After a gruelling season in which Watford had learned to win the hard way, they do so once more as an Ismaila Sarr penalty proved the difference at a tense Vicarage Road.
Story of the match
Fewer than nine months after Watford were relegated from the Premier League on the final day of the season, the Hornets were on the brink of bouncing back at the first time of asking as they welcomed Millwall to Vicarage Road.
Having navigated the departures of first-team stalwarts, such as Gerard Deulofeu, Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré in the Sky Bet Championship, not to mention the merry-go-round of coaching staff, Xisco Muñoz’s side came into the third last game-week of the season nine points clear of third-place and on the verge of securing the final automatic promotion place.
Taking no chances, Muñoz made just one change to the side that completed the double over likely Champions-elect Norwich City in midweek with Kiko Femenia replacing Craig Cathcart in a 4-2-3-1 formation for the Hornets.
Millwall arrived in Hertfordshire secure in mid-table obscurity and with just one point from a possible nine since victory over Stoke City in early April, the south Londoners’ form was suggestive of a side looking forward to a warm summer break.
However, with Gary Rowett looking to protect his sides record as the only other team in the league, aside from Watford, to have avoided two consecutive defeats so far this season, Rowett rang the changes following a chastening defeat at home to AFC Bournemouth on Wednesday.
Already without Shaun Hutchinson, Murray Wallace and Shane Ferguson, Rowett brought in Tom Bradshaw, Mahlon Romeo and Mason Bennett into the starting line-up with the aim of spoiling Watford’s promotion party.
Millwall set up in a 5-3-2 formation from kick-off and immediately signalled their intent with Joao Pedro going to ground within the first minute after a heavy challenge and requiring treatment.
Millwall gave Watford little time or space in the opening exchanges by man-marking, but it was the visitors who created the first opening of the game in the eighth minute as Jed Wallace struck a bouncing ball tamely at Daniel Bachmann from twelve yards.
Wallace was left ruing the missed opportunity just two minutes later as Ismaila Sarr got ahead of his man and into the box.
Billy Mitchell was caught on the wrong side of the Senegalese striker and got his feet all tangled up as he brought down Watford’s top-scorer. There was little complaint as the referee pointed to the spot and Sarr despatched the penalty calmly to give Watford an early lead.
Sarr continued to be a thorn in the Millwall side and nearly assisted in extending Watford’s lead in the 17th minute as his quick feet won a free-kick 25 yards out. Tom Cleverley swung in a pin-point cross into Dan Gosling but the former Bournemouth man put his header straight at Bartosz Białkowski from eight yards.
Watford continued the early onslaught and only a minute later Hughes picked up a weak clearance from a Ken Sema corner, but the Lions were counting their blessings as the midfielder was unable to steer his effort on target from the edge of the box.
Millwall, a side not known for lying down, did manage to create moments of respite and put pressure on the Watford defence in the 25th minute as Bradshaw picked up a Bennett header twelve yards out but dragged his effort wide with Bachmann scrambling.
Try as they might to keep Watford in their own half, Millwall could not, however, contain the Hornets for long.
A minute later and Cleverley flouted a free-kick deep into the Millwall box that was met by a powerful header from Francisco Sierralta. The header was sent back across the box to Masina who tried his luck with an acrobatic effort from the edge of the box but hooked his shot wide.
The chances continued to come at both ends as the half progressed.
In the 36th minute, Mitchell went close to redemption in spectacular style as he curled a left-footed effort from distance on target. Bachmann was at full stretch to deny the Millwall wing-back and up quickly to deny another effort from Jed Wallace only moments later as Millwall pressed for an equaliser.
It proved the be the final chance of the half as Watford held on for the lead at half-time.
Millwall picked up where they left off in the second half with early opportunities for Bradshaw and Bennett but neither could capitalise on lacklustre Watford defending in the opening two minutes.
In a bid to stem the tide, Muñoz brought on Andre Gray and Nathaniel Chalobah on the hour mark and it nearly paid dividends as Sarr was sent through on goal. Sarr looked to have gone beyond the Millwall defence but had the Watford bench were up in arms as he went to ground after minor contact from Romeo. The referee, however, could not be moved.
Millwall continued to threaten for the equaliser and twice went close fewer than five minutes later.
