Desperate times call for desperate measures. Having decided to sack Quique Sánchez Flores at the opening of December, it would not have been Watford's intention to let an entire week pass before instating his successor, especially with two games to contest in that time.
But their predicament — bottom of the Premier League and six points adrift of safety — called for a rigorous search for the right man and, as such, temporary charge of the first team would need to be handed to the most convenient person. Up stepped under-23s manager Hayden Mullins and, given the circumstances, he didn't disappoint.
The inevitability of the result in his first assignment away at Leicester City should not take away from the fact that it was one of the more promising performances produced by the Hornets this season. Likewise, the draw with Crystal Palace on Saturday, though mustering a sensation of severe insufficiency, bore similar hallmarks.
By all accounts, Watford deserved to beat Palace. With new head coach Nigel Pearson watching from the stands, the hosts at Vicarage Road were comfortable in defence and effervescent going forward, with just that crucial final touch eluding them in the search for only a second league victory of the season thus far.
“Today we were up against a good side and kept pushing right until the end," Mullins told the press after the game. "We could have nicked it if we’d created clearer chances or one of the decisions had gone our way, but the boys went all the way to the end, and that’s something I’ve seen in abundance.”
A positive showing
The draw with Palace can be viewed in two distinct lights. If there remains belief in Watford's ability to emerge from this relegation scrap with their top flight status intact for another year, a point shared on home turf with a team of similar quality should barely suffice. Conversely, it should be noted that this was an impressive display which merited a more favourable result, and replicating it over the next few weeks could give the Hornets a fighting chance of staying afloat.
Optimistic in his outlook, Mullins prefers the latter perspective. The Eagles are strong opposition but may consider themselves somewhat fortunate to have returned to south London with a share of the honours, and many teams would have made hard work of fending Watford off without chance on their side. There was potential in the performance.
Key to the small-scale revival in the last two games has been harnessing the undoubted ability of the squad. Craig Cathcart looked domineering in defence, Étienne Capoue patrolled and largely controlled the midfield, and record Ismaïla Sarr began to tease the notion that he could have the ability to singlehandedly heave his side up the table as his minutes on the pitch increase.
But, despite the positives derived from individual displays, for Mullins it was a collective effort, and a monumental one at that, reflected adequately in the grit and determination shown against Palace.
“We know they’re a side that sits quite deep and they’ve got some very good players who can hit you on the counter attack. But we needed to go for the win, try and open up the game. We tried a different gameplan from the other day. The first half was quite even, but in the second half we were the ones on the front foot. It was a great performance, the lads gave absolutely everything.”
Handing over the mantle
Pearson takes over his duties with the first team this week, but won't have the chore of introductions to deal with. After touring the stadium and receiving a warm welcome from the home support on Saturday, the 56-year old made his way down the tunnel and into the home dressing room to address his new squad.
Mullins was delighted that the players were given the chance to hear from their new boss before they embarked out onto the pitch: “He just said a few words with the lads, introduced himself, went around the group, shook everyone’s hand. He had a few words to say just before they went out which was brilliant."
This week, Mullins will almost certainly return to his primary job within the youth setup, though the Athletic do report that Pearson has been impressed with the work of the interim head coach and could offer to promote him into a first time role on a permanent basis.
Nonetheless, it could be some time before the 40-year old takes charge of a Premier League club again, and his temporary spell at Watford's helm has created a new chapter of his professional life. Certainly, Mullins hopes this is just the beginning of his career as a top flight manager, but remains committed to helping the club in any way he can in the short term.
“It’s been a great experience," he beamed. "To have my first experience managing a first team in the Premier League has been absolutely unbelievable. It does leave you with a hunger to do more, but I understand where the club is and the manager they’ve just appointed is a very good one. We’re in a fight at the moment and we need to try and get out of it.”