Monday, December 29 th, 2014
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Watford and Leeds: are Italian players suitable for the English Championship?
The two clubs are experiencing two completely different situations as Leeds it's nearer to the bottom than to the promotion zone and Watford is currently in the playoff area. But are their Italian players fit for this kind of football?
by Anthony Pepe
England has long been a popular destination for Italian footballers, however the latest trend has seen two Italian businessmen purchase lower league English clubs; Giampaolo Pozzo (owner of Udinese and Granada) and Massimo Cellino (ex-owner of Cagliari) have purchased Watford FC and Leeds United respectively. The Pozzo family have gone about their business in precisely the manner we have become accustomed to, quietly, efficiently and with long-term profitability as their goal.

Pozzo purchased Watford in June 2012 and has since brought in several players from his other clubs, either on loan or transferred. Watford is a relatively low-profile club with a solid base of loyal fans, fans who have never been known for their volatility and who have reasonable expectations. Certainly, they would have liked to have seen some Premier League action by now, but they recognise that Pozzo is investing in a long-term plan which is already bearing fruit. The team has been playing exciting passing football and have already reached the Championship play-offs once when Gianfranco Zola was in charge; surely top flight football will soon follow.

An Italian identity has been evident at the club since Pozzo’s takeover, young Italians such as Fernando Forestieri and Diego Fabbrini were brought in; Watford FC currently has four Italian players in their squad, along with other players with Serie A experience such as Czech striker Matěj Vydra. Successive Italian coaches have changed the mentality and style of the club’s football. Gianfranco Zola lost his job midway through last season when results were going against him, he was replaced by the former coach of Palermo and Chievo, Beppe Sannino (currently managing Catania in Serie B). He was able to steady the ship, finishing last season in a disappointing but respectable 13th place.

To those unfamiliar with the second tier of English football, it is an extremely competitive division with very little room for players who aren’t giving 100%. Sannino started this season in commendable fashion, winning four of their first five league matches, but for reasons which are still unclear, he resigned at the end of August with the club sitting pretty in second place. Rumours of players being unhappy with his training methods were blamed, but the performances on the pitch seemed to tell a different story.

The stated goals for the Pozzo family in purchasing Watford are purely financial, by getting Watford promoted to the Premier League they hope to increase revenue from player sales. Despite the prosaic ambitions set for the club, fans are content due to performances, the entertaining football and the stability at the club. The Pozzos had mentioned the spectacular gains that can be made as an EPL selling club; they hope to maximise the profit they can make by utilising their model of finding cheap young talent in South America and Africa, developing them at Granada and Udinese (and now also Watford) and selling them on to ‘bigger’ clubs.

Massimo Cellino, on the other hand, has already caused a lot of waves, much as he did while in Sardinia. He has also purchased a club which, without being too unfair, is prone to extremes. From Don Revie’s abrasive management style, to Brian Clough’s brief 44-day tenure (Cellino fired recent incumbent Darko Milanič after only 32 days!), being the last club to win the English top division with an English manager at the helm (Howard Wilkinson, 1991-1992), scaling the heights of Champions League semi-finals (2000-2001) to financial collapse under the clownish Peter Ridsdale.

Leeds fans would be forgiven for being wary of a chairman of Cellino’s ilk. Cellino has also infused his new club with Italian talent, six players were signed from il bel paese over the summer, who are being called by the Leeds fans the Legione straniera . None were household names even in Italy, but Giuseppe Bellusci has years of Serie A experience with Catania, Swiss international Gaetano Berardi from Sampdoria, and Mirco Antenucci has been a renowned lower-league hitman for a decade.

Serie A fans known all about clubs having a rapid procession of managers, but this is much less common in lower-league English football and while the Leeds fans have not yet turned against Cellino they are not amused by the fact that on arrival he dismissed the successful and popular Brian McDermott only to hire a total unknown, Dave Hockaday (a man with zero league experience as a manager). Cellino promptly fired him after 6 games. The fans then called for the assistant Neil Redfearn to be given the job permanently after 3 wins, but Cellino opted for another relative unknown, Milanič.

Since taking over the club in June, Cellino has spent millions and wasted 5 months to settle on a man who was already at the club: Redfearn. The football has been neither entertaining nor successful, Leeds are languishing in 15th place, two points above the relegation zone and seeing them play in October against Brentford was not an enjoyable exercise; there was none of the promised Italian flair. Not even Cellino standing with the away fans and leading the cheers was enough to rouse the Leeds players.

It is debatable whether mediocre Italian players are necessarily suitable for lower league English football and Leeds have chosen physically imposing Italians such as Bellusci and Tommaso Bianchi, but the acclimatisation period will be long and difficult. It remains unclear why Cellino has undertaken this English adventure, but one thing is guaranteed: the unexpected.

Thursday, November 20 th, 2014
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