FOR some, the appointment of Luca Vialli as manager was a mistake awaiting confirmation; an indulgence in style without substance, entered into by an inexperienced board dazzled by the whiff of fame.

Others, judging by the season-ticket sales that first summer, endorsed as exciting the prospect of one of the game's greats taking over at Vicarage Road.

Either way, it was an expensive undertaking, and while it was rendered particularly costly by ITV Digital's subsequent demise, one had to question the wisdom of the initial investments and speculation.

As has been said previously in these columns in defence of the good husbandry over the last few years: "Any club that operates above its natural level has to have either exceptional management and players or consistent financial input preferably both!"

For openers, Vialli was being paid 50 per cent more than his predecessor and Ray Wilkins much more than Kenny Jackett. The pre-season training, involving meals and bedrooms in which to rest daily at Sopwell House, was significantly more expensive than usual as Watford, along with many other clubs, invested the cash they received from the new ITV Digital agreement.

The board, having been impressed with Jean Tigana's success at Fulham, decided to go for what was a revolutionary new approach at Watford and the costs mounted accordingly.

A new medical team was brought in, including a club doctor and, as it proved, they had their hands full in the first season with numerous traumatic injuries. However, it was surprising how often players suffered soft-tissue injuries, and I cannot recall a season in which so many players asked to come off early in games after picking up non-contact strains and pulls.

Players who had been at the club when Vialli arrived were impressed with the organisation and the degree of the medical back-up.

Yet one of Vialli's first acts was to put certain players on the transfer list. To what degree they followed Graham Taylor's recommendations is a matter of debate, but, as proved to be the case with Neil Cox, perhaps it would have been wiser to have studied the players at closer quarters before making such decisions.

One man's meat is another's poison and Vialli may well have found he could have utilised some of the players he released, particuarly as it proved they were certainly no worse than some he brought in.

However, having made the decisions within his first week at Vicarage Road, he left it to chief executive Tim Shaw to inform the players.

Taylor, who was still operating, declined to inform players another manager was going to axe them, but Vialli's reason for not taking the responsibility that goes with decision-making, was that he did not have a relationship with the players. Is it easier to sack a player you don't know or one you have worked with for three years or so?

The question marks muttered at Stamford Bridge over Vialli's man-management came sharply into focus with this avoidance of such face-to-face confrontations.

Next came the signings, most of whom ranged from the disappointing to the disastrous, but all of them expensive.

The manager had a budget but decided to invest the bulk of it in wages as opposed to fees, and there was a general hesitation in appreciating this, in effect, would mean the budget would be duplicated automatically the following year.

As Watford added well over £3 million on the wage bill, it, in fact, meant approaching between £6 million and £9 million spread over two to three years, whatever the lengths of the contracts.

Concern over this possibility was allayed with Vialli's assurance they were good players who could be resold.

Next, when noting claims that neither Celtic nor Real Zaragoza were able to match Watford's offer to Ramon Vega, we knew that the Hornets were marching boldly forward into areas where the club had not trod before.

While directors were enthusing over the new style, they failed to observe that shots, let alone goals were hard to come by in pre-season, while Vialli, in turn, seemed to fail to register the increasing threat from Manchester City's Eyal Berkovic in the opening game. Berkovic ran amok in the second-half while Watford were playing without a ball-winner in midfield.

While it would be fair to say the First Division caught Vialli by surprise, there was little excuse for this initial debacle for the style adopted by Manchester City was one with which the Watford manager was familiar.

Before the season was very old, Vialli began making changes, almost complusively tampering with the team, a fact which would be glossed over later after the injury list had grown longer and the manager was then forced to make changes.

During the opening months, opposing teams were happy to watch Watford pass the ball across field until the penny dropped and they realised the Hornets would not hurt them. Then they started closing down on defenders as Watford attempted to play the ball around the back and the result was chaos.

In short, the Hornets did not possess sufficient battling qualities.

As the season wore on, the alleged view expressed by one experienced player, who did not come to Watford that summer because "Vialli had no real idea what the First Division is all about", seemed to grow in credence.

His after-match summaries, notably after playing Crewe Alexandra at Gresty Road, bore little relationship with the palid, vapid fare placed before us a performance so mundane that even a significant section of the diehard away supporters booed the team at the end.

For some months he talked positively after performances packed with negatives.

Vialli, who had kicked Z-Cars into touch because he wanted "something that will raise the players" as they took the field, was soon looking for ways in which "to raise the vocal support".

The new manager was also disconcerted as to the number of requests for public appearances by players in support of community functions. These were reduced with Nigel Gibbs, recovering from a long-term injury, taking on much of the responsibility.

At the end of the season, Watford presented him with an Ambassador Award for his contributions to the community. It was a new award and richly deserved by the player, but the fact remains such an award was never needed before because the responsibility for community appearances was shared by all the players.

However, in Vialli's defence, while he did not push the matter, even his predecessor found it harder to involve the players in such activities in comparison to the launching of the concept back in the late 1970's and early 1980's.

Last season, the players' involvment in the community was cut back by Vialli, and when they did make the annual trek to the local children's wards at Christmas, the manager instructed that the visit should receive no publicity, presumably in case it might spark a host of other invitations.

So another pillar of the past ethos was undermined, and bemused locals in South Oxhey were surprised to see the goalkeeping coach, Kevin Hitchcock, opening the local Citizens Advice Bureau.

A case of "Who did you say came from the football club, Ethel?"

Joking apart, the management staff did work hard to maintain a tacit involvement with the community.

The fortunes began to rise when Vialli adopted a more resolute and vigorous playing policy. The strolling, passing game, with little progress or penetration, was revised as Watford dropped down the table.

