In the summer of 1986 Udinese were in trouble. As punishment for their part in ‘Totonero bis’ – a match-fixing scandal which tore through the game and left many of its players and clubs tainted forever – the Friulian club were relegated to the second tier of Italian football. While his arrival may not have had the global impact of Silvio Berlusconi’s landing at Milan some four months earlier, Giampaolo Pozzo’s arrival would prove to be a watershed moment for a club who bear little resemblance to the one he bought 26 years ago.
Now the second longest serving owner on the peninsula behind the Rossoneri chief, the 72-year-old has seen the Zebrette go from being a yo-yo club - as likely to be found in Serie B or C as in the top flight – into a regular entrant in European competition and home to some of World football’s most promising players. Taking what can only be described as a ‘hands on’ approach, the owner has been heavily involved in discovering some incredible on-field talent – such as Oliver Bierhoff or David Pizarro – and launching the careers of previously unheralded coaches such as Alberto Zaccheroni and Luciano Spalletti into the public conscience.
In late January last year, having seen his team dismantle Inter 3-1, Pozzo decreed that the Serie A minnows were “an advertisement for football,” and it was hard to argue. At the time they were embarking on a thirteen game run during which they won ten and drew three matches, scoring 35 goals while conceding just nine. Even more noteworthy were some of the games during that spell; a 4-4 draw away to Milan, a 2-1 win at Juventus and a stunning 7-0 triumph over Palermo joining that victory over Inter which only served to reinforce the President’s claim they were playing “the best football in Italy.”
Udinese finished that season in a richly deserved fourth place, reward for an incredible season in which they scored as many goals as eventual title winners Milan and were involved in the campaign’s biggest win and highest scoring games. Captain Antonio Di Natale would be named the division’s top scorer for the second year in a row and be the completion of a surprising turnaround from the previous season in which they narrowly avoided relegation. Coach Francesco Guidolin would be awarded the ‘Panchina d’Oro’ (Golden Bench) as Coach of the season for his sterling efforts to mould them into a formidable outfit.
What the former Atalanta, Palermo and Monaco boss has achieved at the Stadio Friuli is truly remarkable. A club whose first-team wage bill is the sixth-lowest in Serie A and roughly one-eighth the size of Milan's has no place challenging for a Champions League berth, and yet they have now claimed one for two seasons running. In the summer of 2010 the club sold Gaetano D'Agostino, Simone Pepe, Marco Motta, and Aleksandar Luković, then last year it was Alexis Sánchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata, yet still they improved.
When remembering the coach also had to cope with Kwadwo Asamoah, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Mehdi Benatia representing their national teams at the Africa Cup of Nations and Mauricio Isla going down with a season-ending injury in February, that they still topped the previous year’s impressive campaign is simply incredible. Yet that is exactly what they did, finishing third behind only an undefeated Juventus and Milan who pushed them all the way to the end.
This summer has already seen the departures of Maurizio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah for Juventus and goalkeeper Samir Handanović move to Inter as a replacement for Julio Cesar. The sales are vital to the continued solvency of the club whose small fan base and ill-suited stadium lead to incredibly small incomes, meaning almost all operating costs incurred must be covered by transfer fees received from moving on their talented discoveries.
Pozzo recognised this almost immediately and has built up an incredible scouting network which now means the club has replacement players lined up long before a first-team regular is moved on. Their signings tend to be very young, brought in to help in two or three cycles down the line rather than make an immediate impact before being sent away on loan or in co-ownership deals. This system means the club always has an experienced player ready to step up, as will be seen in the forthcoming season when 26 year old Željko Brkić takes over from Handanović between the posts having impressed on loan at Siena last term.
In 2009 the family purchased Grenada – then almost on the brink of bankruptcy and languishing in Spainish football’s third tier – to act as another proving ground for the masses of youngsters the Pozzo’s bring in and in doing so they have risen to the top flight La Liga for the first time since the mid-1970’s. The Italian club have seemingly, by using Grenada to screen prospective players, been able to further minimise the risk of fielding unknown talent which in the past – when certain prospects failed – often left them battling relegation rather than challenging at the top end of the table.
It is into this network of contacts, that English Championship club Watford now find themselves drawn, purchased by the Pozzo’s this summer. They wasted no time in implementing that same methodology, bringing in a raft of players and replacing Sean Dyche – who had just presided over the club's highest league finish in four years – with popular former Chelsea star and Italian international Gianfranco Zola.
Zola brings a friendly face to what was, initially, a poorly received take-over but will fully understand the working practices of his compatriots who have charged him with instilling the same style employed by Guidolin in dealing with constant player turnover and blooding young talent. Not long after taking over at Vicarage Road the family issued a statement which made clear their intentions for the club and the partnership between Watford, Grenada and Udinese, as well as committing themselves to their new venture in the long term. It read;
"Our vision of how we should be involved in professional football is to provide financial and technical support, so that success can be achieved over the long-term and we will add to that the advantages we can take from synergies of operation across the group. This is not a case of a foreign owner with an injection of money looking for a quick return, our aim is clear: we wish to establish Watford as a Premier League club, which has revenue to help it become self-sufficient over time.”
"There are no promises of timescale; only that is our stated ambition to be in the Premier League so that everyone connected with Watford, all of us, can enjoy a successful and sustainable future. Longevity to us is key to success. It is only over many years that success can be judged."
The family also promised not to make Watford a feeder club, keen to stress the importance of English football’s unique identity and that they “are aware how much the club means to its fans and the local community.” Fans seemed to believe in that message, which clearly hit all the right notes and should also be aware that the Grenada policy of mixing experienced but success starved Spanish players with a revolving door of multinational talent has clearly been maintained.
One thing this constant upheaval does do however, is make good starts to the season almost impossible. Just as they did last season, Udinese’s Champions League Playoff ended disappointingly, playing exactly how you would expect a newly formed unit to perform but, thanks to the consummate skill of Guidolin they are soon back to being a slick, impressive outfit.
Zola will need to prove he is capable of the same if he is to enjoy similar longevity under Pozzo but seeing the changes being made to drag Udinese’s Stadio Fruili in line with modern standards will only further the belief that Watford, like Granada and the Italian outfit before them, can only benefit from the vast experience and acumen that the family bring to bear.
Adam is a regular contributor to IBWM and can be found on Twitter @Adz77.
Thanks to Jack Tanner for the picture.