This interview with Xisco Muñoz first appeared in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Even Xisco Muñoz himself understands anyone who thought 'Xisco who?' when the former Valencia winger rocked up in the Vicarage Road dugout in December 2020. Aged just 40 and with little on his managerial CV other than winning the Georgian top flight with Dinamo Tbilisi, Muñoz turned around the listing Watford's 2020/21 Championship season and guided the Hornets back to the Premier League after a year's absence.
The Spaniard is determined to surprise one or two people, something he managed with a thrilling 3-2 opening day defeat of Aston Villa. Over the summer, Xisco sat down with FourFourTwo to talk about his process, the difficulties of adapting to a new country in the middle of a pandemic and why he loves Elton John so much...
Can you describe your emotions when the team secured promotion last season?
Winning promotion into the Premier League with Watford is the best thing that football could have given me. But, well.. it was a lot. It was a season of loneliness, without seeing my kids at all for six months, where your daily routine is home to office, and then office to home… but in the end it was all worth it.
Your first game was a 1-0 win against Norwich. You were only 5th then – so how much confidence did that result give you?
We showed the will and ambition to go after automatic promotion. From that point the players were brutal – totally exemplary from a coach’s point of view. They wanted to grow, to mature, to learn. That’s a powerful thing.
You’ve been credited with transforming the atmosphere at Watford. How did you do it?
I tried to be me, with my good parts and my bad parts. I live for football. I don’t like the word ‘addict’, but I need football and that’s the closest word I’ve got to describe my relationship with it. I like going to work and especially like it when people come to work happy. That’s fundamental, and a luxury that isn’t afforded to lots of people. I’ve been a footballer my whole life, so I know how hard it is – I treat them how I wanted to be treated myself. They’re my team-mates… they just happen to also be my players.
You had to work harder than most to have the career you did. Do you think that helps you understand your players better?
No doubt. I’ve been very lucky: I’ve won La Liga [in 2004] and been relegated from it too. I’ve won the UEFA Cup and played in the Champions League. I’ve won and lost various cup finals. What I mean is that I’ve felt the best and the worst there is in football. If you give yourself to the team then you achieve what you want, but you have to leave part of yourself behind in order to keep moving forwards. If I’ve learned anything from all my years in football, that’s it.
You played under Rafa Benitez at Valencia. What did you learn from him?
To be in control of yourself and everything you do; have everything in order; to think well ahead. That’s just Rafa. He’s a reference for any coach and it will be an emotional moment to face Everton this season. He’s a special person to me and he taught me things that I’d never thought about.
How did your move to Georgia’s Dinamo Tbilisi as a player come about in 2011?
I’d spent 12 years in Spain and was looking for something different. For the sake of losing a little bit of quality, it was amazing. I loved it. I learned about another culture and to appreciate different things that I’d taken for granted, and I just wouldn’t be the same person today without those experiences.
I owe Dinamo a lot because they gave me the chance to start my career in coaching there [in 2020] too, and it’s still a very special place to me. I’ve gone from winning the Georgian league to the Championship, and then to the Premier League, in a matter of months. It’s crazy.
You’re a big fan of Spanish music, but what do you make of British tunes? You’re not allowed to say…
[Interrupting] Elton John? Ah, come on, you can’t do that! Elton is brilliant. It was so special when he came into the dressing room on the last day of the season, after we’d beaten Swansea 2-0. If you know a bit about Elton’s story, you know he’s a guy who’s fought and overcome so much in his life. I love that. He has created genuinely mythical, legendary songs that help you get through any kind of situation. [FFT: So a duet some time, then?] No chance, I’m a terrible singer! I sound like someone who’s trapped their finger in a door. Singing and dancing are off limits – I’m horrible at both.
What represents a successful season for Watford after going up?
We have to go game by game, week by week. The most important game is the opener against Aston Villa – you can’t think about wanting to play against Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea or anyone. No, no, no. Villa is the most important game – then the next, the next, the next...
What a performance from Watford 🐝 Emmanuel Dennis and Cucho Hernandez both scored on debut as #WatfordFC marked their Premier League return in style with a 3-2 win over Aston Villa at Vicarage Road 💪August 15, 2021
The Pozzo family are notorious for hiring and firing coaches. Does that worry you?
[Laughs] No, it honestly doesn’t. I like working with them and I’m very happy here. If one day something were to happen, then I’d only have words of thanks for them believing in me at a time when many wouldn’t. All I can do is work as I am now – I can’t work any harder. Whatever happens, happens.
How much are you looking forward to playing in front of your first crowd at Vicarage Road?
The day we can all get back together with our people, we have to celebrate promotion properly. We deserve it. It genuinely moves me to think about how close it is now to having our fans back, that we can enjoy ‘our’ Watford again and everything that means. Despite everything we achieved last year, I know those first 10 minutes in front of a crowd will be special – different to anything I’ll have ever experienced before. Being back in the Premier League, for them and us, is the dream that we worked through last year. We can’t wait. We’re really going to enjoy that moment, let me tell you.
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