The modern world of football management can be notoriously unforgiving, with managerial changes occurring frequently as clubs strive for success. It is fair to say that Watford have been particularly guilty of not being patient with managers, preferring instead to find a swift replacement when results begin to turn sour.
The situation at Vicarage Road was amusingly summed up by former coach Slaven Bilic in 2022. Ahead of a game against Nigel Pearson’s Bristol City, the Croat was asked during a press conference if Pearson’s former Hornets links made any difference. Without missing a beat Bilic simply responded, “Who didn’t manage Watford?” before giving a more detailed answer.
Watford’s fire-and-hire policy makes the managerial role at the club one of the hardest jobs in football. To make it to just 50 matches marks a major success for a club that saw 19 managers (excluding caretakers) between 2013 and 2023. Many managers since the turn of the century have fallen short of 50 games but there are a few who have managed to surpass this threshold.
Watford Managers & the 50 Game Mark
Graham Taylor, the legendary Watford figure, returned for his third stint at Vicarage Road in June 1997 and stuck around until May 2001, securing two promotions in this period. Since his departure, the Hornets have had 26 managers (at the time of writing), although we fear this number could well be out of date before too long.
Out of these 26 managers, only a mere six have surpassed the 50-game mark. The remaining 20 have fallen short, averaging a mere 23 games each. In a slight defence of the Watford hierarchy, not all of these managers who have fallen short of 50 games have done so because they were sacked. Oscar Garcia (2014) for example stood down due to health problems while Roy Hodgson (2022) was only given a short-term contract which simply expired.
The vast majority of these short-lived appointments did not choose to leave Vicarage Road themselves though, and were instead given the axe. Job security is not something managers receive much of in Hertfordshire’s largest town and no man knows this more than Billy McKinlay. Hired on short notice to replace Oscar Garcia, he lasted a mere two matches (eight days) before Gino Pozzo had a change of heart and decided he wanted Slavisa Jokanovic instead. Still, at least McKinlay has the record of being Watford’s only unbeaten permanent manager.
Back to the 50+ club though and here are the six managers appointed this century to have managed the feat. We have also included Graham Taylor in addition to these because more than 50 of the matches he was in charge of took place after 1st January 2000.
After Taylor, the next three consecutive Watford managers all surpassed the 50-game mark. It was not remotely unusual at the time either as even before Taylor’s third stint it was true of four of the previous six managers. So, it is only in Watford’s more recent that their managerial role has turned into a short-term post.
Across the last decade, Javi Gracia is the only name to go beyond 50 matches and all it took was the club’s highest league finish (11th in the Premier League) since 1986/87 and an FA Cup final appearance! For a manager who did so much during the 2018/19 season, he can rightly feel a little aggrieved to have only lasted four games of the following campaign.
The real record to beat though is not Gracia’s 66 games but the 176 games set by Aidy Boothroyd, Watford’s longest-standing manager of the century so far. These were more patient times at Vicarage Road because although Boothroyd did get the Hornets promoted during his first full season, he finished rock bottom of the Premier League the next year. His side may have been 10 points from safety but the powers that be stuck by his side as he tried (unsuccessfully) to clinch a top-flight return.
The final point we want to highlight is the lack of correlation between win ratio and longevity. Out of the managers to not last 50 matches, their weighted win percentage stands at 36.8%. For the six managers post Graham Taylor with 50+ Watford matches in charge, the win rate is marginally lower at 36.7%. It is hard to imagine that Malky Mackay in the Pozzo era would have been given so much patience given his win rate of 33%, especially considering all seasons were in the Championship. Slaven Bilic did not even last the full season with a 40% win ratio!
Could Valerien Ismael Reach 50+ Games?
At the time of writing, current Watford boss, Ismael, has overseen 27 matches in charge of the Hornets with his record reading nine wins, 10 draws and eight defeats. Currently, he does not seem to be in any imminent danger as the bookies have him down at 25/1 to be the next Championship manager to face the sack. The Frenchman’s record does represent a slight underperformance on expectations though perhaps as the Hornets were the seventh favourites for the league title. Rather than being in seventh place though, the Hertfordshire side sit in 10th place, admittedly only three points from seventh but also just as far from 15th.
Needing to survive only 23 more matches, it seems plausible Ismael could join the likes of Gracia, Zola and Mackay on our list but we would not hold too much confidence. Gino Pizzo has given no indication he’s changing his trigger-happy approach to firing managers so it would only take a bad run of results to see the Frenchman out. Additionally, Ismael has only hit the 50-game mark in one of his previous 10 roles, this being when he reached exactly 50 games at Austrian side LASK.