Watford sealed their best ever finish to a season thanks to goals from Andre Gray and Isaac Success, as Swansea City failed to win for the fourth time in five games.
Story of the match
238 days and 45 games since the opening day of the Sky Bet Championship, Watford brought their brief stint in the second tier of English football to a close with the visit of play-off bound Swansea City to Vicarage Road.
Two weeks after securing promotion at home to Millwall, the Hornets were humbled away to Brentford last week but looked to finish a successful season on a high.
Xisco Muñoz made six changes to the side defeated last weekend, with Ben Foster and Philip Zinckernagel returning to the starting line-up and their were opportunities for Isaac Success, Carlos Sanchez, Marc Navarro and Achraf Lazaar to stake their claim for a place in the Premier League squad.
Swansea arrived in Hertfordshire guaranteed a play-off place but looking to secure fourth spot and in search of form, after just one win in the previous four games and eleven points from a possible 30 since mid-March.
Following victory over Derby County seven days ago, Steve Cooper made four changes with Marc Guèhi and Andre Ayew returning to a strong starting line-up alongside academy product Connor Roberts making his 150th appearance for the club.
Knowing victory today would break the club record for home wins in a season (18) and see Watford break the 90-point barrier for the first time in their history, the hosts started the faster.
In just the fourth minute, Ken Sema slide the ball into Zinckernagel eight yards out but the Watford midfielder steered his effort wide of the near post with the goal begging.
Swansea responded in-kind.
Three minutes later, Smart work by Ayew saw the Swansea forward turn inside the box and strike a fierce effort at goal but straight at Foster from a tight angle eight yards out.
The visitors began to impose their authority in the following 15 minutes as captain, Matt Grimes, drew a full length save from Foster from 20 yards that was tipped wide for a corner. There were further half chances for the visitors as Ayew, Grimes and Liam Cullen all created opportunities in the box, but the Watford defence held strong.
The Hornets manufactured their own brief openings after their fast start, most notably Zinckernagel selling Andre Gray short before the quarter hour mark as the Englishman was through on goal, but neither side were able to break the deadlock in an even contest as the clock ticked towards half-time.
There was one last chance for Sema as he twisted and turned his way into the box in the 45th minute but sliced his effort wildly in a perfect representation of Watford’s clinical edge as the ball drifted out for a throw-in.
The second half followed the rhythm of the first with Swansea dominating possession.
Five minutes into the second half, good link up play between Cullen and Jamal Lowe saw the former in acres of space on the edge of the Watford box but the Welshman steered his effort wide of Foster’s up-right from 18 yards.
Against the run of play, it was the hosts who broke the deadlock only moments later.
Sema had the ball on the left sideline and swung in a tantalising cross into the six yard box aimed towards Gray at the back-post. Guèhi threw himself at the cross but only served to deflect the ball into Gray behind him, who knew little about it as the ball hit the back of the net for only his fifth goal of the season.
Both sides rung the changes after that with seven substitutions in the space of five minutes seeing the game lose the little momentum it had.
After a lull of twenty minutes, it was the visitors who created the next opening.
Substitute Yan Dhanda carried the ball 30 yards to the edge of the box before unleashing a fierce drive straight into the back of fellow substitute, Oil Cooper, which deflected narrowly wide.
Two minutes later and it was Morgan Whittaker who tried his luck from ten yards as Swansea continue to test the Watford defence, but he saw his effort deflected wide under pressure in the Watford box.
It was however Watford who next went closest.
In the 83rd minute, substitutes Troy Deeney and Joao Pedro linked up to supply Lazaar on the edge of the box. Looking for his first goal in a Watford shirt, Lazaar hit the bouncing ball early and drew a fingertip save from Freddie Woodman in the Swansea goal.
The effort sparked Watford back to life and with three minutes remaining, Success sealed the victory in the most unlikeliest of fashions.
A delightful ball over the top of the Swansea defence from Navarro set Success through on goal. With Woodman looking to close the angle, Success hit a fierce volley into the top corner from the edge of the box for his first goal of the season and Watford’s last of a successful promotion campaign.
It proved to be the final action of a tepid game but with it, saw Watford secure their highest points tally in their history with 27 wins and 23 clean sheets, in a record-breaking season for the Hornets.
Swansea however, now look to the play-offs after finishing fourth and can look forward to travelling to Barnsley in their pursuit to join Watford in the Premier League
Takeaways from the match
Whilst the forwards often get the plaudits, it is Watford’s defence that has caught the eye this season.
With 22 clean-sheets, it has been Watford’s second best defensive season in their history - not to be surpassed by the 25 clean-sheets in 1968/69.
What is most impressive is the depth of Watford’s defence, with no less than 11 players making appearances at the back for the Hornets this season in a multitude of formations and styles.
Ben Foster and Daniel Bachmann have both been impervious between the sticks, whilst the likes of Kiko Femenia, William Troost-Ekong, Christian Kabasele, Francisco Sierralta, Masina, Jeremy Ngakia, Ben Wilmot and Craig Cathcart have rotated seamlessly in and out of the starting line-up to the benefit of the whole side.
Whilst Swansea can look forward to a nerve-wracking post-season in the hope of joining Watford in the Premier League, the Hornets already have the wheels in motion for next season.
Having scored fewer goals than Cardiff City languishing in eighth before today and struggling once more in front of goal, the Hornets will need reinforcements to compete in the top division and have some difficult decisions to make, with club Captain Troy Deeney being vocal this week about his wish for more playing time. But with 61 goals coming from 18 different players, the Hornets are in need of someone to lead the line and play off Sarr and Pedro.
In midfield, Watford have fewer problems and talks are progressing to extend the stay of midfield maestro Will Hughes. The Hornets are also close to securing an unlikely return for former academy starlet and England international, Ashley Young.
The return of Young would be just one of many movements this summer as Watford owner Gino Pozzo and the club hierarchy look to right the wrongs of 2019/20 and swiftly re-invest the hefty windfall of promotion - over £170 million.
With that money comes expectation and Watford fans will be no different come June 16th as the 2021/22 Premier League fixtures are released. Fans will expect signings and expect progress, but they won’t be alone. Everyone associated with Watford FC wants success and the owner won’t accept anything less.
Whether today proves to be his final display in a Watford shirt, Sema stated his case for a Premier League squad place with a dynamic performance and a delightful assist for the opening goal.
Sema has been a regular in the starting line-up for Watford and has missed just two games since Muñoz’s arrival in Hertfordshire. Today he showed why with quick feet, vision and hard-work.
Only time will tell whether that will be enough with the likes of Ashley Young waiting in the wings but Sema deserves a chance and will be sure to grab it by the scruff of the neck if given the opportunity.
Sema was, however, integral to victory today and aided in bringing down the curtain successfully on a thoroughly professional and competent season for Watford who, more than anything, showed today how far they have come from that afternoon in Brighton when they were promoted from the Championship in 2014/15.
With the experience of five seasons in the Premier League behind them, Watford will not be taken lightly, but for now, all involved with the club can enjoy a memorable promotion back to the big time.