Watford take on Manchester United this weekend as the club’s unsung manager enjoys his highest levels of success since he landed in England last year
We talked a few days ago about how the Premier League and its clubs have been smart enough to know when to foster local talent and when to seek (and find) the missing pieces abroad. And Watford coach Javi Gracia has quickly become one of the best examples of this course of action.
Quick recap: Javi Gracia didn’t have an easy path to success. After getting his feet wet at Pontevedra, Cadiz and Villarreal’s B-team, he headed to Greece where he completed short stints at the bench of both Olympiacos and Kerkyra before coming back to Spain and doing a decent job at Almeria.
Then, his breakout season at Osasuna, who was cannon-fodder on paper and he was able to keep in LaLiga and avoid relegation. That gave him enough credit and attention to sign for Malaga in summer 2014, with the task of rebuilding the squad and philosophy of the team after their ‘glorious’ years with Manuel Pellegrini at the helm and players such as Isco, Joaquín or Baptista were gone.
Two years steering the Malaguista boat were enough to see he had ‘something’ to his coaching style. He was able to remain comfortably in LaLiga, while fostering and giving young players their debut in the competition and developing an attractive playing style in both halves of the pitch. Camacho, Rosales and Ontiveros became quickly household names during those seasons.
And then, the big leap: Russian money came knocking at the door and Gracia couldn’t refuse the offer. He left for Rubin Kazan after a promising project was placed in front of him, but he didn’t enjoy the same level of success even though he had brought with him talent such as Rubén Rochina and former Málaga midfielder Samu García.
The Russian League is perceived as one of the hardest ones for any foreign coach to adapt to (ditto: Unai Emery and Spartak Moscow), and Gracia fell prey to the harsh Russian environment in the summer of 2017.
Enter Watford’s interest. In January 2018 the Hornets brought him in after Gracia had been jobless for six months, but updating his knowledge and also improving his English.
With the language locked down, his calm, collected attitude, extreme politeness and impressive confidence in his squad and young players have brought much joy for the last 14 months. His statements always show thought and respect for fellow managers and other sides; people who know him well just state that he’s an overall good guy, and that seeps into the relationship with his players.
Fans and board back his work fully, and his job throughout his first few months (stabilizing the team after Marco Silva’s sacking and earning a comfortable position in the standings) was followed by an excellent start to the 2018-2019 season.
Watford’s run this year has been pretty good to date, but it has jumped to another whole level in the FA Cup, knocking out Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle (0-2) and Queen’s Park Rangers (0-1) in away games. Now in the semifinals, Wembley awaits with a huge showdown against one of the other surprises this season: Nuno’s Wolverhampton. Wolves are also Watford’s foe in the race for Europe: Gracia’s side sits eight in the table (43 points), only one away from Nuno’s side.
Optimism is brimming in Vicarage Road as it seems Watford have found the appropriate man for the task. Fans are happy, songs are being chanted (“Javi Gracia, he drinks sangria, he came from Russia to Hertfordshire”) and the coach is now under a brand new 2023 contract that he signed in November.
Gracia is the first manager to renew his contract since 2011. The carousel of managers coming on and off the bench has been bonkers since. Now, stability and hope have become Watford’s main traits as the Pamplona-born coach faces the challenge of squeezing into the FA Cup final and giving bigger and mightier sides in the Premier League a run for their money.