By Matt Rowson
Oh, bloody marvellous. Just what the doctor ordered. Following an eight-match run without a win, crowned by a 5-0 humiliation at bloody Fulham, a trip to Yorkshire for an evening kick-off in the cold is exactly what's required. You'd think that maybe the fixture list would give us a break...a home tie against a team of squirrels or something. But no. Barnsley. In a snowstorm. In December. Fantastic.
I drove home from my parents' place today, having spent what was - football excluded - a very pleasant Christmas break. Chelmsford to Bedford is not normally an intolerable journey, an hour and a half usually does it. Today, however, every other bugger was going home as well. It took over four and a quarter hours, door to door, the most taxing two hours of which were spent navigating the South Mimms roundabout.
Nobody enjoys a traffic jam. I am no exception. The A12 and M25 had been slow; I was hungry and needed a services break. It took some queuing to get onto the slip road. Some fifteen minutes later I had to finally decide whether to proceed to the roundabout or take the last chance to pull back onto the motorway and give the M1 a try. Foolishly ignoring the "sunk-cost trap" pummelled into me by management courses at work, I decided that I had queued for too long to give up on the services now.
What followed was a distressing descent through frustration into blind fury. It started with a rapping of fingers on the steering wheel. Increasingly, the banality of daytime Radio 5 began to grate. I switched the radio off (and on again in boredom half an hour later). I wound the window down and leaned out. As the lights merrily rotated through green to amber to red to amber and back to green again to the utter indifference of the gridlocked traffic, I lost control and begun bellowing indiscriminately at the immobile vehicles around me, slamming my palms on the steering wheel.
Then, suddenly, I was through it. Admittedly I had given up on the services in favour of a quick escape up the A1. My neck was stiff, I was exhausted, my day was knackered and I'd quite possibly stuffed my car's airbag. But it was over. Finished. The grimmest thing about the jam was never knowing quite when it was going to end, but now that it had it didn't seem nearly as unspeakable as it had at the time. Just a complete pain in the arse that was best consigned to history. Hmmm.
Barnsley fans, it would appear, have just come through a traffic jam of their own. Given the play-off final - the Tykes' first Wembley appearance - achieved last season and a steady enough mid-table position this, Bassett's "mutually agreed" departure may seem slightly harsh. Certainly, on the back of John Hendrie's extremely brief tenure, Barnsley might be accused of having unrealistic expectations above their fairly limited station.
A glance at Barnsley messageboards, however, reveals an undercurrent of discontent with Bassett and his crude approach that many Watford supporters will remember all too well. Couple this with an extremely sparse run that has yielded only four goals in the last ten games, and only one in the last five, and it's easier to have sympathy.
The regular Oakwell stand-in, Eric Winstanley, is quoted as being pleased with the increased commitment displayed by his squad. Names linked with a permanent appointment include coach Peter Shirtliff, former Sheffield United boss Nigel Spackman, Rotherham manager Ronnie Moore and ex-Saints chief Dave Jones. An appointment may be imminent, although it seems likely that Winstanley will be in charge of the team on Friday evening.
In goal for the Tykes will almost certainly be old Watford favourite Kevin Miller, an increasingly popular member of the Barnsley squad. His inability to kick is still a problem, apparently, particularly on the numerous occasions when he has been called upon to fulfil a makeshift sweeper's role. In the continuing absence of knee-injury victim Dave Watson, cover is provided by ex-Blades stopper Leigh Walker, who has yet to appear for his new club.
Barnsley have been playing a wingback system, although a lack of attacking width led to Winstanley switching to 4-4-2 shortly into the win over Burnley on Tuesday. At any rate, a key man at the back is Chris Morgan, an aggressive centre half who made key contributions at each end against the Clarets. Steve Chettle provides the experience and composure that Morgan's game lacks, and the Finn Janne Salli provides a skilful third obstacle in the back-line.
The switch to a flat back four saw Salli playing at right-back; other options in the wing-back position include former Everton man Mitch Ward and the on-loan but unconvincing Stuart Ripley. Summer signing Carl Regan is injured. On the left, the lanky Chris Barker, a product of the youth set-up, has made the position his own since Darren Barnard was moved into a central midfield role.
Barnard has missed a few games with injury recently, however. The midfield is likely to feature Robbie Van der Laan in an anchor role...Van der Laan will rely heavily on his experience, given that his increasing bulk seems to prohibit him running around much. A natural alternative in this position, Eric Tinkler, is injured, but Van der Laan does not seem to have the support on his side. Scotsman Alex Neil, snapped up from cash-stricken Airdrie in the summer, is full of energy until his batteries run down after an hour or so. Matt Appleby will do most of the fetching and carrying. Other options include Sean McClare, neglected under Bassett but possibly looking to salvage his Oakwell career, and the only occasionally effective Martin Bullock. Uruguayan Mateo Corbo provides another option on the left.
Mike Sheron, whilst more traditionally a forward, has also been fielded in the middle of the park where his lack of pace, not to mention modest goalscoring record, is less of a problem. Up front, Neil Shipperley carries most of the workload; alongside him Bruce Dyer, linked with a reunion with Andy Hessenthaler at Gillingham, continues to terrify and disappear in roughly equal proportions. Lee Jones is a pacy but less than prolific option, whilst youngster Rory Fallon, scoring for fun in the reserves, may be close to a first-team place.
Barnsley are not a bad side, and certainly nobody should be taken lightly in our current form. However, they are without a manager, and have obvious problems scoring goals. The entire squad has been criticised for a lack of fitness, and also for a lack of options in wide positions. Barnsley's confidence is hardly sky-high either.
This traffic jam is going to end at some point. When it does, we've seen enough open road this season to know how well this team can move. Until then, try to breathe deeply....