Sitting in the pub on Thursday night, I found myself starting to explain to my friends why I thought Watford would secure promotion this season – it was a very persuasive argument if I do say so myself.
But I was also aware of the fact that for the last ten months or so one of the men I was talking to has continuously held against me a throwaway comment I made last summer when I stated ‘backing Watford for promotion during the 2013/14 season is like printing free money’.
It was a joke of course but I did feel the Golden Boys’ squad last season was good enough to challenge. However, there were issues which needed resolving and several of the signings did not succeed even though on paper they seemed like excellent additions; namely Javier Acuna, Iriney and Diego Fabbrini. All players who had the attributes to potentially excel.
I have again thrown a few pennies on Watford securing promotion this season but it isn’t because of bias or due to signings which look good on paper or YouTube.
There are several reasons why I believe this could be the year.
Apart from Ecuadorian full-back Juan Carlos Paredes and the first-year professionals, all of the Hornets squad have experience of playing in the top two divisions in English football, unlike last summer.
There are still a couple of signings where there is a risk element but I feel that has been reduced considerably this time around.
Heurelho Gomes, who replaces Manuel Almunia as the club’s experienced goalkeeper, endured a difficult end to his time at Tottenham Hotspur and has only played 14 games in the last three years. But he has Premier League, not to mention Champions League, experience and will be relishing the chance to play first-team football again.
In front of them, Gabriele Angella, Lloyd Doyley, Tommie Hoban and, although he didn’t have the best 2013/14 campaign, Joel Ekstrand are tried and tested at Championship level and they have added another two centre halves with experience of English football’s top two divisions.
Some Watford fans have held Craig Cathcart’s previous loan spell at Vicarage Road against him but the majority of Blackpool fans were sad to see him leave and he is a much better player now.
And whilst Gabriel Tamas has had off-field issues in the past, he impressed playing for Doncaster Rovers during the second half of last season and there is a reason why he has 63 caps for Romania and was a regular fixture in West Bromwich Albion’s squad for three years in the Premier League.
The Hornets have recruited well this summer in my opinion.
The 2013 Championship Player of the Year Matej Vydra is the stand-out addition and acquiring Daniel Tozser’s services for the next two years was a superb piece of business.
But it was the signing of Lloyd Dyer back in May which really set the tone for me. It showed the club were seriously going to challenge for automatic promotion this season and was an example of how the club have persuaded players they are aiming to become an established Premier League club in the short term.
Dyer was arguably the best ‘winger’ in the Championship last season – certainly in the top three – and had the option to play Premier League football with Leicester City. But he turned down the one-year contract to sign a three-year deal with Watford.
The club’s ambition and desire to secure promotion this season has been mentioned by several of the signings and they have a more balanced squad now.
With Fitz Hall missing for most of the 2013/14 campaign, I believe the Hornets lacked a dominant centre half but that appears to have been addressed in Tamas. Likewise the issue of a lack of experienced Championship players, with the additions of Cathcart, Dyer and to a lesser extent Tamas. Plus the foreign imports are now another year wiser in the hustle-and-bustle nature of the division.
It is the strength in depth in almost every position which makes me particularly confident that it will be a successful season. They also have the players to utilise different formations, with 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 being used in equal amounts during pre-season.
If Watford play with three at the back, they have six players who are proven at this level, not to mention Essaid Belkalem, who excelled at the World Cup, Reece Brown and first-year professionals Josh Doherty and Jorell Johnson.
They don’t have a specialist left-back to cover Daniel Pudil but Ekstrand, Doyley, Doherty and Paredes are all capable of fulfilling the role.
We understand the Hornets are targeting another holding midfielder, which is understandable, but even without the unnamed addition, Connor Smith is a talented youngster and other players could fill in on a short-term basis. There is also the loan market should a long-term resolution be required.
The club are looking for another attacking midfielder which would improve an already strong area of the pitch; with Almen Abdi, Sean Murray, Lewis McGugan and Cristian Battocchio all competing for two starting places and youngsters Luke O’Nien and George Byers hoping for game time.
The attacking positions also have more balance. Vydra is the dynamic and pacey striker who can look to run in behind, which was lacking throughout the 2013/14 campaign.
If a 4-3-3 formation is used, then Dyer and Ikechi Anya add blistering pace and direct play out wide whilst Fernando Forestieri and Fabbrini are capable of unlocking defences from deep.
If Troy Deeney stays then he is likely to lead the line but if he does decide to leave then in Vydra, Mathias Ranegie and Forestieri or Fabbrini they have plenty of options. The club may decide to look for a direct replacement as well.
The strength in depth – and the expected new arrivals – also means that players like Jonathan Bond, O’Nien and the club’s other young professionals could be loaned out to secure much-needed game time to enhance their development.
The Championship is notoriously unpredictable and having the best players or squad does not correlate to goals scored and points on the table.
But the club have provided their head coach with one of the best squads in the division and I believe Sannino is capable of leading the Golden Boys to promotion.
One of the reasons why Watford struggled under Gianfranco Zola before he left was the club’s tactical discipline and defensive organisation. Sannino is known for providing this and showed early into his reign that he could instil a resilience which was missing.
Sannino joined the Golden Boys midway through the season and I believe he will have the players in much better shape both physically and tactically after a full pre-season.
The end of last season was a disgrace. But it wasn’t through a lack of trying by Sannino.
He was devastated by his team’s decline after each of those performances.
He genuinely appreciates the opportunity he has at Watford and is grateful to the club’s supporters. He cares passionately and a lack of effort or desire is not something which you can accuse him of.
Another factor is the language barrier. Sannino recognised from the start that he must learn English and he did work on it over the summer.
It is worth noting the final trio of defeats came after the 2-1 loss to QPR which ended the Hornets’ hopes of reaching the play-offs.
The final three performances meant that display was quickly forgotten but the Golden Boys were outstanding at Loftus Road and in large parts dominated the expensively-assembled side who eventually went up.
If the Hornets can reproduce the level of performance against QPR for a large proportion of the season then they will finish in the play-offs at the very least.
When I spoke to Tamas last week he said Watford will achieve success if Sannino can get his message across to the players and I agree with him.
Watford have the squad. I believe they have the head coach. In ten months time we will know if they have delivered.
This article was first published in last Friday's Watford Observer.