Watford undone by loan sharks
Oh, the irony, the bitter, bitter irony. As Watford's Golden Boys missed out on the golden ticket of a place in next season's Premier League, it was not just because of the goalscorer supreme they unearthed. It was because of a loan player.
Once intrinsically associated with Elton John and Graham Taylor, Watford have become synonymous with loanees. They constituted 64% of their starting line-up at Wembley. Two decades ago, their scouting system was rather different. Rather than looking to their stable-mates of Udinese and Granada for short-term signings, they found Kevin Phillips at non-league Baldock Town. The journey from a right-back Southampton released to the European Golden Boot began at Vicarage Road. Now he propelled Crystal Palace into the Premier League at Watford's expense.
The 39-year-old arrived at Selhurst Park without a fee and, by restoring them to the Premier League, scored a goal with an estimated value of between £120 million and £145 million. Whichever, it is a spectacular return from a short-term signing who was eased out of Blackpool on loan to get him off their wage bill.
Those who live by the sword are supposed to die by it. Watford have prospered because of loan players. Now they perished at their expense. Wilfried Zaha, signed by Manchester United in January but lent back to Palace, won a penalty. Phillips converted it magnificently with a lovely clean strike that arrowed into the Watford net.
This, Ian Holloway may reflect in one of his calmer moments, was poetic justice. Before their February league meeting, the Palace manager opened the matchday programme and ringed Watford's borrowed players in black marker pen for the television cameras, highlighting their revolutionary policy for the television cameras to see. At Wembley, basking in the glow of a promotion secured against a team he opposed on ideological grounds, he reflected: "If you can get eight players from abroad, how fair is that?"
Besides the English Nathaniel Chalobah, taken from Chelsea and watched by Jose Mourinho, Watford started with six imported loanees at Wembley, with a further pair introduced from the bench. They actually own so few players that the poster boy for one month of their 2013 club calendar is the mascot. Harry the Hornet is a constant while others come and go.
Watford have not broken the rules but they have exploited a loophole in the laws; Football League clubs can name a maximum of five domestic loanees in their matchday 18. Watford had six from Serie A's serial overachievers Udinese alone; it is no coincidence that they share owners, in the Pozzo family, who have moved footballing assets across their portfolio in a bid to cash in on the most lucrative Premier League television rights deal to date.
Twice, they were agonisingly close. Twice, they spurned the chance to join the rich list. On the final day of the regulation season, Hull's dramatic inability to beat Cardiff meant Watford only needed to defeat a Leeds side with nothing to play for at Vicarage Road. In an unfortunate implosion, they lost. At Wembley, they had to overcome a Palace side who had finished five points behind them, scored fewer and conceded more and were without Glenn Murray, the man responsible for almost half of their goals. Once again, as manager Gianfranco Zola admitted, "Some players underperformed."
The Championship's most enterprising attackers were stale and sterile and could count themselves fortunate that Palace did not finish them off in 90 minutes. While Holloway kept his sole fit potent force, Phillips, in reserve, Watford began with a 42-goal strike partnership. Troy Deeney, one of the four starters under contract, could not complete his journey from prison to the Premier League, a stray touch costing him his best chance. Matej Vydra, voted the Football League's best player, departed injured at half-time, denied a 23rd goal of the season by the stalwart defending of Damien Delaney.
It remains to be seen if he will be at Watford next season. So, too, defenders Marco Cassetti and Joel Ekstrand, wing-backs Ikechi Anya and Daniel Pudil and midfielders Almen Abdi and Chalobah.
If the season's final whistle marks the end of an era at many a club, that sense is particularly pronounced for Watford. This is a one-off experiment. The loophole has been closed. Zola, the smiling face of a controversial approach, is unsure how many will be seen again in a Watford shirt. "It is very difficult [to say]," the Italian added.
"We are going to analyse the team. We will see where we can improve and we are going to make a stronger team. This is not the end of the road for us. This is just the beginning."
For Phillips, of course, it may be the opposite. Three months Ryan Giggs' senior, he turns 40 in July but his predatory instinct remains intact. "I will keep signing him until he is nearly 50 or 60 if he keeps putting the ball in the net," Holloway vowed. And, after almost 300 goals for eight clubs, he does keep putting the ball in the net.