LUCA VIALLI was "stunned and surprised" when his employment was terminated on Friday, June 14.

The Watford manager, with two years of his contract to run, appreciated that by axing Ray Wilkins and three backroom staff the board may have had a hidden agenda and could be hoping their departure would precipitate his own resignation.

It was a course of action he would not consider believing instead he had signed a contract and would see the task through.

He was further encouraged in this belief by reassurances of support from the board not least the commitment of Sir Elton John, who informed him, two weeks before his own resignation, that he was 100 per cent behind Vialli.

That there were directors who wanted the manager's head as the season wound to a dismal close cannot be denied. One director is reputed to have made a 12-hour flight back to cast his vote in favour of the manager's dismissal before promptly making a 12-hour return flight to his business destination.

However, it was thought such an undertaking would be costly not just the manager's wages, but those of his staff, who were contracted for a further two years.

While Elton John's resignation reduced the number who were in favour of giving the manager more time, the determining factor was the Italian's intransigence over staff cuts.

To Vialli, it was a question of loyalty to those who he had brought to the club, but in the light of the gloomy financial reality, the board found this obstinacy too much to take.

The financial goalposts had been moved as a result of the ITV Digital debacle, but Vialli laid great store by the commitment made in May 2001 and felt this should remain in place. Despite repeated requests, he was not prepared to discuss axing staff.

When informed that Wilkins and three others would have their contracts terminated, Vialli was plainly annoyed, but after swallowing hard and having his own reservations over the wisdom of the board's pruning, he expressed a willingness to work in the new, restricted circumstances.

However, the die was already cast, and when Vialli did not tender his resignation he was then told his contract was terminated.

It was an odd way to conduct affairs on the face of it, and it was the first time in Watford's history that the manager's backroom staff have been axed before the manager, himself, has been shown the door.

Vialli, phoned me late last Thursday with the assurance that he would battle on with restricted staff, having already, as I reported last week, cleared out his office at the training ground.

Nevertheless, having taken things at face value, he was determined to honour his contract.

He phoned me again on Friday, but refused to say anything publicly about his sacking at this stage, other than to stress he did not attend the meeting with chief executive Tim Shaw, anticipating the sack.

While many people around Vicarage Road thought he might jump on Friday, the possibility of him being pushed did not seem so likely.

"We will talk about it all in an interview later in the summer," he said before departing on a pre-arranged holiday on Saturday.

Vialli admitted he was disappointed with the performances of several players he brought in, but believed he had learnt much from his first year in Division One, and is a better manager for the experience.

Watford, faced with a hefty wage-bill over the next two years, decided to cut their losses.

They will employ a new manager at considerably less than the reported £600,000 per year they paid Vialli, and will also make savings on what was reputed to be the £400,000 they paid his chief coach.

Settlements on contracts invariably drag on, and are very rarely paid in full. So, faced with such a wage bill over the next two years, the board has probably saved money in the long run by grasping the nettle now.

Even after the axe fell, there were those who believed the Italian could still have been at the helm had he been prepared to accept the financial necessity of staff cuts.

For many, his depature will close a costly chapter in the club's history, the financial echoes of which will rumble on for many, many months.

Yet, for others, there is a feeling that perhaps he should have been given a little more time, if only to justify the validity of the board's stunning about face over the last 12 months.

When Watford were in tailspin, out of the top flight, seven months into Dave Bassett's managership back in 1987-88, they axed him.

The Hornets continued to drop down like a stone and the subsequent events, along with Bassett's continued success in management, suggest that if Watford had not dismissed him, Bassett may well have ridden out the storm and steered them back to the promised land.

The departure of Vialli leaves an area of doubt would he have profited from last year's desultory experience to come with up with a winning combination?

The portents were not good, but there are those such as the over-enthusiastic former chairman who thought the Italian was the best thing to have happened to the club who believed he should have had more time before a final judgement could be fairly made.

June 21, 2002 12:30