Prior to the striker breaking the deadlock against Brighton, Gerrard’s debut as Villa head coach looked destined for anti-climax, a capacity crowd subdued by a match where excitement had been in short supply.
Watkins’ sublime 84th-minute goal belatedly brought the occasion to life, the Holte End erupting while Gerrard, in his technical area, turned and roared before celebrating with his coaching staff.
Five minutes later the scene was repeated when Tyrone Mings doubled the lead and shortly after the final whistle had blown Gerrard marched toward the tunnel, fist pumping in delight while the cheers of supporters rang in his ears. He was still smiling when addressing the media in an empty stadium around an hour later.
Gerrard is too savvy to get carried away and was quick to acknowledge the overall performance had been far from perfect. But he also knew the importance of the result, both in terms of halting Villa’s slide down the Premier League and helping to establish a connection with his new fanbase.
Nothing restores confidence like winning. For nearly two months Villa’s players had been starved of the experience. In the final weeks of Dean Smith’s tenure, most particularly after the stunning late collapse against Wolves, they appeared increasingly inhibited.
Some of that was in evidence again on Saturday but when Watkins scored it was as though a switch had been flicked. Villa’s players poured forward and were it not for an acrobatic save from Brighton goalkeeper Jason Steele to deny substitute Leon Bailey, their winning margin might have been even greater. It was an exhilarating finale and for Gerrard a foundation to build on.
For both goalscorers, in slightly different ways, this also felt significant. Both played big roles in Villa’s success last season yet have failed to hit the same heights this time around.
Watkins’ indifferent form saw him left out of the most recent England squad. His third goal of the season was very different to the previous two in its execution and quality. Racing on to Ashley Young’s pass, he raced down the left wing before cutting inside and after running along the edge of the box, unleashing a curling right-footed finish inside the far post. Gerrard later described it as world class and there is no higher praise.
Mings’ goal, meanwhile, capped probably the Villa captain’s best performance of the campaign to date. The previous match at Villa Park had seen him relegated to the bench while Gerrard, earlier in the week, had warned his grip on the armband was far from watertight.
Here, then, was a performance to quieten the doubters. Brimming with determination, Mings helped make his goal by keeping the ball in play, earning the fortune seconds later when Adam Webster’s attempt to clear John McGinn’s cross ran right into his path.
Watkins might have provided the breakthrough and looked a player reborn after his goal, yet it was the confident display of Mings and the defence which set the tone and ensured Villa, for all the frustration they experienced in attack, were still in a position to win the game late.
Too often recently that had not been the case. In their previous two matches Villa had not made it past the seventh minute without conceding. Making them tougher to beat had been highlighted by Gerrard as his top priority and he duly delivered after naming in Mings, Ezri Konsa, Matty Cash and Matt Targett, a defensive line which kept 15 clean sheets last season but had not played together since the opening day of the current campaign.
Injuries and illness provide some explanation for the latter and Villa did keep clean sheets against Everton and Manchester United while using a back five. Still, it is puzzling in retrospect why Smith did not revert to such a tried and tested unit when he had the chance.
Result aside, renewed solidity was comfortably the biggest positive from Gerrard’s Villa Park bow. Villa might not have created much before the opener but Brighton couldn’t muster a meaningful chance in the entire second half as the home side stuck rigidly to their shape. When you have lost the last five matches, there is nothing wrong with being boring.
Still, on Saturday’s evidence it may take the new boss time to discover the formula to fix the lack of attacking cohesion. With Danny Ings recovered from injury, Gerrard chose to play him in a front three with Watkins and Emi Buendia split wide. Yet Villa again struggled for fluency in the final third with headers from Matty Cash and Mings their only efforts on goal in the opening 83 minutes.
Buendia started brightly but quickly faded and though Watkins did score, it was perhaps telling the opener arrived after Ings had been withdrawn.
By then Gerrard had changed two-thirds of the front line and the substitutions proved effective. Bailey delivered his brightest outing since his cameo in September’s win over Everton while Ashley Young, having initially been introduced on the wing, set up the opener with a strong run and pass after dropping back into central midfield. Anwar El Ghazi, the final player brought on, played a crucial part in the goal without even touching the ball, dragging away two defenders and helping create the space for Watkins.
While a draw would have at least stopped a five-match run of defeats, the win created a little more breathing space between Villa and the bottom three, with a two-point gap expanded to four.
That is still too narrow for comfort and plenty of hard work lies ahead.
But having previously looked like a team going backward, this was a promising step forward.