There was a long and thoughtful pause after the question ‘what one thing would you have done differently in your time at Watford’ had been absorbed.

One characteristic that Slaven Bilic always displayed during his time as Watford head coach was never rushing in to answer questions from the media. He was always considered and measured.

This time was no different, but finally he said: “I had to be more demanding and more strong in the January transfer window.”

The 55-year-old former Croatian manager was to oversee only nine more league games after the window shut, from which the Hornets gathered just 11 points.

Of the 18 players named in the matchday squad for his final game against Preston on March 4, half have now left the club.

It shows just how much change there has been in the playing ranks, never mind off the pitch, since the end of last season.

When Bilic reflected on his time at Vicarage Road, it was that four weeks at the start of the year when he felt he should have done more.

“What I would change is the situation around the transfer window in January,” he said.

“In that moment, I had to be more demanding and more strong.

“I won’t talk about the players that Cristiano (Giaretta) and I had on our list with the club by name, but they were there and we could sign them or take most of them on loan from the Premier League mainly.

“You had Cristiano, working with me and my staff, and then you had the new people who had come in during December – and of course they all wanted the best for the club. No doubt about that.

“But it was too many people involved in the January window, and the changes that happened also affected the feeling around the place.

“The arriving of new people brought confusion and insecurity to the players and staff.

“We were in a good place before the World Cup, and the changes behind the scenes didn’t have to happen right then. They could have happened six months later, after the end of the season and into pre-season.

“But not then, not when we were in a good place. Nobody can deny we were in a good place when we were fourth in the table in December.”

The ‘new people’ that Bilic refers to were technical director Ben Manga and his two senior staff, Helena Costa and Raffael Tonello, who joined the club after achieving immense success with recruitment at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Much was made of their arrival, and the players they had unearthed that went on to bring success – and excellent transfer fees – to the German club.

However, for Bilic, it led to a situation where he felt the table around which decisions were made became unnecessarily overcrowded.

“When we took over we were tenth in the table, but even with the injuries we consolidated and we also had a few big games like beating Norwich at home and then the derby with Luton,” he said.

“The World Cup break came and we were fourth in the league, and I remember there was a really very good atmosphere around the place.

“The owner, Gino Pozzo, was coming to the training ground two or three days a week, then I had Scott Duxbury and Cristiano Giaretta. All very good people.

“I had a great relationship with all the staff, they were all excellent.

“Cristiano in particular: great guy, really professional, hard working. I liked working with him, and he is very good at what he does.

“I remember after the last game before the break at Bristol City I said to the guys ‘go home, have time with your family, rest up, and then we come back and work hard again’. I felt there was a buzz. We were in a good place.

“The aim was still automatic promotion, we were only five points behind Sheffield United before the World Cup.

“Then we got the players together for a mini pre-season in Spain and everything was still really good.

“And then we came back to the training ground, and three new people had arrived at the club. Ben Manga, and his two staff.”

Watford Observer: Bilic with Cristiano GiarettaBilic with Cristiano Giaretta (Image: PA)

Bilic was quick to make it clear he wasn’t doubting the talents of the new people – it was the timing.

“I’m not saying who is better than who, or anything like that,” he stressed.

“But when three people come and change things, you find yourself asking ‘why has this happened?’

“It brought confusion and insecurity among the players, and also among the staff.

“And then on top of that Gino stopped coming to the training ground because he had an operation, and we were heading into the January transfer window and we were looking to recruit with the aim of getting promoted.

“So we had our list of players and we were ready. With Cristiano we had players, mostly Premier League, who were ready to sign for us or join us on loan. But it didn’t happen.

“We brought in two centre halves, in Ryan Porteous and Wes Hoedt, who were experienced and improved us a lot.

“But we also brought in some youngsters who are great talents: Matheus Martins, Ismael Kone, Joao Ferreira, Henrique Araujo. All very good players but they needed time to settle in. Many of them were coming to England for the first time ever.

“What we needed was to recruit more players who could just walk in, put on a shirt and play.

“At that time Middlesbrough signed Cameron Archer and Aaron Ramsay, players who knew the league, they knew the country, they knew the other teams.”

Watford Observer: Henrique AraujoHenrique Araujo (Image: PA)

Bilic was very clear that he was involved in the recruitment process in January, he just would have preferred there to be fewer voices.

“I was involved, and I can’t say I wasn’t. The times are gone when managers just say what they want and clubs go and get it though,” he said.

“But what confused everything was we had too many people involved in recruitment, too many people all trying to decide on the vital things.

“I don’t want to say at all that we signed bad players in January. They were all talented players. But we needed players who could step in immediately.

“Luton signed Cody Drameh from Leeds and Marvelous Nakamba from Aston Villa. They were two players who could just come straight in. That is the difference.

“Then we also had the big-time problem with injuries, it was an unbelievable situation. At one stage we had 16 players unavailable, and most of them were unlucky mechanical injuries that meant months out, not just a few days.

“The injuries didn’t last for a couple of weeks, we had about eight weeks where we had lots of players out.

“The medical team, my staff and Cristiano were all on the same page. We weren’t accusing one another. We just wanted to find a way to get out of it.”

