Watford’s year was filled with more downs than ups. Through three managers, a global pandemic that shut the world down for months, and relegation, Hornets fans have held on strong and have kept their unwavering support for the Club despite the hardships faced. With 2021 approaching, it is a good time to review an eventful, unfortunate year:
January: the beginning of 2020 for sure feels much more than one year ago. The Nigel Pearson era had officially commenced at Vicarage Road. After the Hornets were nine-points adrift from safety on the 22nd of December, a 3-0 victory away to Bournemouth on the 12th of January capped off an impressive run of form which saw the Club rise above the drop zone. The first match of the calendar year, a 2-1 victory against Wolverhampton, was arguably Watford’s second-best performance of the season.
The month ended in stark contrast to how it started. The Hornets crashed out of the FA Cup after a first-leg comeback from Tranmere saw Watford ultimately losing the replay. A last-minute defeat to Aston Villa, following a hectic draw against Spurs, finished off the month. Still, belief in achieving safety was as high as ever.
February: the first day of the month, Watford took a quick two-goal lead over Richarlison’s Everton. The Hornets seemed destined for victory, but then all the hard work of the first-half was undone through two Yerry Mina goals in first-half stoppage time. A 71st-minute winner sunk Watford further into the relegation muck. Misfortune struck yet again the following match, as a late Mariappa own-goal prevented the Hornets from obtaining a much-needed victory against Brighton. The Pearson Effect completely wore off by the time Watford fell in a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford; they were back in the relegation zone.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR: when hope was dwindling, the last thing Watford wanted to face was an invincible Liverpool – a team that had only failed to win once on the season. A win for Klopp’s men would see them set a new record, as no team in Premier League history had ever won 19 consecutive matches. If there were ever a time to predict Watford would suffer defeat, this was it.
The world watched. Common football fans tuned in to see history. Arsenal fans eagerly watched, as their invincible season was in jeopardy of no longer being unique. No other match was on at the time, so many more turned on the television just to see how dominant Liverpool truly was. The discussion pre-match was never about who would win, rather, it was about how good Liverpool would be when they win. Until, of course, they did not.
Were Liverpool at the top of their game that match? Probably not. However, they had still comfortably won matches when not playing at their best. The true story of the match was not about how Liverpool underperformed: it was about how well Watford showed. Ismaïla Sarr was the name on everyone’s lips, as he slotted in two goals and assisted Deeney for the Hornet’s third. Some matches live long in the memory before eventually being forgotten. This match will live in eternity as one of the matches where heart, supporters, passion, and desire toppled over the omnipotent and unbeatable. It is one of those matches that will always stand in history to remind fans that “anything is possible.”
March: despite failing to keep the form from the match against Liverpool, and falling to defeat at Selhurst Park, Watford still found themselves above the drop zone when the virus infiltrated football. A match against Leicester City was around the corner until the season was postponed. Until when? Would the season be null and void? Only time could tell.
April: lockdown. The discussion about what should be done with the season heated up, with members of the Club advocating for the termination of the season with the current league table, or any metric where Watford would not finish bottom three.
May: similar to April. Discussions continued about whether the season should be continued. Progress was made.
June: football returns. On the 20th of June, after an over 100-day wait, the Hornets’ season restarted. A memorable draw against Leicester City saw Craig Dawson scoring an acrobatic last-minute equalizer, renewing the hope Watford could avoid relegation. However, disappointing defeats to Burnley and Southampton cast the Hornets’ Premier League status into serious doubt.
July: After starting the month with an expected loss at Stamford Bridge, Nigel Pearson’s squad seemed to steer Watford far-enough from danger by defeating Norwich City and Newcastle in back-to-back matches. Unfortunately, Aston Villa kept matching Watford’s progress. With three matches remaining, the Hornets found themselves precariously in 17th.
And then came the loss to West Ham, which was followed by the sacking of Nigel Pearson. His second Great Escape had fallen agonizingly short. Interim manager Hayden Mullins took charge. Manchester City, as per usual, breezed past Watford, setting up a must-win fixture in Watford’s final match of the season. Arsenal stormed out to an early three-goal lead. A Deeney penalty and Welbeck strike put the Hornets within two goals of safety with 24 minutes remaining, but the Hornets just could not find the goals they needed. Relegation was confirmed.
