A blast from the past - or a direction for the future?
In the aftermath of the "supporters committee" I interviewed Carl and Justin, who had attended, to try to get everything "out in the open" as quickly as possible.
Supporters had, understandably been miffed that people had been appointed by the club to be privy to information and then told to withhold it by the club. The day before the Leeds game, eight days after the meeting, the club announced on the website and in the programme, that the meeting had taken place and even listed the media groups who had taken part but no information had been contained in the article. Instead it contained words like "redacted" and "confidential" - is it any wonder that the supporters were curious and disappointed in equal measure. After a season of repeatedly shooting itself in the foot, the club seemed to have traded up to a high calibre shotgun it seemed.
Anyway we put out the interview in a podcast, but one person on Facebook, complained that we had avoided saying anything about the "important stuff". Upon investigation, he meant regarding the financial report that had been released on the same night as the supporters committee.
Neither Justin or Carl are particularly familiar with balance sheets or financial reporting, and as they recollected, the head of finance for the club had spoken for about 10-15 minutes with no visual aids and then Scott Duxbury had assured everyone that there was nothing to worry about and that the club was on a firm financial footing.
Rather than take this as read, I went through the accounts and we then recorded a further podcast where I gave a summary (not forensic accounting by any means) on my understanding of the accounts as they stood. The figures were stark and startling. With a double whammy of COVID and relegation (the financial report covers the period when we were last in the championship August 2020 - July 2021) the turnover had halved, every revenue stream had been shredded. We had made an operational loss circa £70m, this had prompted the sale of the likes of Deulofeu, Doucoure, Pereyra and the club owned but never seen in a competitive Watford fixture - Estupinan and Suarez. This reduced the overall loss to £22m but took the total overall debt to a total of £138m.
There are lessons to learn from all of this and the club have made adjustments to make us less susceptible to the financial burden that relegation will again bring but that's for another blog, another time.
The real point to this was that having done some research into the accounts themselves, lots of people listened and were kind enough to reach out with kind words about the podcast on the financials. One of them was a gentleman called Andrew French, who explained in an email that he had worked as PR and Communications manager at the club between 1998 and 2003. Well if you have listened to the podcast you will know that we love to interview guests, often they have been former players but other people who have been involved with the club often have a tale or two to tell from a different perspective.
A flurry of emails later and we had agreed to talk in the closed season - like everyone we needed a break from last season. Suddenly though a phenomenon seemed to develop. The Watford Observer, that had once been so pivotal in the clubs communications to its supporters but was now seemingly on life support in terms of relevance in an era of internet instant access, lost its Watford correspondent and Andrew, being a free lancer but former sports editor (in the time of Ollie Phillips and Terry Challis) had been asked to fill the void whilst the paper sourced a replacement.
In the opening few articles, the difference in quality of writing and insight was apparent. Andrew was at the helm and writing about his passion - and it came through on to the page. Having been both a club employee (working alongside current head of communication Richard Walker) and a former Watford Observer man, Andrew put his investigative journalist chops to work. On the strength of his original pieces he was granted an interview with Scott Duxbury at the training ground and over the course of 2 hours unearthed more understanding of the clubs perspective on things than we had seen in a decade or more.
Andrew released a series of articles, carving up the interview into bite sized chunks to make it more consumable. The response has been spectacular, even if many feel, understandably, that they have heard the messages or similar before. Almost everyone appreciates the effort, analysis and insight that he has bought - the feeling is so stark in comparison to the "click-bait" that went before it - plus the regularity of the output has put the Watford Observer back where it should be - "at the top" as the message next to the old clock used to read.
Some, it must be said, have described his questioning as not confrontational enough, feeling that Duxbury should be firmly held to account, however this does miss the point somewhat - we and many others have been asking for the club to communicate to us for many seasons. It would be foolhardy for Andrew to shut it down by going for the jugular at the first opportunity, instead he is looking to build trust, transparency and a communications channel to us, the supporters.
We have "interviewed" Andrew twice now - each 3 hour discussion has turned into 3 separate podcasts (the first covered GT, the second the Vialli and Lewington years and the third covered the Duxbury interview - the story behind the stories. The second interview covered Andrews anecdotes from his time at the club and questions put forward by listeners) and they have all been extremely well received. They were also immensely fun to do - four old blokes chatting about the team they all love.
On the morning of our second interview, Andrew was again at the training ground, this time interviewing new Head Coach Rob Edwards - so it looks like the trust is building and at least one communication channel that had become dormant can indeed be resuscitated. Whilst Andrew's position is temporary at present one would hope that the Watford Observer might see and appreciate what has happened and find a way to make it permanent. Most Watford supporters will certainly hope that becomes the case.