On the eve of this shiny new Premier League season, everyone had predictions about who would come bursting out of the blocks. And, for the most part, everyone was right.
Free-scoring Champions League finalists Liverpool are four from four; Chelsea are benefitting from their usual new manager “bounce” with Maurizio Sarri bringing a smoking start; and nobody can beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Granted, we may only be a few games into the season, but strong starts are the key to success.
Which is exactly why one club in particular have taken everybody by surprise. Little old Watford have left Sir Elton John dancing in the streets by dispatching Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Tottenham to record a 100% start. They now find themselves third in the table on goal difference, with a precious two-point cushion over title rivals Manchester City.
Well, if they keep this form up they’ll be title rivals, anyway.
Given managers bite the bullet when things are going pear-shaped, they deserve to take the plaudits when everything’s swell, too. Ergo, the Hornets’ early season success is all down to one man: their enigmatic gaffer Javi Gracia.
However, so little is known about the Spaniard, we set about putting the dull international break to good use. We tasked the Paddy Power Private Detectives (or PPPD as they like to be called) to get the inside scoop on his background and what makes him the world-beating manager he is today. As a disclaimer, the PPPD have a tendency to rely on Wikipedia and completely wild, unfounded conjecture to form their research. You have been warned.
Gracia’s bullish upbringing
Let’s start at the beginning. Brought up in Pamplona, a city famous for the running of the bulls through its streets, it was here Gracia began building his ironclad determination and bravery.
At the age of two – and barely able to comprehend the process of speech and walking – he volunteered to lead the town’s running group. This was long before the age of camera phones, so there’s no actual proof, but legend says he single-handedly took down a bull which got carried away and became a real threat.
The Spaniard grew up a hero and soon began his relatively modest 430 game playing career across the Spanish leagues, taking in clubs such as Bilbao Athletic, Lleida, Valladolid, Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Cordoba along the way. An imposing 6ft 1ins defensive midfielder by trade, Gracia also had an eye for goal – hitting the back of the net 44 times in his career. These journeyman tendencies and understanding of what to do at both ends of the pitch were to form the basis of his becoming a Watford managerial legend in later years – but it was one specific event which was to set history in motion.
During one of his summer holidays, Gracia – who has a keen interest in nuclear physics – paid a visit to his local power plant. It was here he was bitten by a radioactive hornet, something he brushed off as a minor nuisance on the day. Little did he know, it would one day give him superhuman managerial abilities at Watford Football Club.
His managerial career and remarkable methods
Beginning his coaching career in 2004 in Villarreal’s youth teams, Gracia has managed no fewer than 11 different clubs in 14 years. He’s honed his managerial skills at a variety of mid-tier Spanish and Greek clubs, but it was at the club prior to Watford where everything changed.
Prior to taking up the helm at Vicarage Road, Gracia spent a season in charge of Russian Premier League side Rubin Kazan. Now, even though Russia did its reputation the world of good with football fans during the 2018 World Cup, you don’t have to scratch the surface too hard to see what they’re really all about.
We are (very un)reliably informed that it was during his employment in Kazan that Gracia learnt strict military discipline from the very best at the KGB. It’s these demanding standards and rules that Gracia now governs Watford team training sessions with, neatly complemented by his general hardman looks.
With that in mind, put yourself in his players’ shoes and ask yourself this question: would you want to get on the wrong side with someone familiar with Vladimir Putin’s top boys? We know we wouldn’t. So it’s hardly surprising that the players are running that extra mile for him and turning in those match-winning performances.
A perfect fit for Watford
Given his journeyman tendencies, it’s rare for Gracia to last more than one full season at a club. Handily, that dovetails pretty nicely with his current employers – who have burned through four managers in the past three years.
However, sometimes managers just “fit” their clubs, and the habits of both seem to match perfectly here. Gracia may only have one full campaign in the tank at the club, but he’s making it count so far. Since arriving in January, Gracia has used all his life experience and training to record an impressive 45% win rate at the club – making him their best performing Premier League manager in their history. It’s a stat that’s all the more impressive when you compare it to Quique Sanchez Flores’ 32% win rate, and Walter Mazzarri’s and Marco Silva’s 29%. Of course, Gracia’s also 100% for this season.
With this new knowledge of his managerial make-up and background, it draws us to the one and only possible conclusion. Watford: Premier League champions 2018/19. You heard it here first.