Watford produced arguably their best display of pre-season to earn a deserved 2-0 victory at Stevenage tonight to get their preparations for the new campaign back on track.

Second-half goals from Stephen McGinn and Marvin Sordell saw the Hornets beat League Two opposition for the first time in three attempts, but this display was a strong improvement on Saturday’s 3-3 draw at Northampton Town.

With debutant Rene Gilmartin cutting an assured figure between the posts, the defence were back on their game after the errors of Sixfields, while there was more of a creative spark going forward.

However, the Hornets didn’t have it all their own way and they were made to work hard to build up their supremacy during the opening 25 minutes when the hosts sought to establish a foothold on the game. However, the visitors took control as the opening period drew to an end and carried it into the second half of what proved to be a productive night’s work.

Malky Mackay made five changes from Saturday’s starting line-up. Dale Bennett and Will Buckley were sidelined with minor injuries, Scott Loach and Ross Jenkins dropped to the bench and Michael Bryan was left out. Their places were taken by Gilmartin, making his first start between the posts since joining from Walsall, Lee Hodson, Piero Mingoia, McGinn and Sordell.

The match got off to a scrappy opening, but it was the visitors who had the first sight of goal when a John Eustace shot was blocked following a neat build-up around the Stevenage box.

Moments later, Hodson required a lengthy period of treatment after landing awkwardly following a challenge with Yemi Odubade, but he was fine to continue.

Gilmartin was the first keeper forced into a real save in the 11th minute, going to ground to keep out a sharp header from Odubade following a neat build-up involving Peter Winn and Lawrie Wilson before Ronnie Henry swung in a cross from the right flank.

What was a full throttle contest continued to ebb and flow, with the hosts marginally having the better of it, but little was created until the 25th minute when Watford could have gone in front.

Mingoia was the creator, dropping in field to clip a lovely ball over the Stevenage defence and into Danny Graham, who had stayed onside, but former Hornet Chris Day was quickly out to block as Saturday’s two-goal man tried to lift the ball past him.

The Hornets had another opening soon after when Graham headed a long free-kick sideways to Sordell, but Watford’s other scorer from Sixfields wasn’t able to make a decent contact with a first-time angled effort.

The visitors were gradually gaining the upper hand and their next reasonable chance came four minutes before the interval when Hodson kept an attack alive with a cross to the far post, Eustace headed back across the target and, again, Sordell wasn’t quite able to find the finish when it was needed.

Watford looked to continue their attacking form after the break, but their first attempt from Graham on the edge of the area, went well wide. Last season’s top scorer was closer with his next effort – when a short Don Cowie free-kick was rolled to him – but on this occasion his shot lacked the power to beat Day.

Lloyd Doyley then chanced his arm from the edge of the box, with a shot that was deflected over, but it was Gilmartin who was the first keeper to be truly tested in the second half and he stood up to the challenge well.

The visitors failed to clear their lines fully from a Stevenage corner in the 55th minute and the ball was slid down the side of the defence where Joel Byrom centred and Charlie Griffin connected well first time, but Gilmartin plunged to his right to keep it out.

The visitors immediatedly responded, with McGinn hitting a curling effort from the left side of the area that wasn’t too far over. But it was the Scottish midfielder who was to make the breakthrough in the 58th minute with his third goal of pre-season.

The ball was swept to the right flank where Graham’s arcing run enabled him to stay onside and he crossed low towards the near post where McGinn had the run on the Stevenage backline and he was able to bundle the ball home from close range to give Watford a 1-0 lead.

Mackay’s response was to make his first change, bringing on Ross Jenkins for Eustace, but Watford had another chance in the 69th minute when Doyley broke from the back and found McGinn, who in turn slid the ball on to Sordell. The young striker initially didn’t appear to have too much on but he managed to create space on the left side of the area before striking a useful chip that Day had to push over.

Sordell had another chance when he raced on to a fine pass from McGinn, but he probably took one touch too many which enabled a defender to get a challenge in. But in the 75th minute the young striker’s efforts were rewarded when Graham headed on, and with Stevenage pleading a linseman’s flag that never came, Sordell just beat Day to the ball and stabbed it past him.

However, that proved to be the scorer’s last involvement as he was caught by the keeper and was, presumably as a precaution, replaced by Matt Whichelow.

Watford were looking good value for their clean sheet and they were able to keep it thanks to a superb save from Gilmartin with eight minutes remaining; the keeper diving full length to his left to push over a piledriver from substitute Stacy Long.

Stevenage continued to finish strongly, with Long sliding a pass into fellow replacement Chris Beardsley with two minutes remaining, but the striker was unable to hit the target as he stretched for the ball, but there was to be no consolation for the hosts.

Stevenage: Day; Henry, Bostwick, Roberts, Laird; Wilson (Sills 75), Murphy (Mousinho 61), Byrom, Winn (Long 61); Odubade (Savage 65), Griffin (Beardsley 75).

Watford: Gilmartin; Hodson, Mariappa, Taylor, Doyley; Cowie, Eustace (Jenkins 58), McGinn, Mingoia; Sordell (Whichelow 75), Graham (Henderson 88), Mingoia. Not used: Loach, Kiernan, Oshodi and Aldred.

Referee: Dean Whitestone.