Watford will play worse this season and win after an otherwise encouraging performance resulted in an undeserved 1-0 defeat to Derby County at Vicarage Road.

The Hornets totally dominated the first half and created several good chances, but were unable to deservedly break the deadlock before the interval.

There seemed to be no cause for concern though, because it looked to be a case of when, and not if, the Hornets would capitalise on their superiority, only for a bolt from the blue from Steven Davies to give the visitors a shock lead.

The hosts continued to be the better side and, but for superb saves from Frank Fielding to deny Marvin Sordell and John Eustace, they would have at least equalised but it was not to be their day.

With Martin Taylor and Craig Forsyth recovering from the niggles that might have kept them out of the Carling Cup tie at Bristol Rovers had it been played, Sean Dyche kept faith with the same line-up that kicked off the season with a 2-2 draw at Burnley last weekend.

There was a first appearance on the bench for summer arrival Prince Buaben, meaning Piero Mingoia was the player to miss out on the matchday 16 from the trip to Turf Moor.

Watford looked to get on the front foot from the first whistle, winning a corner inside three minutes and from Mark Yeates’ delivery from the right, Martin Taylor headed a decent opening over the top.

The summer signing from Sheffield United was heavily involved again a minute later, hitting a low ball into the near post where Sordell tried to catch Fielding out with a back heel but the England Under-21 keeper was alert to it.

The positive opening continued in the eighth minute with Lloyd Doyley hitting a great cross to the far post where Forsyth got up well and headed back across goal, with the ball just drifting wide of Fielding’s right-hand post.

The Hornets kept the pressure on thanks to some good deliveries from Yeates, who also tempted Lee Croft into a clumsy challenge that earned the game’s first yellow card in the 15th minute.

Following the resultant free-kick, the ball was played back in from the left by Carl Dickinson, Taylor headed forward from the right side of the area and Chris Iwelumo sent a looping header narrowly over.

The next opening fell John Eustace’s way in the 22nd minute when he did well to keep possession on the edge of the Derby box and ride a couple of challenges before striking a left-footed shot that was deflected through to Fielding.

Mark O’Brien became the second Ram to see yellow two minutes later for a foul on Sordell, who, from the ensuing free-kick, squeezed in a shot from the right side of the area that Fielding dealt with at his near post.

The visitors’ card count increased to three on the half-hour when Craig Bryson tripped Eustace. Yeates’ effort from the resultant set-piece was on target but too central and Fielding barely had to move to safe comfortably.

Following a brief lull in proceedings, Watford threatened again in the 40th minute when Eustace threaded a pass down the inside right channel to Forsyth, who had broken forward, but the Scot rather rushed his effort and skied it over the bar.

Derby were offering very little, except the type of challenges that made Darren Deadman brandish his cards and the referee was at it again in the 42nd minute – this time James Bailey was the recipient for a foul on Eustace.

Sordell flashed a header wide from a Yeates delivery as the game continued to be played almost exclusively in the visitors’ half, before Yeates stood up a great cross from the right by-line that took Fielding out of the game but, unfortunately for the hosts, it was headed clear.

A goal was the least the Hornets deserved for a thoroughly dominant first-half display and it almost arrived deep into injury-time when Forsyth drove in a shot that was saved by Fielding, who reacted to superbly to keep out Sordell’s follow-up and then Taylor had a secondary effort blocked.

There was no surprise that opted to change things at the break, with Jeff Hendrick replacing Bailey, but it did not change the immediate course of the game, with the hosts gaining their fifth corner just 20 seconds after the restart.

Eustace had been on the end of two yellow-card challenges in the first half but he picked up a booking of his own in the 47th minute for a lunge on Bryson.

However, the complexion of the game took a completely unexpected twist in the 52nd minute when Derby took a shock lead with their first on-target effort.

A Lee Croft throw from the right was latched on to by Steven Davies, who turned and hit a speculative effort that flew past Scott Loach to give the visitors an undeserved 1-0 lead.

Having given his side the lead, Steven Davies was replaced by Hornets old boy Theo Robinson seven minutes later.

It took the hosts a brief spell to regain their attacking momentum but their next opportunity arrived just after the hour-mark when a Yeates mis-hit shot fell for Ross Jenkins on the left side of the area. He laid the ball back for Forsyth, whose left-footed piledriver looked destined for the top corner until it struck an opponent.

Jenkins was involved again soon after, picking up an obvious yellow card for a foul on Bryson right under the nose of Deadman, before the Hornets threatened again when Forsyth surged out of defence and powered forward, slipping the ball to Iwelumo, who laid it back for Sordell to strike a first-time effort that was heading for the bottom corner until Fielding pushed it behind.

Derby completed their substitutions on 68 minutes when Gareth Roberts replaced Jamie Ward and three minutes later Dyche followed suit, bringing on Troy Deeney for Iwelumo.

The visitors had a promising opportunity in the 75th minute when Croft got clear on the right and had the space and time to look up and pick out a team-mate, but his cross was completely over-hit.

Fielding came to Derby’s rescue again with ten minutes remaining, getting across superbly to keep out a downward header from Eustace that was going inside the post following a deep Yeates cross.

The card count rose to seven three minutes later when Yeates saw yellow after tangling with Croft before Gavin Massey replaced Forsyth for the last three minutes of normal time. And, with his first touch, the substitute could have pulled his side level when he was picked out by a Yeates cross but Massey directed his header into the ground and Fielding was able to easily save.

Five minutes of stoppage time offered the Hornets hope but, apart from a Yeates corner that Massey headed well over, the hosts were unable to create another opportunity of note.

Watford: Loach; Doyley, Mariappa, Taylor, Dickinson; Eustace; Yeates, Jenkins, Forsyth (Massey 87); Sordell, Iwelumo (Deeney 71). Not used: Gilmartin, Buaben and Mirfin.

Derby County: Fielding; Brayford, O’Brien, Shackell, Kilbane; Croft, Bailey (Hendrick 46), Bryson; B Davies; S Davies (Robinson 59); Ward (Roberts 68). Not used: Maguire and Legzdins.

Bookings: Croft for a foul on Yeates (15); O’Brien for a foul on Sordell (24); Bryson for a foul on Eustace (30); Bailey for a foul on Eustace (42); Eustace for a foul on Bryson (47); Jenkins for a foul on Bryson (65); Yeates for a foul on Croft (83); Robinson for dissent (90).

Attendance: 12,263.

Referee: Darren Deadman.