First Mitchell saw a driving effort deflected agonisingly wide for a corner from 20 yards, followed by Bachmann clawing away a deflected Bradshaw header from point black range to keep Watford’s lead.
Bachmann’s heroics at one end were almost immediately rewarded up the other as Sarr and then Gray went close but Millwall’s defence held strong with the game and Watford’s promotion to the Premier League teetering on a knife edge.
Millwall continued to press for the equaliser as the game became more frantic.
Tyler Burey and Maikel Kieftenbeld went close for the visitors as both sidelines grew more vocal as the half drew on and Troy Deeney in particular could be heard calling for calm. With four minuted added time at the end of the 90, one could only imagine what a full Vicarage Road would have been like in the closing stages and the feeling at full-time as the sidelines erupted with the sound of Watford returning to the Premier League just nine months after relegation.
A substantial squad overhaul was inevitable following relegation from the top-tier of English football at the end of last season but Watford as a club have negotiated the challenge with artful poise.
After three consecutive defeats consigned Watford to the Sky Bet Championship, one point adrift of safety, the Hornets quickly began to rebuild in the summer.
First on the agenda was retaining starlet, Ismaïla Sarr. Liverpool and Manchester United came knocking but were unable to meet the Senegalese striker’s price tag.
Next was to clear out the dead wood, those players too expensive to keep or didn’t want to be at the club. Out went close to 20 players and in came ten permanent signings, including the likes of Gosling, Troost-Ekong and Sierralta. Lastly, as is often the way in London Colney, was the requirement to embed a new Head Coach and in came Vladimir Ivic, albeit for a brief spell at the helm.
Much like today’s performance, there were bumps along the way with Filipo Giraldi departing the role of Technical director in November 2020, the sacking of Ivic after just four months in charge, and injuries to key players including club Captain, Troy Deeney but credit to the players and the coaching staff, Watford rarely faltered.
Owner, Gino Pozzo kept his faith in Head Coach Xisco Munoz after a less than perfect start and the young spaniard repaid the faith in abundance, bringing the squad together and making Vicarage Road into a fortress with just two defeats at home all season.
With the foundation of their home form, the best defence in the league and goals from no less than 18 players this season, it has been a resilient, classy and deservedly brief spell in the Championship for the Hornets.
In simple terms, Watford travel to play-off bound Brentford next week and welcome Swansea City on the final day of the season but the Hornets are never one to skip a beat and the wheels are already turning for next season.
With contracts running out in the next year for the likes of Will Hughes, Ben Foster, Nathaniel Chalobah and Kiko Femenia, the Hornets are in for a busy summer of contract negotiations.
Watford will also being looking to bolster their attacking capabilities with Pedro, Sarr and Deeney the only attacking threats to have scored more than five goals this season.
Perhaps surprisingly, the fate of Xisco Munoz will also need to be decided. Appointed in late December, Munoz has felt defeat just four times in the league but with limited experience at the tender age of 40, there will be questions on whether Munoz has the ability to lead the Hornets’ charge back to the Premier League.
That said, such speculation can wait. For now, Watford and Munoz have deserved their moment in the sun and they’ll be sure to savour every last drop.
For Millwall, today was a significant improvement on their midweek performance and if Rowett can secure the services of Scott Malone permanently in the summer, whilst holding on to Jed Wallace and Jake Cooper, he can build a side that challenges once more for the play-offs next season.
An ever-present in midfield since the arrival of Muñoz in December, Hughes has been integral to Watford’s promotion push.
Having received due recognition in the EFL FIFA 2021 team of the season, Hughes was once more calmness personified, pulling the strings from his holding midfield position.
With the game becoming frantic and Millwall pressing for an equaliser early in the second half, Hughes marshalled the Watford midfield and controlled the tempo of the game.
Hughes epitomised the resilience and attitude of his Watford side today and with just a year remaining on his five-year contract at Watford, the Hornets will be keen to keep and reward the 26-year old after consistent performances like this. That said, the club shouldn’t be surprised if Hughes has caught the attention from further afield.
Watford, however, can wait to worry about such things. For now, the club, fans and players deserve to enjoy the moment, they are, after all, back in the Premier League.