In choosing the defining moment of Watford's 2020/21 Championship campaign — that in which they were ultimately promoted straight back to the Premier League following relegation in the season prior — one is spoilt for choice.
Was it the sacking of Vladimir Ivic following the dire defeat at Huddersfield Town in mid-December? Or maybe the Boxing Day victory over champions elect Norwich City in the next match a week later, Xisco Muñoz's debut in the Vicarage Road hot seat?
Or was it even that drab goalless draw at Coventry City, after which a number of senior first-teamers sat down to figure out what exactly was holding back this — on paper — supremely talented squad from reaching its potential, from competing credibly for promotion from a league in which they felt they really ought to be a force to be reckoned with?
Alternatively, could the fiery loss to competitive rivals AFC Bournemouth in February, when tempers flared in the closing stages, have spurred the team on to fight all the more desperately for an immediate return to the top flight? Or was it perhaps the sunny afternoon in south Wales a couple of weeks later, when Adam Masina's stoppage-time free-kick saw the Hornets defeat Cardiff City right at the death to maintain the pressure on pace-setters Norwich?
For this writer, one match in particular stands out as that which, in hindsight, dictated that Watford were destined to at the very least be one of the strongest contenders for a top two spot. It was the 6-0 thrashing of Bristol City, the first time in 2020/21 that the Hornets had beaten a team by a margin of more than three goals, and a result achieved by a complete performance in every possible sense.
As it turns out, the missing piece both the players and Muñoz had been looking for after that gut-wrenchingly poor performance at Coventry was staring them right in the face. Will Hughes — now fit and firing having missed most of the first half of the season with injury difficulties — featured from the start and scored, and the Hertfordshire outfit never looked back.
The jigsaw's most crucial piece
Everything clicked in that truly dominant display at Vicarage Road, and all of it could be traced back to the presence of Hughes, deployed for the first time in his Watford career as a deep-lying midfielder. His defensive tenacity relieved pressure off the back four; his assurance and composure in possession allowed made it incredibly difficult for the opposition to win possession high up the pitch; and his eye for a pass helped create chances in the final third.
All along, Hughes was destined to be the key to Muñoz's preferred 4-3-3 formation. His return from injury and newfound form as a deeper midfielder made him feel just like the new signing Watford needed to spark their season into life.
And spark into life they did. That victory over Bristol City was the first of 14 from 18 matches between February and May in a quite spectacular end to the season for the Hornets, a run in which they looked a nearly unstoppable force and arguably the strongest team in the Championship.
His role in that remarkable spell of results meant that, despite only featuring in half of the campaign, Hughes quickly became a contender for Watford's player of the season award, such was his form since returning to the starting lineup and his importance to Muñoz's new-look Watford.
The hope going into the new season, of course, is that the midfielder will be able to carry this on into the Premier League — but a contract saga means Watford could lose the centrepiece of their promotion sooner than expected, with just a year remaining on his current deal and negotiations reaching a stalemate.
According to reports in the Athletic, Hughes has been offered a five-year deal including a significant pay-rise on his current salary, however both the midfielder and his agent are unhappy with certain terms within the proposal, likely clauses outlining what would happen in the event of relegation (a not altogether unprobable event).
Thus, the 26-year old and his agent are now believed to be weighing up their options, and putting the feelers out for potential moves elsewhere. There have been links to fellow Premier League sides Aston Villa and Newcastle United, but no concrete offers have been submitted as of yet.
It's a tricky situation for all parties involved, but finding a resolution will be a matter of the utmost urgency to everyone. Whether Hughes signs a new deal or agrees to run down his contract and move on at the end of the season, or whether the club sell and reinvest the funds freed up by his transfer, both the club and the player urgently need clarity over what the future holds.
If Watford are going to lose one of their most crucial assets, they would rather be aware of that fate sooner rather than later, while if Hughes is going to compete at Premier League level over the coming year he needs a proper pre-season — the 26-year old has been kept away from the first-team group in recent weeks due to the uncertainty surrounding his future, training instead with the under-23s.
His future balances on a knife-edge. It's impossible to call what the eventual resolution will look like as those on both sides of the negotiation have shown no let-up in their stubbornness from the very outset.
Watford don't want to lose this player, but Hughes himself is understandably hesitant about the prospect of another spell in the Championship, one which may be inescapable if he commits to another contract now but fails to help the club survive relegation. He is well within his rights to believe the Premier League is his level and to do everything in his power to ensure he sees out the rest of his career in the top flight; the Hornets cannot, at the moment, offer any assurances about that.
At the end of last season, Hughes was quoted in saying that departure was not on his mind, and he reportedly maintains love for the club and its fans. He is a valued member of the dressing room group, and is unlikely to find more influence on the pitch elsewhere than that with he currently wields at Watford. Despite the stalemate, Hughes remaining at Vicarage Road is still not out of the question, but increasingly unlikely with each passing day.
But speculation serves nothing. The player, the club and the supporters need to know one way or another; something is going to have to give.