It's twenty-past midday on Merseyside. Anfield is filling up nicely with fans eager for their sporting fix. The pitch gleams an almost golden green, basked in glorious sunshine, but the bite of the air and the steam emitted from mouths issues a quick and firm reminder that winter has well and truly come. This is festive football at its very best.
Ten minutes before they are due to embark out onto the turf for their afternoon's assignment, Watford's players conclude their warm-up and begin heading for the tunnel. But a voice from behind calls them back. Assistant coach Craig Shakespeare beckons to the squad and instructs them to acknowledge the visiting fans tucked into a corner of the stadium's Anfield Road stand. A warm moment of reciprocal acknowledgement breaks the ice before the game faces resurface.
Roughly two hours later — within that time, the Hornets were consigned to defeat by Liverpool after two goals from Mohamed Salah — boss Nigel Pearson made sure the gesture was repeated. The travelling support, still in their numbers, showed their appreciation after a valiant effort from their team, and the latter in turn applauded the unwavering backing of the former. It showed that, win, draw, or lose, the club is in essence a family of unbreakable bonds, even in the most difficult of times.
While there was much about the performance on Merseyside to cause encouragement, the truth is that yet another defeat only worsened Watford's already dire predicament. A solitary victory, nine points and only as many goals in 17 games see them some way adrift of safety at the very foot of the Premier League table. The common conviction is that only a miracle can save them from relegation now.
Pearson does not expressly deny that notion, but he does assert that belief in the collective will go a long way to ameliorating their chances of survival, hence the decision taken by him and Shakespeare to ensure the fans are aware that the players and staff cherish their support. As the head coach said last week, "we can stay up, for sure we can stay up, but we're going to have to have a collective buy-in from everybody associated with us."
This talk of unity will be welcome at a time when the place has felt somewhat divided. Five consecutive seasons of Premier League football have their drawbacks for a club of Watford's stature. Commercialisation, the influx of vast amounts of money and an emphasis on results no matter the cost are just some of the less desirable characteristics of England's top flight, and they take their toll. The conservation of tradition in particular comes under threat, and it's a brutal cause of division.
First, there was the choice made in April to scrap the infamous 'Z-Cars' theme as the pre-match music and replace it instead with the track 'I'm Still Standing' by club icon Elton John. Reaching the FA Cup final was viewed as a good opportunity to mark a new era at Vicarage Road, and it all started with an uncomfortable shock to the system as the players emerged for the game against Arsenal. Suffice to say it didn't go down well — the usual tune returned for the opening day of the season against Brighton & Hove Albion.
And then came the announcement that the process of designing a new crest was due to begin in the summer. The board expressed a desire to incorporate a hornet into their logo, in keeping with the club's nickname and with the hope of constructing a stronger worldwide brand and identity. But ultimately it was down to the supporters — some welcomed the idea, others not so much. The design which has been in play in various forms since 1978 won the final vote but, predictably and crucially, it was a far from unanimous agreement. The only notable outcome from the ordeal was further severance between various sections of the fanbase.
Perhaps the most divisive verdict of all in recent times was the sacking of Javi Gracia and subsequent return of Quique Sánchez Flores in September. Here was the man who had guided Watford to their best ever Premier League campaign and a first FA Cup final in 35 years, ousted from his job after, in effect, four matches. The beginning to the 2019/20 season was concerning to say the least, but many believed his departure was a knee-jerk reaction in a situation which only required a little more composure. The past indicated that Gracia would have been capable of turning his and the team's fortunes around, but fate dictated that he wouldn't be given the opportunity.
Nonetheless, supporters showed a general willingness to back Sánchez Flores on his homecoming. After guiding Watford to safety in 2015/16, their first season following promotion, he seemed somewhat suitable for the next challenge. His focus on defensive resilience was music to the ears at a time when the back line looked ever more fragile and haphazard, and seemed as if it could be enough to get the team's season underway at last. One win in ten either proved otherwise, or simply showed that the problems at Vicarage Road run far deeper than the head coach.
The main problem with Sánchez Flores was, similarly to the issues of the pre-match music and club crest, just how much he divided opinion. Yes, he was given a boisterous welcome on his return, and the desire for him to succeed was unequivocal — but doubts crept in as early as his second game back at the helm, a humiliating 8-0 defeat to champions Manchester City. From that point onwards, assertions that he could keep the Hornets in the division were, in hindsight, hopeful at best.
More importantly, this disaffection towards the former head coach appeared to be something felt by the players, too. In the week surrounding his sacking, reports emerged that sections of the squad were drastically losing faith in his ability to deliver their short-term objectives, and became disillusioned by aspects of his tactics. As such, mood in the camp deteriorated dramatically, which only added to the tribulations.
But it is understood that Pearson has been received well in his new role at the training ground at London Colney, with members of the group reportedly delighted to have a British manager at the helm to see out the season. Perhaps a greater degree of harmony will go a long way towards improving performance on the pitch, and the 56-year old will certainly be desperate to ensure he staves off that hostile predicament in which Sánchez Flores ended up.
Creating a sense of unity between players, fans and coaches will only help the situation, regardless of results. That's why the insistences of Pearson and Shakespeare at Anfield were so crucial. If the fans get behind the team to a greater extent than they have felt compelled to do so in recent times, they will either provide the driving force behind a replication of Leicester City's 'Great Escape' under their head coach in 2015 or, in the worst-case scenario, experience relegation as the family club for which Watford claim to be a byword.