City defeated the odds to secure back-to-back wins and register a first clean sheet of the season against the Championship’s in-form team.
Greg Cunningham’s freak opener just before half-time paved the way for an unlikely victory against a Watford side who dominated long spells of possession.
Facing an uphill task to hang on to their lead, City doubled the advantage through Paul Anderson after 65 minutes, and defended manfully to keep the visitors at bay.
In truth, despite two first-half openings when the scores were level, the Hornets struggled to create goalscoring opportunities against a stubborn home display, with Tom Heaton in the City goal hardly tested throughout.
Sean O’Driscoll made two changes to his team victorious late on against Ipswich Town three days prior – both enforced.
Injured duo Ryan Taylor and Neil Kilkenny were both unable to resume starting duties having left the field with knocks, with Steven Davies and Stephen Pearson filling the respective voids in attack and midfield.
As for Watford, Gianfranco Zola made six changes to his team, surprisingly leaving out 30-goal strikeforce Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra.
The visitors’ intentions were clear from the off, with the emphasis very much on keeping possession and patiently probing a City team happy to sit deep and keep things tight.
In Vydra’s absence, it was tricky Italian Fernando Forestieri who conjured the first opening, neatly working a yard of space on the edge of penalty area before seeing his shot deflected away for a corner.
That ‘chance’ aside – if worthy of the description – was all the Hornets could produce in the first 20 minutes, while at the other end City were first to register a shot on target, when Liam Fontaine’s header from a Davies corner had to be clawed away on his far post by former Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia.
The warning seemed to spark the visitors into life. Jonathan Hogg’s run and pull back deserved a better finish than Almen Abdi could produce.
But after the Udinese loanee blazed over, Forestieri surged down the right side of the area box and crossed to provide an even better chance for striker partner Alex Geijo, who could only head wide unopposed on the six-yard line.
Watford were growing as an attacking force, and City’s cause was not helped by the loss of captain Cole Skuse to injury on 27 minutes, with O’Driscoll introducing Marvin Elliott to plug the gap in midfield.
But for the rest of the half Zola’s men hardly threatened, and, as the interval approached, the hosts came on strong.
Brendan Moloney’s dangerous cross was begging for a touch from Sam Baldock in front of Almunia, before Liam Kelly’s eventual delivery from the same passage of play was glanced wide by Anderson.
City took the lead two minutes before the break out of nothing, as Cunningham picked the ball up 40 yards from goal on the left flank, and floated an innocuous cross into the penalty area which somehow eluded every red and blue shirt and fortunately nestled in the bottom corner of Almunia’s net.
It really was a freak goal, but Cunningham, City and the home fans were not fussy. It was the young Irishman’s first goal of his club career to date, coming at the 61st time of asking.
Despite the change in scoreline, the second half began in a similar vein, with City continuing to soak up pressure and preventing a Watford breakthrough.
Virtually the entire first 13 minutes since the interval had been played in the City half, but a flash of inspiration from Baldock almost paved the way for a vital second goal.
With his back to goal, the striker flicked a clever header over the top of towering defender Fitz Hall and ran on to the ball himself, racing clear on goal only to sky his eventual shot over the crossbar.
But while Baldock was running away from the retreating Hall, the former QPR man was clearly holding the attacker back, and perhaps got a shade fortunate when referee Carl Berry retrospectively penalised him with just a yellow card.
The home fans could have been forgiven for wondering whether their team would get a better chance, but, when Davies’ corner was headed down by Elliott, Anderson was perfectly placed to stab the ball into the bottom corner from eight yards.
It was the second goal City had craved, and Watford needed to respond quickly. They threatened to do just that, but the leaders were indebted to a superb piece of defending from Cunningham, who spotted the danger from left-back to make a vital block at the feet of Abdi from Daniel Pudil’s inviting low cross.
Another Cunningham block kept out Forestieri, before the opening goalscorer appeared to be in some discomfort following a wholehearted fifty-fifty challenge late on.
There was still time for substitute Jon Stead to cut inside and fire a shot towards the top corner in stoppage time, but a tenacious and committed team performance was still rewarded by three more points.