Ray Lewington was under no illusions about the task he was taking on. He knew the club’s finances were in a terrible state.
The Gianluca Vialli experiment had failed spectacularly. Watford’s board had gambled on a return to the Premiership, where they would be rewarded handsomely for their vision and courage. They had put all their chips on red and the roulette wheel came up black. The collapse of ITV Digital, the broadcaster that appeared to have done its sums on the back of a beer mat, only made matters worse.
ITV Digital had signed a deal with the Football League worth £315million. With ITV Digital heading into administration, Watford’s bank wanted its money back.
Lewington had come to Watford as Vialli’s reserve team manager, a curious job because the Italian did not like his first-team players turning out for the second eleven so it was really a development team made up of under-21s.
‘That’s what happens abroad,’ says Lewington. ‘These days it’s quite common. It allows young players to come through but it does mean you have first team players who are not playing a lot of football.’
Before the 2001-02 season was up Watford knew they had to get Vialli out. They could no longer afford him, his players or the overnight stays at Sopwell House, the hotel in St Albans, before home matches.
But Vialli was not prepared to jump, he was waiting to be pushed and when finally the two parties came to a settlement there was not a big budget with which to recruit a replacement.
‘I thought they’d give the job to Ray Wilkins,’ says Lewington. ‘But in the end they sacked Ray as a tactic to get Luca out. It didn’t work so they had to sack Vialli anyway.’
Lewington was set to go back for the new season as reserve team manager when he got a call from Graham Simpson, the chairman, who asked him if he was interested in applying for the top job. ‘I said I would if I had a chance. Graham told me I had some support on the board. I never did apply, I just went for an interview, then a second interview, then a third.’
During the interview process the full extent of Watford’s financial woes were explained to Lewington. ‘They told me a big part of the job would be to reduce the wage bill. We had to cut it from £10.7million to under three million and we had to do it quickly, within 18 months.
‘The bank was demanding it and there were no other options. I was told there wouldn’t be any money for new players. We’d be getting rid of people as quickly as possible, even if it meant selling for less than they were worth. We just had to get them off the books. And we wouldn’t be paying agents a penny. They were the circumstances but despite the constraints there was a lot of interest in the job.
‘There were a lot of applicants. It was an attractive job, although I don’t know how much the others were told about the financial situation in case it became public knowledge. It may be they told me a bit more because I was already at the club. In the end it went down to a choice between me and Peter Taylor.’
Many of the high earners were let go, including Espen Baardsen, Patrick Blondeau, Stephen Hughes, Ramon Vega, Pierre Issa and Paul Okon. Filippo Galli, the 39-year-old central defender from Italy had been one of the few successes of the Vialli season but he was too old and too costly.
However, it left Watford without any experienced centre halves. ‘We converted Marcus Gayle from a forward to a defender because I felt he could read the game very well,’ says Lewington. ‘He needed someone who was experienced alongside him, so I managed to get Sean Dyche on a free transfer from Millwall. I wanted Sean for his personality as much as anything. He is the sort of person who will never, ever give up. He wasn’t the quickest but I always looked at what a player could give you, rather than what he doesn’t give you.
‘In the cold light of day, when I looked at it, we had a decent team. There was Paul Robinson, Stephen Glass, Micah Hyde and Allan Nielsen, Heidar Helguson and Tommy Smith. My concern was that we didn’t have strength in depth. A few injuries would hurt us so I felt we needed a good start.’
Things changed at the club overnight. The training schedules would no longer be fitted around the whims of foreign players who wanted to jet home for a few days. The players were fully in the picture and knew the odds were against them.
Off the field, the club had to take two steps backwards. Only six months earlier, they had managed to buy Vicarage Road, now they had to sell it again to raise funds.
‘There were times when it looked like we’d lose the training ground and the academy and they fought very hard to keep hold of them,’ says Lewington. ‘But every aspect of how the club operated was looked at from a financial point of view.’
Lewington had been a manager at Fulham and Brentford before, as well as a caretaker at Crystal Palace, but he had not kidded himself that he was the fans’ choice. ‘Oliver Phillips told me I got one per cent in a poll done by the Watford Observer,’ he says. ‘So it’s nice to know my family were voting for me.
