When Beppe Sannino was appointed Watford head coach in December many Hornets supporters had one simple question.
Who is he?
The 57-year-old had not worked outside of his native Italy and to the majority of fans was unknown.
And he was in striking contrast to the man he replaced. Italian international Gianfranco Zola was, and still is, recognised across Europe.
After a stylish seven years with Chelsea he is regarded as one of the best foreign players to have graced the Premier League – a division he also managed in.
But things had fallen apart for Zola at Vicarage Road. After a fine season that ultimately ended in disappointment, the second campaign had gone wrong. Nine games without a win saw the diminutive Italian depart.
So the captivating riddle for Watford fans was: Just who is Zola’s successor? What’s he done in football? What qualities can he offer? And how did he end up here?
Frankly you’d be surprised.
Sannino’s long journey to Vicarage Road is a humbling object lesson in persistence and dedication. His CV is hardly a conventional one. Certainly not one that any other English manager has replicated.
He worked as a janitor at a psychiatric hospital for five years in the early 1990s and then another five at a civic hospital while coaching children.
Such grass roots commitment and resilience finally paid dividends in 2001 when he progressed to working in the Italian lower leagues.
His reward came ten years later when he secured a coaching job in the top flight with Siena.
His pedigree is certainly at odds with the sheltered ‘football only’ careers of many English players and managers who have never experienced life outside the rigid confines of the game.
So when parachuted in to rescue the Hornets’ fortunes after a mid-season collapse Sannino was more than ready – and worldly-wise – to leave his homeland for the less heady delights of west Watford.
He arrived unable to speak English. Head of medical Marco Cesarini became his translator. But Sannino’s passion for English football has transcended the language barrier.
He is theatrical and animated on the touchline and is warm, honest and amusing when dealing with the press – albeit initially through Cesarini.
Since his arrival results on the pitch have been mixed. Watford’s home form has been impressive.
Supporters arriving at Vicarage Road were confident their side would produce a disciplined and committed performance. The Hornets went ten consecutive matches without a home defeat.
But it was a different story on the road. The team’s away form had frustratingly stagnated under Zola and only got worse under their new boss.
Watford’s fans travelled around the country and visited 14 different stadiums only to see their side come away without a victory.
The winless run was finally ended at Sheffield Wednesday. It was a 4-1 success which Sannino announced at the club’s end of season awards was their best performance during his reign.
Two days later we sat down at the Hornets’ training ground in London Colney and chatted about his first six months at the club.
He explained what he wants to create at Watford next season – an abiding belief in what the club can achieve and what its core values must be.
Through Cesarini he said: “The easiest part of my job is to write out on paper the team and the formation. But the hardest part is to give a soul to that side and to the squad.
“I would like, as I’ve said many times before, to give Watford supporters what they deserve. I think I have a good link with them. Here is a passion that you can see; a real passion for the club.”
When he was appointed at Vicarage Road Watford were 13th in the table. At the end of the season Watford were 13th in the table. “Going nowhere fast” would probably be a cynic’s summing up.
Sannino admitted when he arrived at the club his primary aim was to consolidate the team’s league position and its inherent talent. But his desire to win every game needed both a realistic and pragmatic approach. Particularly when it came to tinkering with the formation.
He kept the 3-5-2 system that had been used under Zola. However, there was a shift in tactics. Instead of the free-flowing, attacking and cavalier football which Watford had become synonymous with, Sannino adopted a more defensive approach.
He said: “When I came to Watford the priority was to bring stability to the side. I didn’t make any strong changes to the formation at the beginning because we were looking to get into the play-offs. I felt this would be beneficial to the club.
“When you come into a club in the middle of the season the priority is to look and observe at what you have. In terms of the formation, we have to wait for next season and see if there will be changes.”
When Sannino first took charge of Watford he was coy whenever asked if the Hornets could reach the Championship play-offs. He insisted he hadn’t looked at the table during his first few weeks at the club.
His assessment of the Watford squad was one that “had great ability but they are certainly able to improve”.
The Hornets flirted with the play-off positions after Sannino’s arrival. But then the team developed a disturbingly consistent tendency to concede late goals.
It became Watford’s Achilles heel and ultimately ruined the club’s bid for the play-offs.
The watershed fixture was at Queens Park Rangers at the end of April. The Hornets put on an impressive display but walked off after a disappointing 2-1 defeat. Their hopes were ended.
What followed has cast a long shadow over the Hornets’ season. Three defeats. Three abject performances. The last of which – a 4-1 loss at home to Huddersfield Town on the final day of the campaign – provoked disgruntled supporters to question the players and staff.
Sannino discussed the players’ passion and commitment after those final three games. He conceded the end to the season had been disappointing but is determined to ensure that Watford don’t falter next time around.
He said: “We’ve finished in mid-table. I think the club want to improve the team. Next season will be very special and we have to make sure we can build a team that can improve. We want a team that can fight until the end of the Championship.
“I am looking forward to pre-season. We will have a break, recharge ourselves and we will have a strong pre-season.”
So when it comes to the “who will stay and who will go?” summer transfer merry-go-round, what’s likely to happen?
Veteran defender Marco Cassetti will leave the club when his contract expires at the end of June. The future of others – including first-choice goalkeeper and club captain Manuel Almunia – are yet to be announced.
Those on loan are likely to return to their parent clubs. However, Watford have already begun talks to make Daniel Tozser a permanent signing.
One other player whose future will be speculated on is Troy Deeney. The striker scored 25 goals this season and doggedly led the Hornets attack for the majority of the campaign.
For predatory clubs anxious to bolster their attacking line-up, the fact that Deeney also struck 20 goals last season could sway would-be suitors to bid for him.
He’s been a consistent and talismanic striker. Perhaps bigger clubs will come knocking. Sannino, however, hopes his name will continue to be on the team sheet but is realistic.
“I would be very, very happy to have him here next season,” Sannino said. “I am sure a lot of my colleagues would like the chance to manage Troy. There is a period of transfer activity now but it is a club decision and we will have to see what happens.”
He added: “I have my knowledge and my assessment about the players has been done. I have a clear mind and I will give the club my thoughts.”
And what of Sannino’s future?
Has he been given assurances by the club that he is the man to lead the Hornets’ promotion challenge next season?
“That is something you would have to ask the club,” he replied with a smile.
So how has the man who left his homeland, and the only football environment he’d known, embraced the robust and often unforgiving rough-and-tumble of England’s second tier?
“It’s been a fantastic and beautiful experience for me so far,” he said. “Football is universal and felt around the world. But each country has its own views and culture. It’s normal that if you have the chance to come to a different country you will learn day by day something new and different.”
He scoffed at suggestions that language problems – he prides himself on improving and attempting to use his English – created difficulties in communicating with his players.
He said: “I don’t think the players were affected by it. I think the way I communicated with them was good because they can understand me.
“It’s not only the language but also the gestures you make. Football language is very limited as well so it is not a big thing to learn. So I don’t think that was a problem. What is important is the players learn the concept. Once they do that it is easier.
“The only frustration was when I first arrived. It came about so quickly and the first two weeks were frustrating but it has not been an issue.”
After six months in the job the question ‘just who is Beppe Sannino?’ has been answered.
He is charming, eager to prove himself and clearly committed. But he has work to do over the summer. The Championship kicks off again on August 9 and the clock is ticking.
n Part two of our end-of-season round-up with Sannino will be in next week’s Watford Observer.