So far, eight sides promoted to the Premiership through the play-offs have been relegated in their first season, a statistic that provides a good measure of how quickly the joy at winning a place in the élite can be dissolved. Watford, the latest to ascend via that route, know full well that the road to survival will present difficulties enough without the kind of fate referee Peter Walton dealt them yesterday.
The newcomers conceded a goal after 15 minutes as Andrew Johnson scored on his Everton debut and survived a spell of heavy pressure late in the first half but looked the better side in the second and had every reason to believe they could force an equaliser. When Damien Francis put his name on the score-sheet in the 90th minute, it was a just reward.
It was also a goal that served only to emphasise the sense of injustice they felt when Mr Walton, in collusion with his assistant on the line, awarded the home side a clearly erroneous penalty eight minutes from the end. He punished the one-time England defender Chris Powell, throwing himself in the way of Tim Cahill's cross, for handling the ball when even to the naked eye it was obvious that it had struck him on the forehead.
Adrian Boothroyd, the Watford manager, was admirably restrained but confessed he had not been able to tell from his position whether Powell had handled. "I'll have to look at the replay but if it was a mistake it will support the argument for using technology to help the officials," he said. It was just as well, perhaps, that he was pleased with his side's performance.
He had reason to be so. His team, well organised and confident,did not looked overawed in their new environment, showing a willingness to pursue the commitment to positive but imaginative attacking play that their manager insisted would be carried forward from their promotion season. But Everton deservedly reached half-time in front, having gone ahead when Johnson delivered the first return on his £8.6 million transfer fee, controlling the ball skilfully on his chest at the edge of the penalty area before hooking a shot out of the reach of goalkeeper Ben Foster. It was a solidly assured start by the former Crystal Palace striker.
Everton might have begun the second half three goals to the good. Mikel Arteta rattled the crossbar with a free-kick after Dan Shittu had bundled Johnson over just outside the penalty area. Then Arteta supplied a cross from which Everton hit the woodwork a second time, through Cahill's glancing header. But in the second half, Everton seemed to run out of ideas, although the speed of Johnson almost opened up Watford's defence a second time. Picked out by Simon Davies, he stole a yard on his marker to make room for a cross. But his striking partner, James Beattie, failed to convert.
Watford should have rewarded themselves for their endeavour, Francis missing an excellent chance. But then came Everton's penalty gift, converted by Arteta and, after that, the deflected shot by Francis that finally beat Everton's on-loan goalkeeper Tim Howard was scant consolation.Reuse content