‘The chairman made it clear that on the pitch the most important thing was to keep us up. Relegation would have been absolutely disastrous.’
In adversity everyone pulled together and the club regained its soul. Vialli had replaced hard-working, reliable players with people who were on huge wages. Now Lewington was trying to reverse that process.
‘If we are honest about it, he [Vialli] didn’t know much about the division or the teams we’d be playing,’ says goalkeeper Alec Chamberlain. ‘That showed by some of the signings he made. Some of them were on unbelievable contracts and that caused a bit of bad feeling in the dressing room. You look back now and you have to say, what were they thinking?
‘I am led to believe the club spent all the ITV Digital money in one go. It was reckless and it put the whole club in jeopardy. Some of the players were good but there were those who weren’t pulling their weight, in games or training.’
Paul Robinson, a player who would roll his sleeves up and fight with his last ounce of strength, was exasperated. ‘These players had been at top clubs. They’d played for their countries but they didn’t want to go to tough grounds and battle for a result. It can be hard to get motivated if you’re used to being at the top but in that division you have to battle for every point. They were happy to take the money, though.’
Watford lost their opening game of the season, at Leicester City’s brand new Walkers Stadium. They then drew 0-0 with Millwall and beat Wimbledon 3-2 before losing 3-0 at Portsmouth.
‘People inside the club were a bit edgy about how the season might pan out,’ says Lewington. ‘We had a lot going on behind the scenes but, as much as possible, I wanted the players to be positive.’
Lewington managed to work miracles. He persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to lend him Danny Webber, who had spent a month on loan at the end of Vialli’s season.
The Coventry game was live on Sky and despite the turmoil in the background the Hornets managed to put on a five-star show for the cameras. Webber’s movement was exemplary. He caused problems for Calum Davenport and Steve Walsh and forced the Sky Blues player-manager, Gary McAllister, to change his formation to protect his hapless defenders.
If the 3-0 surrender at Fratton Park just two days earlier had deflated the fans, it certainly hadn’t done the team any lasting damage.
Glass opened the scoring after just five minutes. Watford then had a number of great chances before they did manage to extend their advantage. Smith and Webber made it 3-0 before half-time. Then Nielsen and Robinson got on the mark in the second half to make it five with 19 minutes still remaining.
Robinson’s goal came at the end of a slick move that demonstrated just how much Watford had dominated. The full back linked up with Smith, continued his run into the box and lashed a shot home with his left foot.
‘I didn’t score many so it was great to get forward,’ he says. ‘People were expecting us to struggle but that day we played really well. Who knows what might have happened if there hadn’t been all the problems off the pitch?’
Coventry had been thrashed but they did manage to score two late goals to reduce their embarrassment. Gary McSheffrey got the first and John Eustace, who would later become very familiar to the Watford crowd, got the second in injury time.
‘It was spoilt a bit by the two late goals because 5-0 looks so much better than 5-2,’ says Lewington. ‘It was a real relief to play so well and be rewarded for it, especially with the TV cameras there. As a manager you never make promises you can’t keep, you just do your best, but I do remember seeing Graham Simpson afterwards. Everyone was nervous but that result reassured people a bit.’
Lewington saw Simpson in the corridor, winked, smiled and said calmly: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be alright.’
Watford Chamberlain, Cox, Dyche, Gayle, Ardley, Hyde, Nielsen, Glass, Robinson, Smith, Webber
Manager Ray Lewington
Scorer Glass 5, Smith 34, Webber 40, Nielsen 63, Robinson 71
Coventry scorers McSheffrey 86, Eustace 90
Why was this match chosen? Disaster struck pretty much as soon as Gianluca Vialli left and the club was suddenly in very dire straits. Administration was an ever-present danger for the best part of a season and it was bewildering for supporters who had been so excited by the Italian's arrival little over 12 months earlier. But this was a typical Watford win – when their backs were against the wall they came out fighting.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? The two late Coventry goals did take the edge off it a bit but this was a defiant victory at a time when expectations were being dramatically revised.