Report by Ian Grant
Brighton beach, late Sunday morning. The sun beams lovingly through an unblemished
blue sky, the slightest of sea breezes softens its warmth. Music drifts over from the
seafront cafes but it doesn't disturb my sleepy thoughts and reminiscences, gazing lazily
out towards the derelict West Pier and the seagulls that live with its ghosts.
You couldn't dream of anything more peaceful. That society's dregs would want to put a
nailbomb in the midst of it all makes the peace seem even more precious. It's a brief respite.
The imminent deluge of work is a million miles away. Even Barnsley, stress and panic and
hints of glory, is a distant recollection.
Maybe that's not so surprising. Whatever the frantic surrealism of this match nearly
yielded, there's no time for looking back. All that matters is Grimsby on Sunday, we know
what we have to do. The days can't go by quickly enough as far as I'm concerned.
Of course, it was very different at a quarter to five yesterday afternoon, as the Hornets
fought valiantly to hold on to the lead. Stretched across the width of the pitch in an
open stand, the away following was unable to generate anything like the noise that has raised
the team in recent weeks. There was nothing to do except watch, powerless. I can live with the
tension when there's an outlet for it, but this was almost physically painful.
That was reflected on the pitch. It was a battling display, with little of the fluency
that's heralded our best performances this season. As with West Brom, our encounters with
Barnsley have left us wondering why they're not in contention towards the top. Particularly
in the first half, the home side were lively and keen, catching us out with quick set
pieces and darting movement. Our responses were more primitive, if occasionally effective. It's
a reflection of the strength of this Watford side that they came so close to winning
a match that they couldn't control.
After a slow start - twelve blank minutes, in which it became clear that this wasn't
going to be the usual demolition job - the game delivered incessant incident. Dyer headed
over from Martin Bullock's cross. Then the ex-Watford striker was on the end of an Eaden
centre, heading powerfully down and denied by Alec Chamberlain's right boot at the foot
of the post.
Gradually, however, we began to make an impact in the final third. While Tommy Mooney
found it difficult to get into the game, Michel Ngonge proved that his mighty performance
at Vale wasn't a fluke - if his finishing weren't so irredeemably erratic, he'd have won
us the points and we'd have a new hero. His first effort was impressive, though - beating his marker at the near post,
after neat approach work by Nick Wright and the inspired Micah Hyde, to prod a shot against the post. Wright
volleyed straight at Tony Bullock two minutes later.
The stakes got higher, the Hornets got better. Kennedy's corner was cleared to the edge of the
area and Hyde sent a half-volley screaming against the angle of post and bar. After Bullock
had tipped over a magnificent effort by Darren Bazeley (magnificent, that is, if it wasn't
supposed to be a cross), we hit the woodwork again as Ngonge's header from a Kennedy cross flicked
off the top of the bar.
It was exactly the rumbustuous stuff that's brought us to the brink of the playoffs - taking
teams on, even when we're not firing on all cylinders. It's precisely that attitude, both
on and off the pitch, that we must take into the final game. GT will see that we do, no worries.
Anyway, Barnsley - and the irrepressible Dyer especially - were certainly not out of it. Twice,
Bullock went close just after the half hour mark. The first, scooping the ball over the bar from
six yards after Dyer had out-muscled Palmer on the right, was a twenty-four carat sitter. A minute
later, he looked set to redeem himself by working a shooting opportunity inside the box, only
for Palmer to appear from thin air and block.
In breathless tit-for-tat action, it was then Ngonge's turn to miss. Wright's run
inside created space for Bazeley, who received the pass and floated a precise cross to
the far post. Ngonge was unmarked, met the ball comfortably, and headed wide.
But, unlike Bullock, he did redeem himself. As half-time drew close, and after Page had pulled
off another heroic block to deny Richardson, Watford went ahead in bizarre fashion. Time
seemed to stop as the ball was flicked into Ngonge's path and he roared away towards goal. Force of habit made us hesitate, I suppose -
it's rare to see that happen without the offside flag going up. He ran on regardless, Bullock advanced to
save his shot, the chance seemed to be lost. Except that it ran loose, allowing Ngonge a second
swing at the cow's arse with his banjo - he finished instinctively and brilliantly this time, hooking it
back and watching as it drifted silently goalwards, gently bouncing against the far post and in.
The jubilation was mixed with a disconcerting feeling that the story was far from over. It'd
been a curious, disorientating forty-five minutes. You couldn't escape the impression
that we'd been second best, slightly ragged throughout...and yet we'd also hit the woodwork
twice in addition to the goal. Unfinished business dominated the interval.
Presumably, GT was similarly concerned. Allan Smart arrived to start the second half in place
of Nick Wright - a direct swap initially, with Smart on the right and Ngonge continuing
through the middle. But nothing prevented Barnsley streaming forward.
After eight minutes, Dyer set up Sheron for a shot that smacked off the face of the bar and rebounded
away. Then Hignett released Dyer on the left, his comically wild shot indicative of the
fact that he's still the same raw talent that left Vicarage Road five years ago. As an equaliser
loomed large, it was Dyer again who galloped forward with Palmer labouring behind, only
to be halted at the critical moment by a quite stupendous saving tackle by the Watford defender -
even as Dyer swung his boot and imagined the net bulging, Palmer had already intervened and the ball was sailing towards the touchline.
We've done a fine job of avoiding the inevitable in recent weeks. But not this time. On eighteen
minutes, Hignett and Sheron switched play from left to right, finding Eaden in space (where art thou, Robbo?) to drill a
low shot past Chamberlain and level the scores. Having failed to mount a serious attack since half-time,
our chances of leaving with even one point didn't look too good.
But the game still had plenty of lunacy up its sleeve, and we'd regained the lead within
two minutes. Smart laid the ball off to Bazeley, who curled an aimless cross into the
six yard box. Bullock came to collect, Ngonge jumped with him, they all ended up in a heap on the
ground, Mooney dived in among the bodies to head home from a yard. At which point the stands
went mad - the away end in bemused celebration, the home fans in absolute fury.
The verdict? Well, whether or not Ngonge's challenge was really a foul, it was exactly the
kind of incident that always brings a free kick. I don't think goalkeepers
deserve the protection they often receive...but footballers do deserve some measure of consistency
from referees. He said, diplomatically.
From then on, it's a blur. For a while, Barnsley were sufficiently distracted to stop
playing their smart attacking football. That period was mercilessly brief, however. For a while longer,
it seemed as if the defence - particularly Steve Palmer who, like Wilf Rostron before him, has elevated
"being a team player" to the level of heroism - would not let them through. Indeed, had Smart made
more of an opening with two minutes left, then we would've been celebrating all the way down the M1 -
instead of flicking it over Bullock as he advanced, he tried to take the ball round the keeper and ran too wide.
The countdown to full time was nigh on unbearable. Then Barnsley won a free kick and sent
everyone forward for one last assault. It befits the efforts of Palmer and Page that they
were beaten by something truly breathtaking - not your last minute goalmouth scramble, this. Jones'
free kick from fully thirty-five yards span and arced like a meteor, swerving through the penalty area while
Chamberlain dived in desperation and everyone else just got the hell out of the way. It crashed against the
crossbar and, once the ground had stopped shaking, Tinkler was first to react to poke the rebound
Gutting, but only for a while. Sunday will be different. On Sunday, we'll be able to make
all the noise we want in our own stadium, no sitting there and quietly praying. On Sunday, it's about the
supporters as much as the players, and we'll see them through.
Calm, calm, calm.
See also: Copacabarnsley