WATFORD will hope a return to the Championship heralds a change in their fortunes after they were on the receiving end of another cruel blow on Saturday.

The luckless Hornets produced a wholehearted display at Bramall Lane this afternoon that ranked alongside the performances at Everton and Bolton earlier in the season yet still finished empty handed.

Michael Tonge won it for the Blades, beating Ben Foster on the stroke of half-time with a shot that took a wicked deflection off Chris Powell. Marlon King, who spearheaded a much-improved attacking display from the Hornets, almost earned Watford a point but his 64th-minute lob hit the crossbar.

Clarke Carlisle was a lucky man, though. Fortune not have been sent off in the first-half for an overzealous challenge on Paddy Kenny, the defender then benefited from a case of mistake identity on 36 minutes. Dan Shittu was booked for catching Jon Stead with an arm when it had been Carlisle who had commited the foul.

Overall, it was a vast improvement from the recent listless performances against Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Manchester City.

With Watford's fate already decided, Boothroyd finally felt it was time to recall Lee Williamson and Will Hoskins from, the under-used duo signed from Rotherham in January.

Williamson was handed his first start February 2, replacing Douglas Rinaldi who twisted his ankle in training during the week. Hoskins, meanwhile, was named on the bench along with Darius Henderson who was passed fit following hand and calf injuries.

Elsewhere, the previously out of favour Shittu was recalled to the heart of the defence, partnering Carlisle for the first time this season. Jay DeMerit, who has hardly missed a game this season, was rested. Cedric Avinel, the French youngster signed in January, was named among the substitutes as defensive cover. Tamas Priskin was named as Marlon King's strike partner.

Blades' boss Neil Warnock made just one change to the side who drew with Charlton last time out. Christian Nade, the French striker who was a real handful for the Hornets at Vicarage Road, was preferred to Luton Shelton. Former Hornet Danny Webber was named among the subs.

Watford came out of the tunnel with the bit between their teeth and showed more fight in the opening 20 minutes than they had done in their last three Premiership games put together.

Gavin Mahon was booked for a late challenge on Matt Kilgallon and then Carlisle followed the captain into the ref's notebook on 19 minutes, the defender sparking a goalmouth melee by aiming a couple of hacks at the grounded Kenny after a Hameur Bouazza corner had caused havoc in the Blades' box.

A pumped up Carlisle was lucky not to see red on 36 minutes. The former QPR man caught Jon Stead with his arm and although referee Martin Atkinson somehow failed to spot the foul, his assistant referee didn't. The ref gave the free-kick on the say-so of his assistant but, amazingly, singled out Shittu as the offender and promptly booked the strapping Nigerian. The home crowd were up in arms at the decision as Carlisle should have been given his marching orders.

In between times, Watford enjoyed the upperhand. They won a succession of corners from the right, broke intelligently while the offside trap worked well.

The best chance for the Hornets of a high-octane first 45 minutes came on 20 minutes. Bouazza was sent charging down the left by King, but he screwed his shot wide of the target.

At the other end, Ben Foster showed no scars from his howler against City the previous week, staying on his feet superbly and then smothering a shot from Nade on 14 minutes.

There was nothing Foster could do about United's opener on the stroke of half-time. A shot from the left-hand edge of the box by Tonge did not appear to be heading on target until it took a wicked deflection off Chris Powell, wrong footing Foster and nestling in the back of the net. It was a cruel blow for the Hornets who did not deserve to be behind at the break.

The Hornets looked unaffected by the set back as they carved out the first chance of the second half. A slick move down the right involving Lloyd Doyley and Priskin culminated in King flashing a rising drive just over. The impressive Williamson then forced a low save from Kenny after linking well with King.

Meanwhile, Foster produced an excellent one-handed save to deny Keith Gillespie while the robust Chris Morgan glanced a header on to the roof of the net.

Watford lacked nothing in the physical department but Boothroyd still opted for more muscle nine minutes after half-time, replacing the lightweight Priskin with Darius Henderson, who was reunited with King in attack for the first time since October.

And it was King who came within a whisker of drawing Watford level on 64 minutes, out-muscling Morgan and then deftly lifting the ball over Kilgallon and Kenny and onto the crossbar.

Watford pressed hard for the equaliser, pinning United in their own half and the Blades looked nervous with the finishing line in sight. But for all their pressure, the nearest Watford came to leveling the match was when the impressive Bangura flashed a snapshot over the bar.

Boothroyd went for broke at the death, throwing Carlisle up front and introducing Hoskins from the bench. Even Foster came up for the last corner of the match. Warnock responded by bringing on Claude Davies to shore up the defence as Watford threw the kitchen sink at the Blades.

However, the Blades hung on to record a priceless win and increase the likelihood that they will be not be joining Watford in the Championship next year.

United: Kenny, Geary, Morgan, Jagielka, Kilgallon; Gillespie, Tonge, Montgomery, Armstrong; Nade, Stead. Subs. Kazim-Richards for Nade, 84; Davies for Gillespie, 87; Webber, Shelton, and Quinn not used.

Watford: Foster; Doyley, Shittu, Carlisle, Powell; Williamson, Mahon, Bangura, Bouazza; King, Priskin. Subs: Henderson for Priskin, 54; Chambers for Powell, 75. Hoskins for Williamson 87; Avinel and Lee not used.

Booked Mahon (5), Carlisle (19), Shittu (36), Henderson (79).

Ref: M Atkinson.

Att: 30,690.