There was to be no instant new head coach bounce as Watford’s involvement in the FA Cup ended for another season with a disappointing 1-0 fourth round defeat at Southampton.

Javi Gracia’s first game at the helm brought fresh hope but the ultimately decisive goal, scored in the opening stages, had more than a hint of Marco Silva about it as the Hornets defended poorly at set piece and Jack Stephens gratefully capitalised.

The Hornets were poor for the rest of the first half, clearly lacking confidence but often playing without conviction and cohesion as they committed a numerous sloppy errors.

The new head coach acted positively at the break, ditching an ineffectual 4-2-3-1 and switching to 4-4-2, but the attacking play did have in the closing stages was in large part a consequence of their opponents seeming contentment to try and sit on their slender lead.

Watford huffed and puffed but without any real suggestion they would get back on terms until injury time when Christian Kabasele put a free header wide in injury time as Garcia’s reign got off to a disappointing start.

There were also to be some angry scenes after the final whistle as first Kabasele, and then Jose Holebas, went over to a section of visiting fans, with a row of stewards quickly moving into place between them before Ben Watson led both players away.

With Molla Wague sidelined with a hamstring injury and Troy Deeney out through illness to add to an already extensive casualty list, Gracia had to make two enforced changes from Marco Silva’s last starting line-up at Leicester City. But the new head coach also opted to make two more as Marvin Zeegelaar and Roberto Pereyra both dropped to the bench.

The quartet’s places were taken by Adrian Mariappa, Holebas, Etienne Capoue and Andre Gray.

Southampton came into the tie in even worse form their opponents – the 1-0 third round victory at Fulham being their only victory in 12 games in all competitions – but they did hold Tottenham Hotspur to a 1-1 draw last weekend.

Mauricio Pellegrino made three changes to the side he named last Sunday with Steven Davis, Sofiane Boufal and Shane Long coming in for James Ward-Prowse, Mario Lemina and Manolo Gabbiadini. The trio were all on the bench alongside new £19 million striker Guido Carrillo.

The Saints sought to make the early running as the game kicked off in squally conditions and they were to make the breakthrough inside four minutes.

The Hornets were at sixes and sevens as Boufal whipped in a free-kick low from the left, Long’s initial effort was saved by the legs of Orestis Karnezis but Stephens gratefully snapped up the rebound to give the hosts an early lead.

A bad start almost got even worse in the ninth minute when Long sprinted full pelt to reach a ball down the inside left channel and pulled it back, Karnezis looked to have it covered only to let it go, but this seemed to throw Dusan Tadic as the ball was scrambled clear.

Long’s momentum was to send him crashing into the advertising hoardings behind the goal but he was able to continue after receiving treatment.

Watford had struggled to get out of their own half in the first 10 opening, but they were presented with their first opportunity when Capoue was shoved in the back on the edge of the D in a central position. But Richarlison was unable to make the most of the chance as he curled the set piece high and wide.

Gracia’s men did start to enjoy some more territory and possession as the opening period began to settle down, but Southampton were to have the next opening when Cedric whipped in a cross from the right but Long wasn’t able to get over his far-post header and he put it wide.

Watson snatched a shot badly wide at the other end, but it did stem from an encouraging passage of attacking play as Andre Carrillo set Daryl Janmaat away on the overlap down the right, but his cross was more towards the edge of the area where Aboulaye Doucoure teed up his fellow midfielder.

Southampton’s attacking play had more conviction and cohesion about it, but there was to be no end product to their forays until the 35th minute when Karnezis had to drop to his left to hold Cedric’s 25-yard daisy-cutter.

The hosts suffered a blow six minutes before the interval when Ryan Betrand, who had been a pre-match doubt, was forced off by injury and was replaced by Jeremy Pied.

Moments later, the Saints came close to doubling their lead when after Tadic had seen a shot blocked, Cedric raced into space on the right side of the area and rifled the ball across the six-yard box, but it didn’t get the touch it needed to find the back of the net.

Watford had been poor but as the clock clicked into injury time they very nearly got back on terms when a Richarlison cross-cum-shot almost caught out Alex McCarthy, but the keeper managed to back track just in time to tip over.

Gracia acted decisively at the break, bringing on Stefano Okaka for Capoue to give Gray some desperately needed support as he switched to a 4-4-2.

Despite the change, it was the hosts who made the better start to the second half and Karnezis was the first keeper to be called into action to hold a low strike from Long after Boufal had slipped the ball through an exposed Hornets backline.

But having changed formation, the visitors were in danger of getting over-run in the centre of midfield, with Watson and Doucoure both struggling against Saints’ superior numbers in the engine room.

Gracia made his second change in the 57th minute as Pereyra replaced Carrillo but little of note then happened until both sides picked up a booking apiece with a minute of each other.

Southampton were inches away from scoring a spectacular second in the 64th minute when Tadic laid the ball back to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and he struck a superb drive from 25 yards which beat Karnezis but rebounded out off the face the crossbar.

The visitors made their second change in the 67th minute, but it was a surprising one as Boufal was replaced by the more defensive Maya Yoshida, resulting in a switch to five at the back.

Watford started to gain more possession as a consequence for a spell, with Okaka played in on the left side of the defence, but he was only able to square the ball back across the six-yard box for McCarthy to take.

The next opportunity went the home side’s way, with now wing-back Pied playing in a dangerous cross which fellow wing-back Cedric gambled on and wasn’t far away from connecting with.

Gracia’s final change saw Jerome Sinclair came on for Janmaat, which meant Mariappa moved to right-back and Watson dropped to centre-half. But no sooner had the former Liverpool man entered the fray than Richarlison was flashing a dangerous ball across the six-yard box which only needed a touch.

The Hornets were getting more and more of the ball as the game entered the final 10 minutes, but were unable to find the requisite quality until they conjured a chance with two minutes of normal time to go when Okaka met Peryra’s cross from the right with an overhead kick but put it over the top.

But the opportunity they craved came deep into injury time when Holebas swung over a deep cross from the left and Christian Kabasele found himself in space, but put a free header wide of the target.

With that chance went Watford’s involvement in the competition for another season, but tempers could have boiled over at the end as first Kabasele, and then Holebas, approached some visiting fans behind the goal with both players having to be pulled back by Watson.

Southampton: McCarthy; Cedric, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand (Pied 40); Davis, Roemu; Tadic (G Carrillo 82), Hojbjerg, Boufal (Yoshida 67); Long. Subs not used: Forster, Ward-Prowse, Lemina, Gabbiadini.

Watford: Karnezis; Janmaat (Sinclair 75), Mariappa, Kabasele, Holebas; Watson, Doucoure; A Carrillo (Pereyra 57), Capoue (Okaka 46), Richarlison, Gray. Subs not used: Bachmann, Prodl, Success, Zeegelaar.

Bookings: Watson for a foul on Tadic (61); Cedric for a foul on Holebas (62).

Attendance: 25,195.

Referee: Robert Madley.