It appeared Vialli and his squad was coming to terms with the division, but this was the first of two false dawns. A brief and hopeful run ended at the hands of Millwall and Watford hit another downhill patch.

Further new recruits proved better equpped to deal with the First Division proof that Vialli was getting to grips with some of the requirements of the job.

Now progress appeared to have been made, but the mistakes of the summer proved something of a millstone, not least financially, round Vialli's neck. While the manager frankly and courageously admitted to his mistakes, this did not mitigate them.

Not everything on the field was disappointing. There were elements of matches that contained good football, some sweet passing and some cutting moves, but none consistently so. Too often it was aimless, as if no-one was prepared to take responsibility to attempt something positive.

Vialli, as an individual, was pleasant, demonstrated good humour, but the seeming shyness, which directors found surprising when he first attended one of their meetings, did not convince as to his leadership qualities.

Wilkins undertook the team addresses whereas Vialli talked to individuals quietly.

Watford's second brief rally, which contained some of the best results and performances of the season, did not last, and the campaign finished with the blight of inconsistency that had been the keynote for much of the previous ten months, and, indeed, the final year of Taylor's reign.

By then, boardroom disenchantment had started to eat away at the majority of those in favour of his appointment. The bulk of the board, who had enthused over the number of media personnel to attend the launch of Vialli's appointment, were not there to witness the four pressmen who turned up to his after-match press conference following the defeat at Stockport County.

The brave new world of the previous May seemed a long way away.

There were growing questions as to why Vialli, who concentrated on the playing side and had assistant-manager Terry Byrne to work on the adminstration, needed a high-salaried coach in Wilkins. The former England international ran the coaching with Vialli adopting something of the role of overseer.

However, some players felt the coaching was exceptionally good, but others, who one would have expected to profit immeasurably by having one of the game's great strikers in charge, did not. Tommy Smith could not have been so pre-occupied by his contract discussions that he did not progress significantly on the field to strengthen his negotiating position at the table.

There were obvious pluses, such as the blooding of some of the younger players, and the progress made by the likes of Paul Robinson and Neil Cox and the contributions from Filippo Galli ensured that there was at least one success to emerge from the previous summer's transfer activity.

There were a number of reasons trotted out as to why the team did not start the season well. It takes time to gel was the one most repeated, although Luton Town, who recruited eight new players, found they gelled with the other 11 at sufficient speed to gain promotion first time round.

We were then told the team lacked confidence, but in losing to the likes of Stockport and company Watford were playing sides that had reason to lack even more confidence.

The plain fact is that the team did not fare well originally because Vialli had recruited players who were not suited to the demands of First Division football.

Had he purchased the likes of Wayne Brown and Gavin Mahon at the outset and recruited Jermaine Pennant instead of David Noble on loan for the season, along with Danny Webber, then Watford may well have made more of a fist at trying for a play-off place.

The assessment of his Watford career may well have been far more positive.

Make no mistake, Watford did play with a refreshing style on occasions, and, in their victory over Charlton Athletic, they provided a great cup victory to set alongside some of the best of Vicarage Road memories.

Yet, when travelling to Sheffield Wednesday for what was an important cup tie, his team selection suggested he did not rate that as significant as the next league match. If that was so, it was a bad error of judgment because a victory at Hillsborough and a place in the semi-finals would have lifted the season.

While those who watch home games could cite good moments, those travelling away had far fewer. Performances were disappointing and opponents tended to make their luck against Watford, who did not appear forceful enough to make their own.

There was a flurry of promise against Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and Coventry City when Watford appeared to have the makings of a realistic late challenge, but this too dissipated, scuppered in ignomy at already-relegated Stockport.

At the end of nine months, there was still some doubt as to whether Vialli knew his best team or formation. The chagrin on the 'terraces' was reflected in the boardroom, and on one occasion a director, speaking as a fan, took the players to task before a game. On another occasion, immediately after a match, a director stormed in to ask how a player so lacking in confidence had been asked to take and then miss a penalty?

There have been many Watford managers who would not have brooked such interference.

Under Vialli, the organisation was good, and the medical back-up greater than the club has ever experienced before. The wage-bill was by far the biggest in the history of the club, and this group of players enjoyed the quality of Watford's best-ever training and weight-room facilities. They were looked after to the nth degree but, for all that, still under-performed.

The board backed their new manager to the hilt, and would have been rightly criticised had they done otherwise. However, it is a director's fate never to win, and now, in some quarters, the board is being criticised for allowing players to sign at such inflated salaries.

The plan fact is they tempted Vialli with the best of intentions, offering a bigger budget and salary than any previous Watford manager has enjoyed and they did not interfere with how he spent it.

However, those in the Vialli camp would point out that he did not undertake the salary negotiations, some of which proved particularly exorbitant.

A man who is always reluctant to criticise his players, even Vialli was to admit, he did not invest it as wisely as he would have liked.

Such errors, which were costly, are brought into even sharper relief by the Granada-Carlton disaster.

The growing disillusionment with their manager had some directors less than enthusiastic about continuing, but, with the problems of covering the £3 million shortfall left by the Digital collapse, this meant they were reluctant to consider a wholesale axing of the manager and staff.

The financial problems did prompt a rapid review of the club's overheads, with cuts made in all departments. The players responded positively, in principle, to the concept of deffering part of their wages, but there was surprise when Vialli refused to contemplate, let alone implement, staff cuts or wage reductions.

This left the board with no alternative but to make their own cuts, which were not received well by the manager.

The rest of the saga played out to a logical if sad conclusion.

The plain fact is that Watford had sought a new identity and finished faceless and now managerless.

June 21, 2002 12:30