Many indignities, both large and small, come along with being relegated. There is the pain of watching what is by definition a miserable season while the relegation is in progress. There is the embarrassment of the fact itself once relegation is ensured, the full recognition that you sucked such copious amounts of ass that the league you called home is kicking you out, bouncing you down a rung to where the can’t-hack-its play, where you belong. There is the ruefulness that accompanies the exodus of your team’s necessarily small number of good and valuable players, who, previous badge-kissing goal celebrations aside, waste not an instant exposing the shallowness of their “deep connection” to the club by scrambling to get out of Dodge. And then there is the rebuild, when you try to feign excitement and optimism as your club starts fleshing out its roster with new players whom your earlier, higher-division self would’ve either laughed or openly wept at the prospect of signing.
Watford, bumped from the Premier League a couple months ago after a nightmare year, is currently in that last stage. The club announced today the signing of Rey Manaj, a striker from Barcelona. Hold on a second, you may find yourself thinking, this guy came from Barcelona? Doesn’t that mean he’s good? And how have I never heard of him? The answer to all those questions can be found in the fact that Manaj could more accurately be described as coming from Barcelona B, the senior club’s reserve side that currently plays in Spain’s third division.
Manaj joined Barcelona in January of 2020 to provide the B side some scoring punch in hopes that the team could win promotion into the second division. The first half-season of his Barça B career was unremarkable, though he had a strong showing in his second campaign, scoring 12 goals in 21 third-division matches. The solid finishing and hard work the Albanian striker displayed at the end of that 2020–21 season, coupled with the A team’s poverty and dearth of options at striker, meant Manaj got some run with Barça proper in the preseason last summer.
Good reports from then-manager Ronald Koeman and four goals in Barça’s preseason friendlies convinced Serie A minnows Spezia to take a chance on the striker with a season-long loan. Manaj was decent for Spezia, scoring five goals in 30 league appearances (only 19 of which were starts) and aiding the team’s successful fight against relegation with a 16th-place finish. Spezia couldn’t foot the €2.7 million purchase option Barcelona included in the terms of the loan, so Manaj’s ownership rights reverted at Barça. And now Manaj is off to Watford, sold for an undisclosed but almost certainly tiny fee. So he may be a “striker from Barcelona,” but he’s not exactly Lionel Messi.
Not that any of that has stopped Watford from doing its best to squeeze as much juice as possible from the signing of its likely new starting striker. The club’s announcement of the deal is full of accurate but somewhat deceptive tidbits trumping up Manaj’s pedigree. To wit:
- He’s a player signed “from Barcelona”! (As laid out above, he both is and isn’t “from Barcelona.”)
- He brings with him “a plethora of experience from Italy and Spain”! (That “plethora of experience” consists of a combined six seasons in Italy’s and Spain’s second and third divisions, and, prior to his loan spell at Spezia, all of 16 appearances and two goals across two seasons in Serie A.)
- Some of that experience “includ[es] the Italian top-flight where he featured nearly 50 times for the likes of Inter Milan, Spezia and Pescara”! (That’s 30 appearances for a nearly relegated Spezia, 12 more for a Pescara team that got relegated after racking up a pitiful 18 points all year, and just four appearances for Inter, where he spent one season as a teenager. Also, can you really say “the likes of” when grouping together Spezia, Pescara, and also Inter freaking Milan?)
- At Inter, “he was coached by current Italian national team boss Roberto Mancini” (for, again, a single season), and once “notably scor[ed] in a penalty shootout against Juventus in the Italian Cup”! (Inter lost that match.)
But Watford’s in-house PR department team aren’t the only ones trying to work themselves into something resembling excitement about potentially handling its No. 9 shirt to a 25-year-old who’s hit double-digit goals exactly once in his career, when he did it two years ago in the Segunda División B. One intrepid YouTube highlight compilation maker has eaten the available tape and produced this three-minute comp, entitled “REY MANAJ CRAZY SKİLLS AND GOALS 2022 ( welcome to watford fc ),” which features not a single “crazy” skill or goal:
None of this is meant to denigrate Manaj as a player. He definitely has talent—he didn’t get signed by Inter as a teenager on accident. He can do a lot of different things pretty well, he’s very mobile, he runs his legs off working for the team in and out of possession, and if you set chances up, he can knock them down. His one full Barça B season was genuinely impressive, and there were some Barça fans who wanted him to get a shot with the first team last season in place of loanee Luuk de Jong. At 25 years old, Manaj should be just now entering his prime, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him turn into a totally credible, first division–caliber player. At the very least, Manaj’s current level appears well-matched with Watford’s, and it’s perfectly conceivable that this union will prove a fruitful one.
Nevertheless, it is a little funny seeing Watford—a club that just a couple years ago looked on its way to becoming one of those reliably mid-table, quietly good, and actually pretty damn rich Premier League stalwarts—making a marlin out of a bluegill. This is a club that recently employed the likes of Richarlison, Étienne Capoue, Gerard Deulofeu, Abdoulaye Doucouré, and Pervis Estupiñán—none of those guys would look out of place in a Champions League match, and most of them will in fact play in the Champions League next season. Except for Richarlison, Watford lost all of those players after the club’s last relegation in 2020. Likewise, of the studs on the most recent season’s roster, the Hornets have either already lost or will likely soon lose Joshua King, Cucho Hernández, Emmanuel Dennis, and Ismaïla Sarr.
Maybe Manaj will help get Watford promoted back into the Premier League soon, at which point the club can once again throw around its owner’s heaps of cash and attract the kinds of players fans can get legitimately excited about. Until then, Hornets fans will be forced to watch players like Dennis and Sarr go, watch players like Manaj come, and endure these final, stinging reminders of how bad it feels to be relegated, before the sentiment sinks in deep enough to become the new normal.