An early penalty and a 22nd clean sheet of the season earned Watford the three points they needed to confirm their return to the Premier League at the first time of asking, though in a manner that will not inspire great confidence about them troubling the teams they will meet there. A Millwall side dealing with several injuries and with little to play for provided an unexpectedly stern test but ultimately could not recover from the early spot-kick earned and converted by Ismaïla Sarr.
As the final whistle blew unused members of Watford’s playing squad joined backroom staff in performing a conga down the aisle of the Elton John stand to join those on the pitch. Celebratory banners were waved and bottles of champagne popped and sprayed; Xisco Muñoz, the genial Spaniard who as head coach has propelled the team up the league and ultimately to promotion, was soaked in beer and tossed in the air, the struggles of the preceding months and minutes forgotten.
“I was a little sad when we finished the game because I feel with our fans in the stadium this would have been an amazing moment,” Muñoz said. “I was very emotional at the end. I was thinking of my family, because I have not been able to see my children for six months, but also about my staff who have also been away from home, and not able to see their families because of Covid. And I was emotional because it was not easy when I arrived. It was not easy. But today I am very happy.”
In his programme notes Muñoz concluded that “it is not easy to finish any job that is difficult”, though his side had been making this division look something like a cakewalk since a change of formation in February: they have won 81% of their 16 matches since then, including every game at home.
The goal that settled this one came after 11 minutes, after Sarr played a one-two with Kiko Femenía and burst past Billy Mitchell, who brought him down. From the penalty spot the Senegalese winger convinced Bartosz Bialkowski to dive to his left before sidefooting gently down the middle.
Tension partially lifted by the early goal, Watford dominated the opening half-hour, though they struggled to convert enterprising approach work into shots on goal. But the Hornets’ dominance was not to last. With 25 minutes played Mason Bennett chested a long free-kick to Tom Bradshaw, who half-volleyed wide, an isolated attack that became a full-grown momentum shift. Daniel Bachmann saved from both Mitchell and Bennett; Scott Malone headed over when found by a deep corner.
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“It’s difficult to keep going when there’s no fans, no atmosphere, nothing to really play for,” said Gary Rowett. “For a while we looked a bit sorry for ourselves, but I think we were probably the best side after the first 20 minutes. I thought we were excellent. It was just the little bit of quality that was the difference. Watford have that quality, and that’s why they’re going up.”
Millwall remained on the front foot into the second half, and their best chance of all came after an hour, when Bradshaw scampered clear on the right, cut into the area, drew Bachmann and squared to Malone, who got the ball stuck between his feet and failed even to shoot at goal. The desperate whistles from Watford’s staff as the game neared its conclusion were a measure of their discomfort. It certainly wasn’t easy to finish this job that was difficult – but the next one will be harder still.
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