During the reign of the Pozzo family, Watford FC has gained a reputation as a ruthless club that hires and fires coaches with greater regularity than almost anyone else. Since December 2013, 17 head coaches have taken the hot seat at Watford, a remarkable tally for a period of less than a decade. That being said, this period has seen several years of Premier League competition, as well as a historic run to the FA Cup final in 2019. So with so much chop and change, what's going on behind the scenes to help facilitate this success?
Well, one area of the club's running in which a degree of consistency is even more important than the managerial spot is the training ground. Each day, Watford's players will take to the training field to work on defensive shapes, learn set piece routines, practise drills, maintain fitness, and more. Therefore, it's vital that all the tools are put in place to make this process as smooth and effective as possible.
To dive behind the scenes and give you a glimpse into the facilities that Watford's players have access to, this article will be packed with information about the Watford training ground, where it's located, what its key features are, and what improvements have been made to ensure it's up to scratch. This is part of our series of training ground guides, which has seen us take in locations ranging from Rangers' Auchenhowie Training Centre to Chelsea's Cobham Training Centre. Today, though, our focus is firmly on Watford — let's get into it.
Watford's training ground is interesting, in that it's situated on the same site as another, much more high-profile elite football training centre - that of Arsenal Football Club. Many people will be aware that the Gunners train at London Colney, a 140-acre site opened in 1999 after Arsene Wenger decided a dedicated coaching location was needed for his team (you can find out more about the facilities available here on our guide to London Colney). However, a lot of people don't know that the smaller site next door, owned by University College London, is still in use by a professional team.
When Arsenal moved out, Watford moved in. And the name given to the facility is fairly simplistic: it's the Watford Football Club Training Ground. However, given the parallel location, the Watford training ground, situated on Bell Lane in the district of St Albans, is also referred to as London Colney. The reason for this, which some fans might not realise (particularly Arsenal fans more used to the streets of North London than the green countryside of Hertfordshire), is that London Colney is the name of a village, not just a footballing base. Just south of St Albans, it has a population of around 9,000, but without a train station, it's not exactly a hotbed for London commuters.
The specific bit of London Colney that the Hornets use for training is the University College London Union (UCLU) Shenley Sports ground, which is situated between the Arsenal Training Centre and the de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre. The training ground is around 9 miles (a 25 minute drive, depending on traffic) from Watford's home ground Vicarage Road, where they've played since it was built in 1922. While the facilities on offer aren't quite as impressive as the state-of-the-art features at Arsenal's training site, at least it's pretty convenient for any players and staff that live around Watford.
On arrival at the Watford Training Ground in 2023, there may be a few details that surprise you. For example, following planning permission being granted back in 2018, one of the most clearly visible changes to the ground is the addition of a large inflatable dome used for indoor training work. A 22m structure, this Double Skin PVC Air Dome offers a low-cost alternative to traditional building structures, that allows players to train whatever the weather (it also caters for certain community groups). The club is seeking to make the dome a permanent fixture of the site, although the greenbelt land that the centre is situated in means getting this permission can be difficult.
Elsewhere, ASB Construction have helped revamp the changing rooms and other areas of the centre's main building. But some fans are unsatisfied with the amount of change that has taken place at the Watford training ground in recent years. Ultimately, Arsenal decided the site wasn't up to scratch way back in 1999, and yet Watford are still playing there today, without too much having been changed. The Pozzo family have invested heavily in the club, but the training facilities are an area of daily operations that haven't received a huge amount of attention. A big obstacle in the way here is that the land is still owned by University College London, rather than Watford FC.
While there hasn't been a ton of physical building work done in recent years, there were some significant restructuring moves announced by the club in January 2018. This included the addition of a B team to try to bridge the gap between the first team and the under 23s; however, while other clubs like Brentford made headlines for choosing to scrap their academy in order to facilitate a new B team, the Hornets kept hold of their Category Two Academy, which over the years has produced players such as Ashley Young, David James, and Tim Sherwood.
Part of the reason why the Watford Academy has been able to produce such talent is that the pathway between youth team and first team is clear: for many years, the club's youth sides have also used the London Colney side, rubbing shoulders with first team stars that highlight exactly how far they could go. According to Watford's UK Football Recruitment Director Andy Scott, "We're staying as a category two Academy so we’ll still have the same games programme, but we’ll also be introducing a new B team in-between the Under-23s and the first-team that will play friendlies against category one clubs."
The Watford FC Training Ground covers an area of roughly 83,000 metres squared, which is about 20 acres or so. Arsenal's adjacent 140-acre site is a clear indicator of the fact that this is on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of space, although well-established Premier League clubs such as West Ham United train on areas of a similar size.
In this space, there are 4 full-sized natural grass training pitches, as well as a full-sized training pitch consisting of an artificial turf. There are also two seven-a-side natural grass pitches. In addition, Watford's patch on London Colney has a service centre that houses all the state-of-the-art equipment a team aspiring to establish themselves in the Premier League needs: a gym, press rooms, changing rooms, offices, and dedicated medical facilities.
While the site is lent to Watford from UCL on a long-term lease, investment has been made by the club itself; in 2014, £500,000 was spent on laying new 'stadium quality pitches' on the site, with improved drainage designed to prevent any weather-related issues felt during the harsher winter months. The fact that in the last few years Watford have been able to attract international talents such as Ismaila Sarr, Emmanuel Dennis, and João Pedro means that they must be doing something right — after all, training facilities play an important role when it comes to appealing to prospective signings.
Ultimately, its when comparisons are drawn that some fans at Watford begin to question whether their training facilities are holding them back slightly. It's not that the Hornets' players don't have access to state-of-the-art gym and medical facilities, stadium-quality pitches, and pools for hydrotherapy and rehab — all those features are there (despite the 20-acre site being smaller than the majority of Premier League training grounds). It's just that the fact Watford don't actually own the land their training ground is on means that more ambitious redevelopment isn't necessarily cost-effective.
When you look at other clubs who are striving to establish themselves as Premier League mainstays, such as Brentford or Burnley, you'll see a lot more investment being made into making sure that the training facilities can compete with the best in the land. Currently, it's a little unclear what the Pozzo family's plans are for the Watford training ground, which has been a source of frustration for some fans. That being said, you can understand why the club would be reluctant to splash millions on a site that they don't technically own themselves.
In many ways, Watford are a very forward-thinking club, from their implementation of GPS technologies (for more on the use of GPS tracking in football, head here), to their unique scouting network and unconventional approach to managerial recruitment. However, as things stand, one area of operations that seems to be at a bit of a standstill is the training site used by first-team and academy players.
As the Hornets (who have made no secret about their desire to become one of the most established Premier League sides) continue to compete at the highest level, it will be interesting to see whether they match their ambitions with a major new training ground building project in the style of Leicester City's brand new facility.
If you'd like to learn about more of Europe's top training sites, head over to the Stadia & Operations section of our Blog.