When film directors come to make the inevitable end-of-world screenplays about the coronavirus crisis, they would be wise to take a look at the Watford story this season.
Many will have forgotten that just over a year ago Watford were in the FA Cup final, albeit on the end of a record-equalling 6-0 defeat. That sudden disappearance of the feel-good factor would go on to cost Javi Gracia his job early in the 2019/20 season after their dismal start to the season – one that Quique Sanchez Flores could only compound with a run of one win in 10 games during an ill-fated two-month return.
The club had tumbled off the top of the mountain and were being battered and bruised by every jagged rock on the way down, and fans were already preparing for a return to the Championship after four seasons. With eight points from their first 15 games, relegation looked a certainty.
Few perhaps would have expected Nigel Pearson to have been Watford’s saviour, but in taking 19 points from 14 games – including a deserving victory over Manchester United – and piling the pressure on Aston Villa and Bournemouth by dragging them into the relegation fight with them.
Then came the big one. Runaway leaders Liverpool arrived at Vicarage Road with an Invincible season on the cards. Watford weren’t even in any sort of good form by that point, the Pearson bounce wearing off after a 3-2 home defeat against Everton, a 1-1 draw with Brighton and 3-0 loss at United. Yet inspired by Ismaila Sarr and Troy Deeney, Watford pulled off the upset of the season with a remarkable 3-0 win. Liverpool’s celebrations may have been put on ice that afternoon, but the unbeaten season went up in smoke.
The Hornets only had enough time for a narrow defeat against Palace before the season was put on hold, with the coronavirus-enforced hiatus coming at a terrible time.
When the season resumes this month, they will resume against a Leicester City side sitting third in the table and already planning to make the most of training games inside an empty King Power Stadium. They will be the first of five games left against a top-half opponent, with fixtures against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City still left to be scheduled.
Pearson will hope that when these games eventually come around, his players will still remember what they need to do to repeat that February upset against Liverpool. Failure to take anything from those games will leave must-win encounters with Southampton, Newcastle, Norwich and West Ham, though with the Pearson ‘bounce’ lifting them out of the relegation zone, they know their fate lies in their own hands.