IF this game was a test of Saints' promotion credentials, then they have given reason for optimism despite defeat.

The last gasp loss at Watford made it three good back-to-back performances - even if they brought only two wins - after a difficult start.

All three displays have shown a different aspect of the make-up of the Saints squad.

The win against Stoke was a test of belief. After three defeats in all competitions, the players were strong and stood up to be counted in a highly competitive game.

The victory at QPR was all about skill as they passed their way to victory.

Against Watford, and at Vicarage Road, it was a test of character and resolve.

Aidy Boothroyd's team were exactly what you expected them to be - strong, physical, direct.

Most teams who go there this season will find that style, combined with the goals and the talent they also have in their ranks, too much.

They will buckle under the weight of pressure or get so pinned back they end up defending the edge of their own area and offer nothing going forward.

Saints rarely had such problems, which made defeat to an injury time winner such a cruel blow.

They were brave - brave at the back physically and mentally as Wayne Thomas dominated in the air and kept a tight, high line, particularly in the first half.

They were brave in the middle of the park on the ball, not falling into the trap of matching long ball for long ball.

As you would expect of a team with the likes of Andrew Surman and Youssef Safri, they kept the ball and did what they are good at, zipping it around.

In Jhon Viafara they had a destroyer and in Nathan Dyer a terrific outlet and they played to their strengths.

In attack they were brave, in particular Grzegorz Rasiak who played unselfishly, running the channels, being prepared to hold the ball up and making some terrific runs in behind.

Watford are rightly one of the favourites to go up. Saints travelled there, played their own game and came within a whisker of getting something.

Contrast that to the shambles we saw in George Burley's first game in charge at Vicarage Road on Boxing Day 2005 and you realise how far they have come and what a good job he has done.

The squad is far stronger now, even with the absence of big names, and that's not to mention the £15m he's made in the transfer market to keep the club afloat.

However, it is clear another defender is needed.

Saints came close to taking the lead on ten minutes when Mart Poom was forced to turn a header from colleague Lee Williamson on to the post after a flick from a dangerous Safri free-kick.

Kelvin Davis had to save from Nathan Ellington before a dramatic double block from Tommy Smith at close range and Williamson from the follow up volley.

But three minutes before the break Watford did manage to penetrate.

Davis came for a free-kick and went through a couple of players to get a fist to the ball, but it dropped to Smith.

He picked it up, got to the by-line, stood it up to the far post and Dan Shittu powered in to slam home a header from close range.

However, in first half stoppage time Saints levelled.

Dyer looked up and picked out the run of Rasiak, who took one touch to get the ball out of his feet and slid in for the second touch, a precise finish across Poom into the bottom corner.

It was no less than Saints deserved.

Davis had three second-half saves to make before Dyer gave them the lead on 69 minutes, cutting inside and hitting a 20-yard side-footed shot that curled into Poom's bottom left hand corner.

After that Saints looked in control and the more likely side to get the next goal.

But some poor defending allowed Lloyd Doyley to get inside Gregory Vignal in the Saints area and he squared the ball to the far post where sub Darius Henderson finished from close range.

At that point both sides would probably have settled for a point, which would have been a fair result.

But, with virtually the last kick, Watford won it.

Adam Johnson whipped in a free kick which was cleared to Gavin Mahon who fired in a low shot.

The ball bounced around and landed at the feet of Henderson, who adjusted quickly to stab home.

It was a harsh ending for Saints, but still a performance that gives plenty of hope.