A winter warmer
By Matt Rowson
The power of the elements is not to be taken lightly.
We felt we had prepared. Not, perhaps for the treachery of the icy roads, but our fear was ill-founded. Certainly not for the not inconsiderable challenge of finding the ground - fortunately Loz's resolute texting of the programme's directions salvaged this one. But for the cold we had scarves, jackets, woolly jumpers, hats and gloves....
Not enough, not nearly enough. We scavenged for something approaching food to keep our fuel levels up. A futile exercise in the vicinity of Oakwell, as any previous visitor can testify. In the ground, they were selling something edible, allegedly...in such crisis conditions, you make do with whatever. We huddled together for warmth, discussing the conditions grimly and trying not to think too hard about television sets and cans of lager. Thankfully, a football match started, which was at least a distraction.
The game opened with the two sides sparring nervously, jostling for position. We had more than half-expected this from a Watford side trying to remind itself how much it's capable of, but it was quite encouraging to see the Tykes playing as apprehensively.
Nonetheless, the first real opening came to the home side, carving an opening down the left. Corbo, galloping odwn the left flank, walloped in a cross which Robert Page met decisively at the near post with a volley out for a corner with Shipperley lurking. We hadn't half missed the Welshman in the last couple of games, and his influence also seemed to help Ward, whose showing was more robust if still slightly nervous.
From here, the half settled into a pattern. Watford certainly began to dominate possession, with plenty of crosses fkying across the Barnsley box. Cox was the first to have an attempt on goal, his effort disappearing into the stand behind the goal. In the absence of any attacking threat down the flanks, both Cox and Robinson had a lot more freedom to come forward, which they exploited well.
The lively, involved Kennedy was the next to have a drive, which went closer. Shortly after, the inspirational Nielsen thundered a far post header to a Cox cross back across the face of goal and narrowly wide. But although Watford dominated possession, we still looked disturbingly capable of opening up at the back. The centre of Watford's defence parted on two particular occasions, the second and most threatening occasion resulting in Sheron, faced with an open goal, prodding his shot well wide and making a futile but face-saving claim for a corner.
At the other end, Wtaford were growing in confidence and increasingly stretching their hosts. Tommy Smith and Gifton Noel-Williams, who had briefly brought threat and focus to Watford's beleaguered attacks at Craven Cottage on Tuesday, continued where they had left off... in Noel-Williams' case this was the most effective showing for some time, his long limbs everywhere, involved in every challenge and with plenty of clever flicks to bring an air of unpredictability to our attacking play. Tommy Mooney, meanwhile, was Tommy Mooney, snarling, growling, battling. Given half a yard by a clever Smith through-ball, he pushed the ball past his marker and belted an effort narrowly over Miller's bar. The closest we got to a goal came when a Kennedy cross spooned off Chettle's head and came back off the bar.
Barnsley survived to the break with their clean sheet intact. At the break, consensus was that the signs were good, but that we needed to capitalise on our dominance as a Barnsley goal would send our confidence shattering into icy pieces on the floor once again. A goal would also help warm up the travelling support, by now freezing where they stood.
The second half started as the first had ended, and it was clear that ever so gradually, ever so precariously the Watford side's confidence was returning. Kennedy sent over a vicious near-post cross, Mooney looped his header slightly wide. We were passing as well (yes, really!)...one intricate move releasing Mooney, who lost his footing and let the ball go. Tommy Smith made a fool of Salli on the left touchline...making to shepherd the ball out, he cut inside at the last minute leaving his marker for dead before feeding his cross into Miller's arms.
They put us out of our misery. Mooney worked a chance on the left, and swung the ball across the area to Smith on the far post. The young striker did well to work the ball back across, and Nielsen was there. Again. Stab. Like any Nielsen goal, right place, right time, well sorted. The away end thaws unanimously and spends the remainder of the game bouncing around joyously.
We kept going. One chaotic attack resulted in Nielsen playing "now-you-see-it..." with Kevin Miller in the middle of the penalty area before curling a shot past the stranded keeper and agonisingly millimetres wide of the post. Other forays were stemmed by the increasingly stretched but impressive Morgan and Chettle. Hard-worked because the pervious trickle of confidence was now a gushing torrent, balls were pinging across the pitch, left to right to left again. Tommy Smith, trapped on the byline, backheeled the ball mischievously off his marker and out for a throw-in. Der-dy-der-der-der-der-deer-WATFORD!
Except that Barnsley had woken up as well. Good job they were a bit rubbish, really. The yellow sea parted in front of Sheron again, and Chamberlain produced a breathtaking reaction stop. Haven't seen one of them for a while.
Still Barnsley came forward, and in all honesty squandered chances through their own profligacy as much as through the attentions of our defence. But the final whistle closed, the bouncing Hornets counted down, the referee blew his whistle, we made for the warmth of coaches and cars.
Hoo-bloody-rah. A win. Get this, Watford are definitely not going down, so please sstop harping about Millwall '96. Barnsley are mid-table, but a far worse side than us. We're not definitely going up either. But we are very much back. Which is a bloody big step in the right direction.
On his way off the pitch, Alec Chamberlain kissed his Watford badge.