Kevin Affleck assesses Adalberto Peñaranda's debut performance in the 2-0 FA Cup win at Woking...
You never know but if you were one of the 1,304 Watford fans who managed to land a ticket for the FA Cup tie at the Laithwaite Community Stadium, then you might be able to say, in the fullness of time and with great pride, that you were there on the day when it all began in English football for Adalberto Peñaranda.
Now, we're not saying the Venezuelan had everybody's jaw dropping in suburban Surrey or he produced the type of compelling display that means Javi Gracia simply has to find a way to shoehorn him into his team to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. But he showed enough glimpses in his first 72 minutes in a Watford shirt to show why the club were so excited to land him in January 2016.
Yes, his balance, his poise and his eye for the spectacular was showcased against the lowest ranked team in the competition, one from the sixth tier, but Peñaranda had to start somewhere. This, it should be noted, was his first club game of any sort in exactly a year. If he had spent the last 12 months out injured, we'd be offering him all sorts of latitude.
"I thought he did well and showed glimpses," said Derek Payne, the former Watford midfielder and summariser for BBC Three Counties Radio. "He started well and he's clearly not scared to get on the ball. I like how he is confident to face up to his full-back, even in tight areas. He always wants to ask questions and has a real turn of pace."
Chris Sutton felt Peñaranda was always on a hiding to nothing.
"It's tough as what can he gain if he plays well?" said the forthright pundit pre-match on BT Sport. "Everybody expects him to hit the ground running and score a couple of goals. He'll want to put a seed in the manager's head that he's ready for the Premier League, but I don't think he can do that today."
How Gracia handles him from here will be fascinating. The club have worked too hard for a work permit to send him out on loan and yet you can't see him ousting Roberto Pereyra on the left or supplanting Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu in attack any time soon. He could, in the meantime, prove a very handy option to have off the bench.
"He's fast, he's raw and some say the best finisher at the club," said John Champion, commentating on the game for BT Sport. "He was trying to shoot at every opportunity and perhaps trying to get rid of three years of frustration."
It's not that the last three years have been frustrating necessarily. It's just that Peñaranda hasn't quite kicked on since tearing up La Liga as a teenager. Richarlison signed 18 months after Peñaranda but has already been and gone after turning into a £50m player. That lineal path was the one mapped out for the Venezuelan.
In an ideal world, he would have been a Watford player in the summer of 2016 – "It was a very good decision by the sporting directors to think about how this player can help us next year," said Quique Sanchez Flores at the time – but work-permit obstacles meant he had to spend time on loan at Udinese and then Malaga, making a combined total of 12 league starts in two years. But most young players experience a bump in the road and it can't have been easy being shipped from Spain, to Italy, back to Spain and then to England before you've blown the candles out on your 21st birthday cake.
He's still got bags of time on his side and plenty of time to fulfil the prophecy of Flores, the man who was coaching the Hornets when Peñaranda was signed. "If he keeps the same performance level he will become one of the best young players in Europe," he told the Watford Observer. "He’s a strong player who plays good football. He can pass well and has a good shot."
Flores felt Peñaranda was best suited to playing on the left, like he was at Granada when he starred in a productive, counter-punching front three alongside Youseff El Arabi and Isaac Success. He also hinted that the forward would need the odd session or two in learning the other side of the game, the less fashionable bit.
"What I see is he needs to understand the position defensively," said Flores. "But he is young and it’s impossible to know everything."
Perhaps it's a Spanish thing, but Flores, Rafa Benitez and Gracia all like their wide men to play with a degree of responsibility. They are not spots you fill with luxury players, in their eyes. Look, for example, how hard Roberto Pereyra works on the left. Gracia seemed to suggest it is a mindset thing with Peñaranda.
"It is true that with young players they sometimes need time to realise things and this is the case with Peñaranda," Gracia told the Watford Observer. "I think he is a good player but he needs to step up and show all the qualities he has. After he does that is when the coach can work with the player, but there are things the player has to do themselves before."
Gracia views Peñaranda ostensibly as a forward and he certainly has the height, the touch and the pace. Payne would like to see him gradually introduced out wide and then moved centrally, much like Thierry Henry was.
"He looks like a left winger to me," said Payne. "With his pace and if he’s coached, then get him down the middle, but he's not ready for that yet. He's still raw. He needs to mix his game up more. Once in the first half, when we counter-attacked, he wasn't screaming for ball like he should have been. Quina should have played him in. Perhaps that's a language issue."
Peñaranda is often seen round the table at lunch with Pereyra, two South Americans chewing the fat in a leafy corner of Hertfordshire. And there was plenty of the Argentine in the two efforts Peñaranda tried to bend in the far post in each half on Sunday. He also has an edge to his game, which will serve him well in the unforgiving world of English football.
"He gets kicked and gets up," said Payne. "I like that."
He'll sure only get better working under Gracia, who has that lovely knack of making good players better. The Head Coach had just a week to turn Sunday's XI into a cohesive unit and yet still found the time to rehearse another free-kick routine. That, right there, is a sign of how seriously he was taking the tie with Woking.
He could have kept it in the locker for the game at Crystal Palace, kept something up his sleeve, but Gracia backed up what he was saying about the next game being the most important one and respecting the opponents. No matter that it was a team 110 places below them in the pyramid. Now was as good a time as any to bring out another routine.
"It was brilliant," said Kevin Kilbane on Match of the Day 2. "You've got to credit Javi Gracia. The work off the training ground has paid dividends again. Britos gets a block on the man at the near post and it frees up Will Hughes. It's a brilliant strike from Hughes and brilliantly worked."
It sits alongside the ones they got against Huddersfield and Chelsea. "Brilliant execution, brilliant finish," said Sutton, who is not an easy man to please.
Steve Claridge can be even more curmudgeonly than Sutton and, for him, the goal belonged in the soft category.
"Woking will be kicking themselves," he said on BBC Radio 5 Live. "It was a ridiculous goal to concede. It was a horrible lapse in concentration, they let Will Hughes run and he hit it first time into the far corner. It was a simple goal, but a simple goal that could have been avoided and wasn't."
You can't please all of the people all of the time and you'll find some, particularly on social media, who were not happy with the workmanlike nature of the win over the National League South side. But Sunday was all about getting the job done and ensuring that ball No. 23 had Watford's name against it in the draw for the fourth round.
Nobody remembers who you beat in the third round when you go deep into the competition and least of all how you did it. There would have been a few clubs who have would have taken a routine 2-0 win and the chance to blood one of your most promising young players very nicely indeed thanks.