A quick look at the Championship table shows that Watford are having a good season. Until recently, they were in a play-off place for a position in the Premier League. This, however, is an almost complete illusion. Watford are having a very bad season, a season during which boardroom wrangling seems to have long since passed the point of no return and which is now endangering the very existence of the club itself. As previously reported on here, matters were coming to a head between the Russo brothers (under the name of Valley Grown Salads), who own 29.9% of the shares of the club and have been funding the club through loans and the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft and the much loathed former chairman Graham Simpson, who own around 54% of the shares in the club.
Matters were set to come to a head at the company’s Annual General Meeting, which was held last night, but few were expecting the fireworks that flew to hit home quite as quickly as they did. Within about fifteen minutes of the start of the meeting, BBC Three Counties Radio and local newspaper the Watford Observer were both reporting – correctly – that the Russo brothers, along with fellow director Robin “Presumably Not That One” Williams had resigned their positions on the board of directors and called in the total amount of money that they have lent to the club of £4.9m by the close of business today. Obviously, this is money that Watford Football Club has no chance of repaying. The only likely sticking plaster that the company can apply would be to enter into administration, which would at least protect them – for now – from any further legal action.
Something, however, in the Russos’ own mathematics doesn’t quite seem to add up. They claim to have cut the wage bill by £5m per year, and £7m in transfer fees. How can it be conceivable that a football club that has made these sort of savings is still losing something like £1m per month? Why was £1m required to keep the club alive until only the 22nd of December? Or is there a different power play going on here altogether? The Russo’s loans are secured against Vicarage Road, and it now becomes a matter of who will blink first. Will it be Ashcroft and Simpson, in the knowledge that administration is the alternative and that the outcome of any spell in administration is uncertain, to say the least, unless they either pay off the Russos or sell to them for a considerably reduced price.
Lord Ashcroft is a billionaire, but billionaires don’t usually become billionaires through throwing money around and few amongst the Watford support seriously believe that he has the club’s long term interests of the club at heart. The possibility remains, however, that this time he has been backed into a corner. The problem with the Russos’ strategy is, however, that it is enormously high risk. What if Ashcroft and Simpson decide that they would rather allow Watford Football Club go into administration than pay them off? After all, if the club has been running up losses of £1m per month over the last few months, are the going to put any further money into this apparent financial black hole, or will it be easier for them to put the club into administration and take their chances on what will happen as a result of that. After all, there haven’t been too many reports of Ashcroft or Simpson putting money into the club of late. It’s possible, though, that this is incorrect, and if it is, they should probably say so because, at the moment, they are losing the PR battle with the brothers.
As to the question of where they go from here, well, administration would be the obvious choice. It wouldn’t guarantee relegation from the Championship (the likely fire sale of players in January would probably have more direct relevance in this respect), but it would at least buy the club some breathing space. This, however, leaves the current warring parties as those most likely to continue with the running the club. Considering the mess that the place has become over the last couple of years or so, however, it remains very much a matter of reasonable doubt whether either of these two parties will be able to bring happier days back to Vicarage Road, especially since both of them seem likely to dig in for a war of attrition.
The current power struggle at Watford gives every impression of being a war that one wants neither side to win. The best case scenario, if it can be described as such, would be for Watford to limp along with the Russos in charge and as the owners of Vicarage Road, or for someone else to come in and put the club on a sound financial footing. The likelihood of this happening is very low indeed, though. The alternative is that the club limps through to the end of the season, shorn of players and new investment, yet somehow manages to scrap its way into the Premier League. At this point, supporters would have to brace themselves for a season of unremitting gloom, with the additional revenues that come from merely being at the top table possibly – just possibly – being enough to keep them solvent. What we know for certain that the club certainly isn’t solvent. What Watford Football Club needs right now is for someone to come in and knock the heads of those that seem on destroying the club together. We don’t know whether Elton John is on tour at the moment or not, though.