Watford will not have been the only Premier League team that Tranmere upset at Prenton Park. This was a result to spread anxiety at Manchester United too. A trip to a weakened opponent on Sunday would have been preferable to Ole Gunnar Solskjær than to a team languishing 21st in League One and thriving on a bog of a pitch.
Substitute Paul Mullin scored the extra-time winner that secured a date with United in round four. The striker, whose late goal completed Rovers’ comeback from three goals down at Vicarage Road, headed home from close range after the impressive Corey Blackett-Taylor had glanced on a cross from substitute Harvey Gilmour. Micky Mellon’s side, ahead through Manny Monthé but pegged back in normal time by Kaylen Hinds’ equaliser for Watford, should have won inside 90 minutes against a makeshift visiting team who laboured throughout. The victors will not mind going the extra mile for the opportunity to increase Solskjær’s torment, however.
Mellon’s side signalled their intent to subject Watford to an awkward Cup tie from the outset. The incentive was clear in the form of a potential showpiece against United but also in the opportunity to claim another Premier League scalp at Prenton Park beforehand. With the exception of Andre Gray, José Holebas and Christian Kabasele, the visitors were a top flight unit in name only. Having watched his side suffer a late league defeat at Aston Villa only 48 hours earlier Nigel Pearson had little choice but to make wholesale changes for the replay. The average age of a Watford team featuring four debutants and several academy players was 23.
Unsurprisingly, they struggled to establish a rhythm against more settled opponents although there was less excuse for the passive nature of their overall display.
The power and pace of Rovers’ target man Morgan Ferrier unsettled the visitors’ defence throughout while Blackett-Taylor ensured Mason Barrett’s debut at right back for Watford was far from comfortable.
Blackett-Taylor threatened whenever Tranmere found him in space on the left – no mean feat considering he was operating on a beach rather than a football pitch given the amount of sand down the flanks – and could have scored twice before the hosts took a merited lead.
Blackett-Taylor blazed the first chance of the game high over the bar when he had only goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann to beat as he darted into the area on the left. A bobble on a bad pitch may have played its part in that miss. His second opportunity was gilt-edged by comparison.
Watford struggled against crosses into the heart of their penalty box all game and, following Liam Ridehalgh’s deep delivery from the left, Kieron Morris forced Bachmann into his first save after cutting inside Holebas. The rebound fell kindly for Blackett-Taylor but, at full stretch, his shot sailed over once again.
Pearson’s team did not test Rovers’ keeper Scott Davies once in the first half – a series of ambitious shots from Domingos Quina in central midfield was as close as they came – and their defensive frailties finally cost them at a corner delivered by Blackett-Taylor.
Several Watford defenders were unable to clear under pressure and the ball dropped to Monthé, lurking just outside the area. His left-foot shot carried power but deceived Bachmann with a deflection before finding the net via the inside of the far post.
It was the towering defender’s third goal in four matches – including one in the comeback from three goals down at Vicarage Road – and no more than Mellon’s side deserved.
Pearson made just one change at the interval with Hinds replacing Tom Dele-Bashiru but whatever he said during the break injected some much-needed urgency into the Watford performance. The visitors should have levelled early in the second half when João Pedro found himself clean through on goal after Monthé failed to intercept a long ball from the back. The Brazilian forward fired low but straight at Davies, who spread himself well, and Holebas headed a difficult rebound high and wide.
The Watford left-back was a fraction away from converting his next opportunity after sweeping an inviting free-kick into the area. Tranmere cleared only as far as Barrett, who sliced a shot back across goal to Holebas from 20 yards. He connected with a thunderous volley that struck the angle of post and bar and Rovers were reprieved. But not for much longer. Pressure on the home defence was growing and Watford equalised after a Holebas corner caused pandemonium inside Rovers’ six-yard box. Davies was unable to hold on to a Pedro header and, amid the goalmouth scramble that followed, Hinds scored from close range.
Mellon replaced the injured Ferrier with Paul Mullin, who completed Tranmere’s recovery in the first meeting, and the substitute almost restored his side’s lead after a mix-up in the Watford defence. Mullin rounded Bachmann but could only find the side-netting from a tight angle as the ball rolled away from goal.