This piece first appeared in the May 19 edition of our newspaper. It’s been reproduced on the day Quique Sanchez Flores landed another job, at Espanyol, to reflect what it was like working with the Spaniard.
The WD Sport phone was red hot on Friday after Watford brought forward their decision to tell Quique Sanchez Flores they would not be activating the second year of his contract.
There was a lot of bluster, the full range of emotions that only supporting a football club can elicit. Amid the ones laced with outrage, the ones who knew this day was coming, those glad to see the back of him and those only concerned with his successor, one message stood out. And not simply because of its brevity or because of the identity of the sender.
“It is life,” read the message.
The sender? Sanchez Flores. The man at the centre of the s*** storm seemed least affected by it all.
Even at the end, when what he had suspected was confirmed, he was the calmest man in the building, just like he was on the blistering hot day he first met the English press in The 1881 Lounge. It wasn’t, we guess, that he doesn’t care. Far from it. It’s just that he’s seen it all before. He’s got plenty of dark coloured v-neck T-shirts to prove it from his time at Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Benfica.
I first crossed paths with Quique (we’ll call him that hereafter. It saves typing out Sanchez Flores, for a start) in the UAE, although it was difficult to judge him on his coaching ability in the chaotic football set-up out there, where football clubs are run on the whim of a Sheikh. I heard more about him than from him, particularly from someone who was on his staff at one of the clubs he coached out there.
“He’s a c**k,” he said. “Just a p**** of a bloke. Really arrogant and very, very self centred. It becomes the Quique Flores show.”
I know, harsh, eh? But then I met plenty of people out there who changed, amid the tax-free money and gilded lifestyle they were able to live in the desert.
Mindful of the monster Aidy Boothroyd turned into during my last time covering the club, I thought: ‘Here we go again’ when I headed to Quique’s first press conference. The only difference was Quique had a bit more than driving the youth team bus at Peterborough and coaching at Leeds on his CV when he rocked up in Hertfordshire. Now Quique is either a bloody good actor (and let’s face it, he could be as it’s in his family genes) or he could be just about one of the most charming coaches to enter these shores.
He was always incredibly polite, regularly holding the door open for others, and he never ducked a question. Not once. He may have not understood a couple but he never dodged one.
There was a nice helping of self-deprecation: he would regularly ask the club’s head of communication, and even us, how his English was coming on and if he used the correct words. “Smashed”, we told him, wasn’t the way to described the 1-0 win you chiselled out at Sunderland.
Being the smartest of cookies, he even quickly got to grips with the angles the national journalists would be pursuing, offer them a straight bat with his answers before opening up in the more relaxed setting of a separate briefing with the local reporters. We regularly chewed the fat before we switched the tape recorder on and by the end of the season, there was uncontrollable corpsing on his part, one pre-Arsenal in the FA Cup when he joked he had lied to the national press about Costel Pantilimon in goal and then, later on, before the semi-final when he told a tale of how his good friend doesn’t like flying and therefore how the last thing he needed was a comedian of a pilot talking about there being elephants on the plane. There were tears streaming down his face both times. It took at least two takes before we could resume the interview.
One act, though, stands out and spoke volumes for his character. A freelance photographer we use sent us a batch of photos from the Norwich City game, one that included Quique walking off the Vicarage Road pitch with two of his boys. We felt, in the spirit of Christmas, it would be a nice present and a relationship-building gesture to print him a copy and hand it to him, which we did on Christmas Eve. He didn’t open it there and then.
We’d forgotten about it by the time Watford played Tottenham Hotspur at home four days later. He hadn’t. He’d just done his umpteenth post-match interview, diplomatically trying to keep his counsel over Anthony Taylor’s decision to send off Nathan Ake and cost his side the game, when he went out of his way and in the opposite direction to come over and publicly thank us for the gesture. It’s the little things that go such a long way. It certainly offset the amount of times he was late, but then that probably had as much to do with the increasingly lousy traffic in south-west Hertfordshire.
You rarely saw him flustered, even during the chaos of preseason when a cock-up meant they were sharing the facility in Germany with the stubborn lot from Besiktas, who refused to budge an inch over shared and fair use of the training pitches. There were plenty flapping during that week but not Quique, who could easily have thrown his toys out and questioned what on earth he had signed up to here.
He definitely got more uncertain by the end, seeking reassurance from us as we walked down the stairs at Anfield that his team had played well.
We did start to tire of the post-match bouquets he threw at the opposition (you know, the ones about the fans, manager and players of [insert opposition team here] being amazing). His increasingly stubborn team selections started off as a bit of a running joke, and then you realised they were damaging the team and leading to a joyless 90 minutes. It became increasingly difficult to look past the “self-preservation” line most would use the more you talked to people at the club about Quique as the season wore on. But he knew the game was up and was either being stubborn or feathering his own nest with his next job in mind. You can’t blame him. Everyone, after all, is increasingly in this game for themselves.
There was so many tales coming out of the training ground that it is difficult to know who to believe. Ben Watson, as you’d him expect to, told Sky after the Liverpool game that: “Everyone is 100 per cent behind the manager.”
Contrast that with a message we received from a player yesterday that read: “90% of the dressing room is celebrating.”
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. It’s pleasing it didn’t end in all-out acrimony, unlike one former Watford manager who was told to leave and forget about his compensation otherwise the club would blow the doors off. Quique leaves with his reputation enhanced and Watford with the platform to establish themselves as a Premier League force. Everyone’s a winner, although it doesn’t necessarily feel like that.
In this week’s issue of WD Sport, we have interviews with and news on some of the players Quique left behind.