August: the hunt for a new manager was on. Avoiding a post-relegation transfer raid was pivotal to the prospects of the Hornets’ upcoming quest for promotion. The likes of Abdoulaye Doucouré, Pervis Estupiñan, and Luis Suárez all left on big-money transfers, and other notable departures included Gerard Deulofeu (on loan), Cucho Hernández (on loan), and Roberto Pereyra (permanently, for an undisclosed fee).
Watford primarily transacted with Pozzo-owned Udinese, bringing in William Troost-Ekong, Stipe Perica, and Francisco Seirralta. Other notable arrivals include 19-year-old British talents James Garner (on loan) and Jeremy Ngakia. The squad was set. A fair amount of profit was made, but not too much in terms of key-players was lost. And, unforgettably, Vladimir Ivic was appointed as head coach following his impressive time with Maccabi Tel-Aviv.
September: the new season had arrived. Whether or not Watford were true promotion contenders or simply just-relegated pretenders was to be proven. After an exciting preseason triumph over Tottenham, Ivic’s army was able to gain seven points from their first nine available, most notably earning a derby win over arch-rivals Luton Town. As per usual, Watford’s League Cup run was underwhelming (and understandably so, as focus was put toward league success, and the cup was used as a mechanism to play fringe players).
October: the first and second losses of the season occurred in a month which featured six matches. A defeat on the road to then-league-leaders Reading was followed by back-to-back victories. The Hornets’ goal of the season so far came in the 1-0 victory over Derby, as wonder-kid João Pedro curled a shot from outside of the box (Watford’s first outside-the-box goal in the year 2020) into the top-right corner of the net.
A last-minute, controversial goal from Chris Mepham denied Watford three points against promotion rivals Bournemouth. A lackluster draw against Wycombe, followed by a defeat at Barnsley, was enough to start the dimmest cries of “Ivic out.”
November: the drop in form from the end of October quickly became a mere memory as the Hornets’ whole philosophy seemed to have changed. Ivic, whose attacking identity from Israel did not carry over, was able to get the best from his men going forward in the Club’s back-to-back 3-2 victories. The two following matches were boring (the only word that can be used to describe them) draws, and Ivic then capped off the month with a resounding 4-1 victory over Preston. He was subsequently given the manager of the month award.
December: despite the fact the point output Ivic was getting was good enough, the unexciting play and narrow victories continued to rack up calls for the Serbian head coach’s departure. A loss to Cardiff City in the first match fans were allowed back did not help Ivic’s case. A 2-0 victory against Rotherham slightly eased pressure on Ivic. Despite subsequently beating Birmingham City via a penalty which would not have been given with VAR, Ivic’s future still seemed uncertain. A controversial draw against Brentford, followed by an awful defeat at Huddersfield, sealed Ivic’s fate.
On Vladimir Ivic: do not be surprised to see him as a name heard quite frequently in the future. Ivic’s fluidity in tactics and strict-demands on his team can and will work with certain squads. Unfortunately for him, he was not the person most capable of working with the puzzle in front of him at Vicarage Road. There was a complacency Ivic had to deal with, so his sacking cannot be placed primarily on his wrongdoings. Change was inevitable, but Ivic is not to blame. Some squads take kindly to tactical adaptability. Others, less so.
Considerably unknown, unpopular amongst many fans, 40-year-old Xisco Muñoz was appointed as Watford’s new head coach. With such a limited, underwhelming past in managerial roles, it is not hard to see why the initial reaction was not pro-Xisco. But, even before his first match, many critics could not help but grow fond of him. His upbeat demeanor and optimism were unopposable. He smiled more at his first press conference than Ivic did during his entire time in Hertfordshire.
The optimism Xisco had from day one became tangible in his first match/Watford’s last match of 2020. In a promotion six-pointer, Watford toppled league-leaders Norwich City, and deservedly so. The Xisco era has officially begun at the Vic.
All in all, 2020 was a tough year for everyone. Some things cannot be prepared for. What truly matters in life came to the fore this year. Despite relegation and footballing disappointment, everyone learned that there are much worse scenarios in the grand scheme of things. This year’s relegation was not the end of a “golden era.” Rather, it should be considered the start of an exciting, new adventure.