Putting aside his desire to have handled the January transfer window differently, Bilic is brutally frank about his six months at the helm at Vicarage Road.

“It was not good, of course. If I had to sum it up in a couple of words, I failed,” he admitted.

“I didn’t do the job at Watford that I wanted to, but it was a very good opportunity for me.

“Obviously it’s better to join a club before pre-season but I also knew that in late November we had a break for the World Cup, and there had only been ten games in the Championship when I arrived so plenty of time to recover.

“It’s a good club with a really good fan base and being close to London can help you attract players.

“It is a very well organised club and people know what they are doing. The training ground and stadium are both very good, and having Elton John makes people like the club.

“I don’t think anybody really hates Watford, except for Luton!”

Watford Observer: Ken Sema celebrates scoring in the win at StokeKen Sema celebrates scoring in the win at Stoke (Image: Action Images)

He couldn’t have asked for a better start than to go away to Stoke and romp to a 4-0 victory in front of the Sky cameras.

“That was a really good win in my first game, and then our next game was at home to Swansea,” he recalled.

“I remember the players talking in the dressing room that night, just before kick-off, and saying that if the fans become frustrated we must try to ignore that and play our game.

“And I’m thinking ‘but we won 4-0 in the last game, why are they thinking like?’ But very soon I realised the fans had been frustrated for the last few seasons. From the start of 2022 it had not been good.

“They hadn’t been winning many home games, they seemed to not have won a home game in the Premier League forever.

“So the fans were frustrated at the ownership, and that affected the players a bit.”

It wasn’t long before Watford suffered a run of injuries so extreme it made its own news piece on Sky Sports.

“The medical situation with the injuries, we had the right people doing the right things, and we were all on the same page,” said Bilic.

“That was pure bad luck because most of those injuries were mechanical injuries from tackling.

“But of course it took its toll. I remember when we had 16 players unavailable.

“We were winning games based on character. The win at Norwich was one, then we had the win at home against Blackpool when young Tobi Adeyemo came on and scored. The crowd were so with us in that situation, and it helped us a lot.

“We were suffering in that period, and we were ready to suffer to get results.

“I worked with the medical team and we knew there was a point coming soon where Pedro, Louza, Keinan Davis and Tom Cleverley would be back.

“We had to bring them back by playing 20 minutes or half an hour in a period where we had to play Blackburn, Burnley, West Brom and Sheffield United in four games.

“We dropped some points there. But we took five points from those four games.”

Watford Observer: Bilic during what was to be his final game at the Hornets helmBilic during what was to be his final game at the Hornets helm (Image: PA)

However, the next game after that four-match sequence was at home to Preston, and following the 0-0 draw Bilic was sacked.

“I have no grudge against the owner, he was very polite,” said the former Everton and West Ham defender.

“First Cristiano told me and then I spoke with Scott. Gino wasn’t at the club because of his operation but he called me and he was very professional about it.

“He explained the situation to me. It was all about the results. And the results were not good enough, we were not in the play-off places.

“We were fifth before the World Cup, we weren’t fifth when I got the sack.

“Based on results it was fair enough, but you had to look at some of the things that impacted on our results.”

Looking back, both on his time and what came after, Bilic, feels he could have guided Watford to the top six.

“I think we would have made the play-offs if I had been allowed to stay, but there again that is easy to say from the outside,” he said.

“Based on the results at the end of the season we wouldn’t, but my last game was a 0-0 draw against Preston. People might say Preston are not the best side in the league, but at that time Preston had the second or third best away record.

“We were coming, we were ready and we had a plan. Would that plan have worked, I don’t know. But what happened after I left was the final ten games in the Championship saw some crazy results with everyone except Burnley losing games.

“So based on that, and on our squad that was coming back to fitness and to form, then I think we could have done it.”

As Bilic left through the exit, Chris Wilder was arriving through the entrance for what was to be an ill-fated spell of 11 games in charge that delivered just three wins.

“I’m not saying I am a better manager than Chris Wilder. No way would I say that,” Bilic said.

“That’s not my point and it’s not what I want to say. But I was convinced, as were all the staff, that we could keep pushing and living for the date when everyone was fit.

“We were quite confident that we would reach the play-offs. Not because we were playing good: we weren’t. But the players were coming back and then when they came back they needed a couple of games to get to speed and to form. They aren’t robots.

“Looking ahead our last ten games were against teams that were lower down in the table, and we felt we could still reach the play-offs.

“But then I got the sack.

“I wasn’t shocked when it happened, I’ve been in football for too long and managers being sacked is normal nowadays.

“But I was disappointed. I wasn’t angry, nobody betrayed me. The results weren’t good, but if you looked at the bigger picture I was disappointed at the decision.

“You always make mistakes. But the mistakes I made were in trying to do things that I believed in.

“You do things with a plan and for a reason, and because you believe.”

• In the second part of our exclusive interview with Slaven Bilic later this week, he talks about being part of the Saudi Arabian League, what he has seen of the Hornets under Valerien Ismael, why he firmly believes the club must stand by the head coach, his thoughts on the Watford fans, and his message to them.