Lewington's proudest day after players take a pay cut
The phone rang in Ray Lewington’s office at the training ground in London Colney. It was Tim Shaw, the chief executive, saying that he and the chairman, Graham Simpson, were on their way to see him. They urgently needed to talk.
Within 15 minutes of sitting down, Lewington knew what a parlous state the club’s finances were in.
They were days away from being placed in administration unless they could show the bank that they were able to repay some of the debt.
The extravagance of the Vialli era, the reckless spending, expensive long-term contracts and the collapse of the broadcaster, ITV Digital, had pushed the club to the brink.
It was reported the club needed to claw back around £9million to avoid administration. ‘Tim Shaw was very honest,’ says Lewington. ‘He said that unless everyone at the club took a pay cut, including the players, we would be in administration and decisions would be taken above our heads.
‘The banks wanted some of their money back and they wanted it back now. It really was as simple as that.
‘I felt we had no option but the tricky thing was that it had to be voluntary because the club couldn’t touch the wages if the players refused. And in order to do it, there had to be 100 per cent agreement.’
Shaw spelled out the situation to the players in the gym at the training ground in London Colney.
He said that if they agreed, everyone at the club would defer 12 per cent of their wages indefinitely and with no guarantee they would ever get it back. The players listened and then held a meeting.
Meanwhile, against this backdrop of turmoil, Lewington had to prepare his team for a trip to Bramall Lane.
‘The players consulted the PFA and I think the PFA advised them not to do anything,’ says Lewington. ‘I know there were some dissenting voices but we let them have their meetings and tried to concentrate on the football.’
It wasn’t easy. The issue loomed over the whole club like a dark cloud. The players held the club’s future in their hands.
‘We were walking on eggshells for three or four days,’ says Lewington. ‘The players had a few meetings but they couldn’t agree. They were all in different positions. Some had big mortgages and families and as much as people have their opinions on footballers’ wages, it was still a considerable sacrifice the players were being asked to make.
‘We tried to keep things as smooth as possible but good training sessions need that competitive element at times. It’s a physical game and everyone was on edge so you had to try to avoid situations where tempers might get frayed. We, the management and coaching staff, also avoided talking about it because we didn’t know which way they were going to go.’
In the end, the players agreed to defer, rather than waive, 12 per cent of their wages. Although there were no guarantees, the players were told they would be repaid what they were due if the club could afford it, but that survival was the priority. If the team had a good cup run, for example, the players might get some of their money.
‘Not everyone was happy about it but I think they all realised it was the right thing to do,’ says Lewington, who thought he might face a battle to hold the team together.
‘It was, potentially, a very awkward situation. As a manager you have to be able to criticise when it’s needed as well as praise. The thing was, once they’d agreed to do it, they became really tight as a group,’ he says. ‘They had made this decision and they were all in the same boat. They didn’t bring it up. They didn’t use it as an excuse. They were much stronger.’
Meanwhile, the team had to continue to pick up points because relegation might be a price the club could not afford.
But Sheffield United are never an easy team to face, particularly at the end of a turbulent week when training took a back seat. ‘I had to be careful too,’ says Lewington. ‘There was no way I would use the wage cut as some kind of motivator. It wouldn’t have been at all appropriate. But in the dressing room before the game you could see it in their eyes. They were determined and they were together.’
Watford’s resolve was put to the test after ten minutes. Wayne Allison put the Blades in front. The Hornets could have crumbled but they didn’t. They were up against it for long spells but they kept fighting and they got a little bit of luck.
In the space of 60 seconds towards the end of the first half, the match was turned on its head. Phil Jagielka bumped Heidar Helguson over in the area and the referee Chris Foy gave a penalty and sent off the United defender.
Neil Cox smashed home the kick with so much power it was as if he was releasing the week’s tensions on behalf of the whole club.
A minute later, Helguson touched home from a low Paul Robinson cross. Micah Hyde was sent off for a second bookable offence late on but Watford held firm.
‘Players always go over to the supporters at the end of a game to thank them but this time there was genuine warmth,’ says Lewington. ‘Given all we’d been through it was one of the proudest days of my career.’
Watford Chamberlain, Doyley, Cox, Gayle, Robinson, Ardley, Hyde, Hand, Nielsen (Glass 84), Helguson, Webber (Johnson 90)
Manager Ray Lewington
Scorers Cox 36 pen, Helguson 37
Sheffield United scorer Allison 10
Why was this match chosen? The club was at a low ebb. The threat of administration felt very real. The cost of the Vialli experiment meant Watford felt the collapse of ITV Digital more than most. The players and supporters were brought closer together by adversity and this result was proof of what can be achieved when everyone pulls in the same direction.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? Ray Lewington doesn't quite get the credit he deserves for the job he did in his three years in charge of the team. The football was steady at times but he steered the ship through some choppy waters. The way he kept most of the team together and achieved a relatively comfortable mid-table finish two seasons running as the budget was cut speaks volumes for his man-management skills.