Danny Graham wrote a fresh chapter in the Watford record books this afternoon as Malky Mackay’s men made it a magnificent seven successive wins with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Derby County to maintain their top-six position in the Championship.
Not since Frank McPherson in 1929 had a Watford player scored in seven straight matches, but that all changed two minutes before the interval when the Championship’s leading marksman volleyed in a Will Buckley cross to net his 18th goal of an increasingly memorable season.
Watford had to bide their time before Buckley deservedly put them in front in the 36th minute, but once the Rams had fallen behind they folded alarmingly before the interval.
Graham’s amazing streak continued on 43 minutes and there was still time before the break for Marvin Sordell to extend his purple patch as well.
The victory made it the Hornets’ best winning sequence for a decade and also ensured they won six straight league matches for the first time since 2006, hitting 50 league goals for the campaign in the process.
With the exception of injured skipper John Eustace, Watford were almost back to full strength as Mackay made four changes from the side that beat Hartlepool United in the FA Cup last weekend.
Scott Loach came back in for Rene Gilmartin in goal, Graham returned to the starting XI, as did Stephen McGinn for his first start since suffering a fractured cheekbone at Queens Park Rangers before Christmas, but arguably the biggest boost was the return of Don Cowie, who had been rated only 50/50 in the build-up to the game. Those three outfield players took the place of Troy Deeney, Matt Whichelow and Piero Mingoia, who were on the bench.
Despite Derby’s embarrassing cup exit at Crawley Town on Monday, boss Nigel Clough resisted the temptation to make significant changes. Their starting line-up showed only one alteration, with Alberto Buneo coming in for Ben Pringle.
The first moment of note came after 80 seconds when McGinn appeared to catch Robbie Savage in the face with an arm, much to the Derby skipper’s obvious annoyance and the amusement of the majority inside Vicarage Road.
The visitors had the first attempt of the match a minute later when Bueno hooked a shot wide of Loach’s near post following a quick throw from the right.
Watford’s first effort came in the seventh minute when Martin Taylor hooked the ball back into the area after a free-kick had been half-cleared and McGinn found himself in some space on the right side of the 18-yard box, but his powerfully struck right-footed attempt was blocked.
The Hornets went closer still three minutes later when, following some neat trickery by Buckley in his own half, the ball was spread to Sordell in space on the right. The striker toyed with the defence on the right side of the area before standing up a cross that was half blocked, but the ball broke for Cowie, who saw his strike blocked to Sordell, whose follow up also hit a Rams defender before going over for a corner.
However, the home side had a let off in the 15th minute when right-back Paul Green’s long ball forward briefly threatened to release Chris Porter. Although Ross Jenkins and Dale Bennett got back, some indecision with Loach then followed and it needed a lunge from Bennett to deflect the striker’s eventual effort behind for a corner.
The hosts were soon back on the front foot though, with Stephen Bywater forced to push over a long Adrian Mariappa throw from the right which had been allowed to bounce in the six-yard box, only for Bennett to nearly be caught out again by a ball forward at the other end that should have been routinely dealt with.
Sordell fired over from the left angle of the area in the 25th minute when he perhaps should have crossed, but two minutes later he was inches away from putting the hosts in front after narrowly failing to connect with Buckley’s low cross from the right when a misjudgement by Gareth Roberts had let the Watford wide man scamper away.
There was then a brief lull in the game but in the 36th minute the Hornets deservedly took the lead.
Lloyd Doyley started things off by keeping possession well on the left before laying the ball back to Taylor, who, in turn, played it over the top to Cowie in space on the same side of the penalty area. Graham was eased off the ball as he sought to get on the end of the cross, but it broke for the unmarked Buckley at the back post and he kept his composure, steering the ball right-footed through the legs of Bywater to make it 1-0.
Kris Commons was the first player to be booked moments later for dissent after letting his frustration get the better of him and then Buckley was in the right place again had Bywater not dealt with a low Sordell centre from the left.
But the moment Watford history was made came two minutes from the break.
The Hornets’ top scorer started the move near halfway with an intelligent knock down to Sordell and then the ball was worked to the right where Buckley had again raced into space to deliver a cross towards the near post where Graham connected with a superbly executed half-volley and diverted it past Bywater to score for the seventh successive game.
If Derby’s confidence was fragile after their recent poor run, it was broken in first-half injury-time when the Hornets scored a third in nine minutes.
This was the most straightforward of the three; a ball out from the back that the hapless Derby defence failed to deal with and Sordell was onto it in a flash, racing clear to confidently slide it past Bywater to score his fifth in as many games to make it 3-0.
That whirlwind blast ensured Watford reached the half-century of league goals, ensuring Derby’s skipper left the pitch to taunts of ‘Savage, Savage, what’s the score?!’ Despite having a firm grip on the game, the Hornets were forced into a change at the interval, with Deeney coming on for the presumably still injured Cowie. Less surprisingly, Clough also changed things, with Commons making way for Dean Leacock and Stephen Pearson replaced James Bailey.
This change enabled Green to move up into midfield, with John Brayford moving across to right-back from centre-half, and it was the Rams number four who had the first attempt of the second period with a shot over the bar from the edge of the area.
Derby continued to have the better of the exchanges without creating a great deal as their opponets were largely content to sit on their lot, until Mackay decided another change was needed in the 61st minute when Whichelow came on for Buckley.
And it was the substitute who had the Hornets’ first attempt of the second half with 67 minutes on the clock when he drove forward before firing wide of Bywater’s near post from the edge of the 18-yard box.
McGinn then fizzed a half-volley from the same distance narrowly wide of the other post before substitute Pearson saw yellow for a foul on Deeney.
Graham wasn’t too far away from connecting with a Whichelow cross shot as the hosts looked to finish the game with a flourish.
Mingoia came on for Sordell with eight minutes remaining and they could have had a fourth in injury time when good defending prevented Deeney from converting a Graham cross at Bywater’s near post.
However, a rather low key and uneventful second half could not detract from the best sequence of results for ten years.
Watford: Loach; Mariappa, Bennett, Taylor, Doyley; Jenkins; Buckley (Whichelow 61), McGinn, Cowie (Deeney 82), Sordell (Mingoia 82), Graham. Not used: Hodson, Walker, Gilmartin and Massey.
Derby County: Bywater; Green, Barker, Brayford, Roberts; Bailey (Pearson 46), Addison, Savage; Bueno (Davies 84), Commons (Leacock 46); Porter. Not used: S Deeney, Buxton, Pringle and Doyle.
Bookings: Commons for dissent after 39 mins; Pearson for a foul on Deeney after 74 mins; Addison for a foul on Sordell after 82 mins.
Referee: Gavin Ward.