The latest chapter of the 'Great Escape' was another positive one for Watford. An impressive victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers saw them amass their 10th point in as many days, and edged them ever closer to the realisation of what seemed so impossible as little as one month ago: survival.
Starting the brighter of the two sides at Vicarage Road, the Hornets were rewarded with a first half goal from Gerard Deulofeu, and their lead was doubled through Abdoulaye Doucouré soon after the restart. Pedro Neto got one back for the visitors, but even a red card dealt to Christian Kabasele couldn't prevent the hosts from securing their third consecutive triumph on home turf.
By all accounts, at the heart of the team's resurgence has been head coach Nigel Pearson. Watford look more organised, more committed and more efficient under his management, and it was all shown once again in the win on New Year's Day.
“We won by showing that we had a desire to keep the ball out of our net when things didn’t go our way in the second half," Pearson said. "I thought we showed an understanding of the right way to try and win that game and I always felt that, when we did have spells of possession, we looked dangerous.”
Defeating Wolves is no mean feat — only four other Premier League teams have managed it so far this campaign. They are fighting to secure another season of European football, an environment in which the last few months would suggest they are perfectly capable of competing.
Pearson was well aware of the hurdle the visitors would provide to his team's good form: “We knew it was going to be a day which we might not see as much of the ball as we would have liked because we were playing against a side who are very accomplished at playing possession football, with good individuals and a clear way of playing.”
Watford were clearly not fazed by their opposition. They came out of the blocks to produce a positive first half performance in what nonetheless proved a disjointed and tense 45 minutes of football for both sides. Deulofeu's opener with a cool finish on the half-hour mark was no less than they deserved. And when Doucouré added a second early in the second period, a third victory under Pearson looked well in reach.
However, matters were complicated with the dismissal of Kabasele not long after Neto's goal. It meant that the Hornets, already playing their fourth game in ten days, would have to conclude a second consecutive assignment with a man less than their opponents.
Roughly 25 minutes of grit and determination followed. Watford could be forgiven for their somewhat backs-to-the-wall display as Wolves pushed for a late equaliser, but their reaction to the loss of a player was semantically similar to when they scored two further goals against Aston Villa at the weekend — it was an act of defiance which saw them hold on to the win.
“To go two goals up always gives you a bit of breathing space, but certainly at the end we were hanging on a little bit," Pearson admitted. "But the desire of the players to keep the ball out of the net and, to use a cliché, to put their bodies on the line for the team and for our situation, was clear for everybody to see.
“That bodes well for us. It doesn’t mean our season is saved, for sure — we have to show that every week, but if you’ve seen us in the last few weeks, we’ve won games in different ways and it’s always important that your team are able to do that. At times we’ve played some really good football and won, but today it was about showing character and desire as well as ability.”
The positives now chime deafeningly at Vicarage Road. Survival looks to be on the cards, the current buzz a far cry from the gloom and doom which penetrated the place prior to Pearson's appointment.
Aside from results, improving the atmosphere has been a key aim for the 56-year old in the last three weeks or so, and it has seen the bond between players, coaches, fans and club strengthen remarkably in such a short space of time. Unity has been the buzzword under Pearson and his backroom staff — those in the stands and on the pitch reciprocate to produce a truly intransigent force in the face of relegation.
“I’ve seen lots of positive things here and it’s a good club, with good people working for it and that includes the players. But as a wider overview it’s a good football club and it’s got character. What we need to do is reflect that on the pitch.”
Nonetheless, Pearson will not get caught up in talk of survival yet. The road is long and winding, but that key ingredient, belief in the collective, will safeguard Watford's hopes and ambitions in the challenges ahead.
“There’s a lot of hard work still to be done and it will be foolish to think that the job is over — it’s far from over, but we’ve given ourselves more of a chance now by getting back into contact with the pack.”