It's been billed as one of the most underwhelming, routine and uninspiring FA Cup Third Round weekends in recent memory — but try telling that to supporters of either Watford or Tranmere Rovers.
A crowd of 14,373 at Vicarage Road watched on as a 3-3 draw was played out, a result which means League One outfit Rovers will now host last year's finalists at Prenton Park in a replay in just over a week's time.
The first half showed why there is an entire division between the two sides. Watford strolled into a three-goal lead thanks to strikes from Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nathaniel Chalobah and Roberto Pereyra, as head coach Nigel Pearson's decision to make nine changes for the game looked to be paying off heading into the break.
The Hornets looked on course to secure their third consecutive victory under Pearson in all competitions, but forget not that form has a tendency to be rendered irrelevant when Cup weekends roll around.
Momentum shifted when Tranmere were granted a goal by VAR after it had initially been disallowed for offside, and after Manny Monthé notched a second for the visitors, the coming of the equaliser seemed inevitable. VAR again came to their aid again to award a penalty in the 87th minute which was duly dispatched by striker Paul Mullin.
Post-match, Pearson stood by his call to rotate his squad for the fixture, not least as it provided valuable minutes for some of the club's brightest young prospects.
“There are lessons to be learned and good experience for those youngsters," said Pearson. "Hopefully the message for them to take home will be they’ve done alright, but they also need to be technically and potentially good enough, physically good enough as well.”
League takes precedence
Following last season's memorable journey to the final of this competition, the dream in Hertfordshire is for a repeat run, another shot at adding a major trophy to a cabinet which has not been added to since 1998, and a chance of 'third time lucky' in the FA Cup.
However, the current league predicament necessitates that the primary concern for Pearson and his team must be divisional football. Sitting 19th does not provide a position in which one can rest on their laurels, and anyway, why risk derailing the remarkable progress which has been achieved in recent weeks — the Hornets are now just two points from safety when there had previously been a nine-point void.
“For me the priority has got to be the Premier League," the head coach admitted. "I can’t sit in front of you and try to give you a feeling that everything is equal in terms of how we look at competitions. We have quite a lengthy injury list and can’t afford as a football club to put ourselves in a situation where we go into the league programme with even fewer players available.”
This, combined with the aforementioned injury problems, explains why Pearson opted to rotate heavily for the visit of Tranmere. It was not complacency or arrogance, it was necessity, and the same will likely apply in the replay on Merseyside.
“I’ve got to make decisions based on what’s right for our season. Of course I would have liked to have gone through today and at half-time, coming in as we did, I would have expected us to see it through. But when you have an injury at half-time and then two players come off because they’ve got cramp, it just shows you the situation we find ourselves in.”
The impact of the draw is somewhat paradoxical for Pearson. It provides a needless extra fixture in an already congested schedule, but note also that said fixture will give the young blood in the ranks, as well as those currently out of favour, another opportunity to prove their worth to the club. Certainly, and despite the resurgence of Tranmere on Saturday, Watford will be expected to triumph in the return meeting, perhaps regardless of the side they field.
It is now exactly one month since Pearson was hired, tasked with the job of rescuing Watford from the pits of Premier League doom and potential Championship fate. Suffice to say he has so far fulfilled his objectives with aplomb, but the case remains that he has only held the position for a short time and may still be acclimatising to his new surroundings.
If there is one positive the 56-year old can take from the draw with Tranmere, it's a greater understanding of the squad now at his disposal: “I’m sitting here today and, yes, I’m disappointed, but I’m also in a position where I can say I’ve learnt quite a bit about the players and that’s really important too.”
From the evidence so far, though, the back-up brigade have yet to prove to Pearson that they deserve to play ahead of what has been a relatively straightforward starting 11 since his arrival, but it is also true that a number of the experiments the head coach had been planning were aborted due to injuries and the nature of the tie.
“It’s reinforced what we already know about the squad," he said. "We’ve got a relatively settled side. I would have liked to have had the option to look at one or two players in slightly different positions, but because of the substitutions we had to make through injuries and players not being able to sustain performance, it meant we couldn’t do that.”