a place in an FA Cup semi-final for just the sixth time in their history.

With league finishes of 13th, 17th and 14th since their return to the top flight in 2015, a neutral would be forgiven for turning a blind eye to what’s been happening at Vicarage Road.

Two stalwarts of Watford

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Two stalwarts of Watford

However, could their reputation as a club that merely exists in the Premier League be about to change?

As part of our Football’s Front Lines series, I visited Vicarage Road on the day of Watford’s FA Cup quarter-final against Crystal Palace to dive deeper into the wave of optimism around the club and discover why fans can’t stop singing about a Spaniard and his love of sangria.

“Up until now we’ve had three seasons that were pretty much the same,” Andy Lewers, host of the Hornets’ Nest radio show, said.

“We’d survive comfortably only for it to peter out. But this season has been completely different, we’re finally seeing progression under Gracia.

“I don’t think you’ll find a Watford fan who isn’t happy with how the season has gone so far!”

Andy, host of the Hornets’ Nest radio show

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Andy, host of the Hornets’ Nest radio show

Andy was right, every fan I spoke to had a spring in their step.

And you can hardly blame them.

Watford are just one point shy of seventh place and a lucrative Europa League spot, while also being in with a real chance of reaching the final of the FA Cup.

Their consistency this season is a stark contrast to the Jekyll and Hyde form that has marred their last three campaigns.

A common theme I quickly deduced from the fans’ collective happiness was a warmth for the man they affectionately refer to as ‘Javi.’

The manager to end the uncertainty?

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The manager to end the uncertainty?

Javi Gracia became Watford’s ninth manager in less than six years when he replaced Marco Silva in January 2018.

Among the fanbase there’s a timid optimism that the merry-go-round in the Vicarage Road dugout might finally be over.

The Spaniard made an immediate impression on all associated with the club and has succeeded in winning the affection of Hornets supporters.

Something his predecessors Walter Mazzari and Marco Silva failed to achieve during their reigns.

“Mazzarri just didn’t portray the image that Watford wanted,” Mike Parkin, co-presenter of From the Rookery End podcast, explained.

More Bond villain than football manager

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More Bond villain than football manager

“There was no link between the supporters and the manager and I think everyone knew he was never truly committed.

“He never fully grasped the language which makes it difficult to bond with supporters.

“Then we had the Marco Silva season which was a really disappointing one.

Mike, co-presenter of From the Rookery End podcast

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Mike, co-presenter of From the Rookery End podcast

“It all started so well and we weren’t just winning games but we were winning them well and everyone thought we had finally arrived in the Premier League.

“But after that approach from Everton he wasn’t able to turn things around and that was the worst I’ve felt as a Watford supporter for a long time.”

Watford fans vented their frustration towards Silva, who is now of Everton

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Watford fans vented their frustration towards Silva, who is now of Everton

According to Mike, there’s nothing stopping the current regime from reversing the short-term mentality that has been the ethos of the club in recent seasons.

“There’s no reason that Watford, with this squad, with this infrastructure and this manager can’t qualify for Europe and win a trophy.

Gracia has done more than just impress with results this season.

The Spaniard’s conduct towards fans, officials and journalists has earned widespread praise and even sparked comparisons with a Watford legend, Graham Taylor.

The former Hornets manager, who passed away in 2017, is the last man (excluding play-off final wins) to deliver silverware to Vicarage Road.

Taylor’s appeal was as much about his manner off the pitch and the reputation he gave Watford than the success he had in the dugout.

“Taylor gave this football club a real identity,” Andy told me.

Taylor was immortalised in bronze outside Vicarage Road in 2018

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Taylor was immortalised in bronze outside Vicarage Road in 2018

“He made it all about community and family. The family enclosure was introduced when Graham Taylor was here.

“During a time when hooliganism was rife, he made Vicarage Road a safe haven for families to come and watch football.

“Gracia has really embraced everything that was put in place by Graham Taylor and it’s nice to have a manager who Watford fans can be proud of representing their club.”

“There are definite parallels between GT and Javi,” Mike said.

His statue fittingly describes him as Watford’s ‘greatest ever manager’

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His statue fittingly describes him as Watford’s ‘greatest ever manager’

“Javi’s post-match interviews are very magnanimous and he’s always calm and respectful, just like Taylor.

“I can see shadows of Taylor in him and I think Graham Taylor would be very proud of where Watford are and he’d certainly approve of Javi Gracia.”

Whereas Taylor had time over two spells at Vicarage Road to forge a legacy, it remains to be seen whether Gracia will be afforded a similar luxury.

In 2012, Italian businessman Gino Pozzo became Watford owner in a takeover completed by the Pozzo family.

The family added Watford to their portfolio of football clubs across Europe that included Udinese and Granada CF.

The short-term model deployed by the new owners is something Hornets fans are becoming accustomed to.

The decision makers

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The decision makers

“The Pozzo model is one that they assume managers will be there for two seasons,” Tim Turner, creator of the Watford Throw In blog, told me.

“The club has worked on that basis for a few years now and maybe Gracia will be the one who changes that model, I hope he does.

“I believe that he and the club can go places together.”

Tim, creator of the Watford Throw In blog

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Tim, creator of the Watford Throw In blog

Despite the itchy trigger finger of the owners, Gracia is doing nothing to harm his case for a long stint at Vicarage Road.

The 2-1 win over Palace I witnessed was the epitome of a professional performance and the Spaniard’s decision to bring on Andre Gray proved to be the difference.

Gray scored just two minutes after coming off the bench as Watford booked their place in an FA Cup semi-final where they will face Wolves.

Wembley beckons

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Wembley beckons

Taylor is the only Watford manager to have taken the Hornets to an FA Cup final, a feat that Gracia has a real chance of replicating.

With Watford sitting in eighth place, just one point off seventh, the Spaniard could also bring European football to Vicarage Road next season.

Another adventure that only Taylor has been able to deliver to Watford fans.

“No manager can ever compare to Taylor,” Andy admitted to me.

“But, if Javi gets us into Europe, there’s only one man who’s ever done that, Graham Taylor.

“And, if Javi gets us to the FA Cup final, again, only Graham Taylor has ever done that!”

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