FA Cup: Semi-finals
Capital One Cup: Round Two
At the beginning of each Premier League season each English football pundit, journalist or columnist makes a prediction on which three sides will be relegated, and this time around one would have needed to go a long way in order to find a forecast that did not include Watford as one of those three clubs. There are few things more satisfying in professional sport than proving people wrong, and under the astute guidance of manager Quique Flores, they set about doing so right from the start.
Flores, a highly respected figure in La Liga where he coached Atletico Madrid among other clubs, had been newly installed after Watford had failed to agree on a new contract with Slavisa Jokanovic, who had just led them to promotion from the Championship. The uncertainty and instability that supposedly arose from this abrupt change, as well as the arrival of numerous new players of several different nationalities saw them earmarked as relegation candidates.
From a very early stage it was clear that the majority of their success would come as a result of the understanding between striking pair Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo, both of whom were very capable of scoring goals in abundance. Ighalo showed what he was all about on the opening day by scoring a fine goal at Everton, a game which ended as the first of three successive draws to begin the season, which represented a solid start.
Initially the main concern looked set to be a lack of goals, but after the international break Ighalo in particular begun to flourish, scoring in back to back victories over Swansea City and Newcastle United. As well as the front two, another impressive aspect of the team was its compact defensive shape which made them difficult to score against as Etienne Capoue proved effective in his role of shielding the back four.
The best run of the season began in late October and continued right up until Boxing Day, as soon after getting the better of established top-flight forces Stoke City and West Ham United in a commanding manner, they registered four wins in a row for the first time ever in the Premier League; the last of which was a famous 3-0 dismantling of Liverpool which left them in the heady heights of seventh place.
But after a creditable draw at Chelsea they lost their way in the wake of losing late on at home to both Tottenham and Manchester City. Ighalo was now beginning to show a lack of conviction in front of goal and the cutting edge they seemed to have for much of the season until then seemed to evaporate. Still, they were in a comfortable position in the league and still managed the occasional win, seeing off Newcastle and Crystal Palace to remain in the top half as late as mid-February.
Then came a sequence where they took just two points from the next six league matches, as with safety already ensured and a mockery of those pre-season predictions having been made, the FA Cup took centre stage as three narrow victories carried them into a quarter-final with Arsenal; winners of the competition in each of the past two seasons.
At the Emirates Stadium they delivered a heroic performance to win 2-1, with Ighalo briefly rediscovering his scoring touch and the defence having to withstand a late onslaught. Following that notable achievement Flores decided to rest some key players in the league ahead of the Wembley semi-final with Crystal Palace, during which time the only came at West Bromwich Albion where goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes saved twice from the penalty spot.
Much to the disappointment of Hornets supporters, the team could not deliver a quality performance when it came to the big occasion as despite a goal from Deeney, they were second best on the day and Palace eventually emerged as deserved victors. Even so, it seemed truly absurd that the position of Flores was now under increasing doubt, with the rumours coming out of the club suggesting that he was to be replaced at the end of the season.
A dramatic victory over Aston Villa represented a positive end to April, but confirmation of Flores’ impending removal was provided by the man himself just before the season came to a close. It was a decision that split opinion among the fans, but from the outside looking in it was simply bizarre as a very good coach and a man who had led Watford to comfortable safety and an FA Cup semi-final seemed to have done more than enough to deserve to stay.
The send off for the Spaniard came on the final day as they drew 2-2 at home to Sunderland, and almost a week later another manager with pedigree on the continent was announced as his successor. Walter Mazzarri can list Inter among his former clubs, but will do well to better the efforts of Flores.