AT the end of a week in which Watford were threatened with a possible points deduction, Hull City’s visit seemed timely for home head coach Walter Mazzarri.
Without a win since the second weekend of the season and having conceded 19 goals in their previous five outings, the Tigers looked the closest the Premier League has to a ‘gimme’ right now.
In the end, the Hornets did claim three of the points that could yet be lost for the alleged forging of a bank letter to show proof of funds when Gino Pozzo – who insists he only learned of the document last week – took sole control of the club in 2014.
But it was far from the routine victory that many had forecast before kick-off, Hull’s record-equalling sixth straight loss in the top flight owing much to a huge slice of ill-fortune.
Michael Dawson was the unwitting fall guy, the Tigers’ captain unable to do anything about a deflected Daryl Janmaat cross seven minutes from time that struck his knee and bounced beyond the helpless David Marshall in the visitors’ goal.
It was a cruel way to lose, not least because Hull’s performance had been much improved on the lame and lifeless efforts that had seen the white flag of surrender waved in dispiriting losses to Bournemouth and Stoke City.
On a weekend when the clocks went back, this represented a welcome step forward.
Equally, however, Hull are still paying the price for a summer that surely has to go down as the worst preparations for the rigours of a Premier League campaign by any newly promoted club.
Losing Steve Bruce, the architect of that play-off final triumph at Wembley, was bad enough.
But Hull’s recruitment in a transfer window that did not see a signing made until 36 hours before the deadline made an already fraught situation much, much worse.
Six signings came in during those final hours, but Hull’s squad remains so paper thin that just a couple of injuries to key players can leave the Yorkshire club hugely exposed.
The absence at Vicarage Road of Robert Snodgrass and Andrew Robertson, two of the most potent attacking threats at Phelan’s disposal, underlined this point.
Both were sorely missed in a performance that was long on endeavour and effort, but short on the kind of creativity required to prosper at the very top level.
Phelan spoke afterwards of his side having the game’s two best chances. And, yes, they did waste two wonderful openings during the second half through a scuffed shot from Abel Hernandez and a miscued cross by Will Keane when two unmarked team-mates were waiting expectantly in the penalty area.
But Watford hit the woodwork twice, missed an open goal from two yards through Troy Deeney and also had a ferocious Odion Ighalo shot miss by such a narrow margin that the fans in the newly-built Elton John Stand were up on their feet celebrating a goal before realising the ball had instead hit the side-netting.
If a Hornets side who, wideman Nordin Amrabat apart, laboured for much of the contest can create so many chances then clearly there is much work for Hull to do if this season is not to degenerate into a tame slide back into the Championship.
“In terms of the goal coming so late and the way it went in, things do feel pretty deflating,” said goalkeeper David Marshall, defiant in his belief that the Tigers can get out of trouble.
“I don’t think ‘Daws’ knew too much about it. It feels very disappointing but confidence won’t suffer.
“Bournemouth (where Hull lost 6-1) is the one defeat that stands out and confidence probably was affected by that performance.
“It was probably one of the longest weeks I have known.
“But I thought we showed a good reaction against Watford. We had chances to win the game and the difference between this and Bournemouth is like night and day.
“Hopefully, we have shown that we are still fighting and we are desperate to win games. We can take some confidence from matching Watford. It was a 0-0 game apart from one unlucky moment.”
Mazzarri has first hand experience of how damaging a points deduction can be. He was in charge of Reggina when the Italian club was docked 11 points as part of the country’s 2006 football scandal.
So, it was perhaps no surprise that Watford should start so aggressively leaving Hull pinned back in their own half for the opening 10 minutes.
Twice in the space of 25 frantic seconds, as the ball pinged around the visitors’ penalty area, the home side hit the woodwork through Younes Kaboul and Roberto Pereyera.
Eventually, though, the Tigers were able to regroup and produce the kind of steely defensive display that had characterised their encouraging start to the season.
Dawson typified this resilience, which is why it was so cruel that he should be the man to unwittingly settle the contest.