At a chilly, echoey Vicarage Road Watford took a significant step towards Premier League safety. A second half performance of gathering intensity was given teeth by two powerfully struck Troy Deeney penalties to seal a 2-1 defeat of an increasingly flaccid Newcastle United.
The result leaves Watford six points above the relegation spots having played one game more, the first time a real gap has opened up in the pack above Norwich’s back-markers. For the final hour here Nigel Pearson’s team looked focused and furiously well-organised. The reaction of the players at the end – joy, but not quite celebration – suggested Watford have no intention of letting that lead slip.
The basis of Pearson’s success has been his ability to organise this team defensively. At times since the restart it has been tempting to wonder if there is another gear in there, if Watford are programmed to start every game like a team clinging on to a narrow 1-0 lead in the 88th minute against Barcelona 2011.
Here they started slowly again, awaking from a state of intense double-banked caution only after Dwight Gayle had put Newcastle 1-0 up. At which point, with Will Hughes a driving presence, Watford began to feel for the weak points in Newcastle’s defence, dominating either side of half time. By the end they might have won this game by a distance.
Newcastle started more brightly, spreading the game wide and drawing some heavy tackles on Allan Saint-Maximin, resplendent in white Pat Cash-style headband. Ben Foster saved brilliantly from Miguel Almirón’s close range shot after a left-wing corner had drifted to the far edge of the six-yard box.
Five minutes later Jamal Lascelles produced a fine, goal saving clearance from Danny Welbeck’s bouncing volley, hacking the ball away just before the final leather square crossed the line. Otherwise Newcastle bossed this game in the opening twenty minutes, Jonjo Shelvey taking time to pick some nice passes in midfield.
On 22 minutes they duly took the lead. Matt Richie’s corner from the left was flicked on by the unmarked Federico Fernández. Gayle, also unmarked, turned it in at the far post.
It should have been two twelve minutes later. St -Maximin exchanged passes with Almirón, and simply sprinted away from Adam Masina. Again Foster saved, standing up to the last second and winning the game of bluff.
Deeney had barely touched the ball in that first half, completing just four passes, his involvements limited mainly to appearing instantly on the scene at every free-kick in order to perform his self-appointed on-field negotiator duties. At some point someone might ask him to stop doing this.
But as Watford began to press their way back into this game after half time he was suddenly visible With 52 minutes gone Ismaila Sarr found Kiko Feminia on the right, who surged into the box and performed a lovely high-speed nutmeg on Javier Manquillo, who just kept running on towards the corner flag, no more than an interested spectator.
Richie ran across Feminia and bundled him over, a clear penalty. Deeney spotted the kick, then ran up like a man about to hurl himself through a stud wall, smashing it down the centre with such relish you feared for the good health of the ball.
From there it was all Watford, with Deeney and Welbeck threatening to overwhelm an increasingly shaky Newcastle backline. On the hour mark Hughes closed down Fernández, deflecting his clearance straight to Deeney, who shot low and hard but straight at Dubravka. Deeney hid his head in his shirt. Two minutes later Welbeck span and shot but saw the ball deflect on to the roof of the net. Pearson cavorted in frustration on the touchline. The Watford bench thumped the seat backs in the stand.
Relief arrived with ten minutes to go. It came from the same side, Manquillo getting too close to Sarr, then pulling him down as he span past. The result from the spot was the same too, although this time Deeney seemed to crouch before hurtling at the ball and hitting it, if anything, even harder. Vicarage Road erupted, in as much as twenty sympathetic club staff can erupt.
Newcastle, with little to play for, were poor, with Almirón the only real spark. Watford’s second half will give them great heart for the final knockings of what would represent a notable feat of Premier League escapology.