Watford loans add up to borrowed time for English football

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Boosted by loanees from abroad, Gianfranco Zola's team is winning and the Pozzo family haven't broken any rules – but Joe Brewin finds sorrow in the borrowing surplus

Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway wasn’t a happy chappy last week – and surprisingly it had nothing to do with his dubious flat cap and red glove combo.

The Eagles may be soaring in the dizzy heights of the Championship play-offs, but after watching his side nab a draw at fellow promotion hopefuls Watford, Ollie was not the chirpy figure we expected after Palace clawed back a two-goal deficit.

"They've got some world-class players that they've borrowed from almost one club," quipped the animated rent-a-quote. “In this country we can borrow two players from one club. Why can’t it be the same for players from abroad? How simple is that? You ain’t got to be a genius to work that out.”

In fairness he has a point (even if Lionel Messi hasn’t been reduced to a gibbering wreck just yet). Watford are sitting pretty in fourth, a single point ahead of Palace and enjoying a season few believed was possible. But anything goes when a major overhaul rears its head.

When the Pozzo family took the reins at Vicarage Road in the summer, popular manager Sean Dyche was disposed of despite leading the Hornets to a solid 11th-placed finish – their highest since 2007/08, when they had reached the play-offs. Football rolled its eyes and tutted.

The Italians had other plans, luring fun-size favourite Gianfranco Zola to the helm and using their other two clubs, Udinese of Serie A and Granada of la Liga, to revamp Watford’s middling squad.

After taking over the latter in 2009, the Pozzos guided the struggling Spaniards to back-to-back promotions and ended a 35-year run without top-flight football. It is no secret they did that with a steady flow of players from Udinese (and still do, it should be noted). 


Zola, with little knowledge of the players at his disposal, was little more than a bystander over the summer. In came Manuel Almunia and Fitz Hall on permanent deals, joined on the same day by five loanees from Udinese and Granada: Almen Abdi, Steve Leo Beleck, Matej Vydra, Daniel Pudil and Ikechi Anya.

“How will they ever gel?” we spluttered from the Good Book of Football Clichés.

Over the summer seven more followed, with Udinese’s Marco Cassetti and Alex Geijo joined by five more from the Pozzo empire (Jean-Alain Fanchone, Neuton Piccoli, Lars Ekstrand, Cristian Battocchio, Fernando Forestieri) in a glut on August 31st. Standard Liege’s Geoffrey Mujangi Bia also turned up, with the loanee parade completed by Chelsea midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah.

If you’re keeping up, that’s 14 new faces on temporary deals. For the record, forward Forestieri signed permanently in January, while Fanchone left last month after making one appearance.

Loan stars: Cassetti, Chalobah and Abdi surround Wilfried Zaha

But according to Football League rules, only 18-year-old Chalobah is counted in the Hornets’ loanee quota. Why? Because, despite stating that a maximum of five can be included in a matchday squad, foreign loan deals are counted as transfers and therefore don’t count.

Effectively a team could win promotion to the Premier League with a whole team of loanees at questionable cost. Something just ain’t right.

In Watford’s case it’s unclear as to how much their success can be attributed to careful planning. As Holloway says, “What if Barcelona wanted to buy us and play their 'B' team for us?” We’ll go easy on the fact that Barcelona already have their own ‘B’ team in Spain’s second tier, a nation where such a thing is not just possible but acceptable.

Were those 12 loanees carefully selected for Watford’s cause, or are the Hornets simply Pozzo’s player-production playground? Either way it seems to work. Udinese are regulars in the hunt for Champions League football, Granada are still in the top flight and Watford are thriving.

Much of this is speculative. It took Zola time to find a formula that worked this season (Watford were 16th after 13 games), but after finding out more about his motley crew the Italian has really used only six of his foreign starlets with regularity.

Of those, 20-year-old striker Matej Vydra has proved a sensation. The Czech speedster may have started only 18 league games but his 19 goals have been the catalyst for Watford’s hot streak. Unsurprisingly the Premier League sharks have been circling.

“Got another!” Vydra is embraced by Troy Deeney

Under normal circumstances, Vydra would tip his hat and thank the Hornets for a jolly old season in a sorry-I’m-actually-going-elsewhere-now farewell. After all, them’s the breaks with players whose registration you don’t own.

But the former Banik Ostrava youngster is likely to make his move to Vicarage Road permanent in the summer. The Pozzo family are the kings of this game – and Watford could get their man for a cut price if they wish to flex their muscles. Whether right or wrong, trading players between clubs owned by the same people is legitimate for now – much to the frustration of Ian Holloway, among others.


“I can't believe there's such a massive loophole," sighed Holloway at Vicarage Road. “My question is – where are those English players going to come from?”

On the face of it, he is right to ask – but again, Watford are different. This season the Hornets have stood true to their values of youth production and used seven academy graduates, while the emphatic emergence of powerful England Under-21 midfielder Chalobah has energised their promotion charge. It was he who nodded the opener against Holloway’s Palace.

Nat’s nut: Chalobah scores against Palace

The loan system will always be an important tool for any Football League club, but until the authorities alter its rules it will also be abused. And it isn’t just a case of foreign imports having free license to roam.

How often have we seen clubs pick up players from bloated Premier League squads for a fraction of their wages? Holloway himself tried to lure West Bromwich Albion striker Peter Odemwingie (insert your own joke here) to Selhurst Park in January on the same basis. Cardiff capitalised on it with Craig Bellamy last season; countless others have too.

As a crowning absurdity of the loophole, in January Watford lent their loanee Beleck to Stevenage until the end of the season. Although Udinese own his registration, the youngster is technically on loan from Vicarage Road, with the deal possible because it stretches over two transfer windows.

This is no attack on Watford. After all, they’re only playing by the rules and succeeding. Their fans don’t care, and nor should they. Before the Pozzos, the club was ruled by incompetency; now the Rookery End fans have a football team worth watching again.

But while Watford have done no wrong, Holloway is also right. If clubs are given such liberty to sign players from abroad when the same rules do not apply domestically, it serves only to damage the development of this country’s own crop of kids. It does not, however, look like we will not have to wait much longer for change.