A law unto themselves
By Matt Rowson
It all started so well. The sun shone lazily over the Yorkshire hills - Tsega couldn't remember being at a match when the weather was so pleasant. "Don't be too hard on us" grinned the cheery programme seller on the way down the hill towards the ground. Airy pre-match predictions were only slightly dampened by Tsega's observation that the Tykes probably had more to play for. The arrival of a hardy bunch in the away end dressed as Batman, Robin and Superman amongst others (the latter dragging incongruously on a cigarette) sealed the impression that the world is a good place, that Oakwell is a splendid venue to watch football, and that the effort and investment of the trip was utterly worthwhile.
As had been suggested prior to the day, injuries necessitated the disruption of the side that had impressed so decisively over the previous couple of games; Blondeau came in at right-back with Cox moving to the centre to partner Galli, and Noel-Williams came in for Tommy Smith up front. As an aside, the combined age of the five on the bench - minus, perhaps significantly, the transfer-listed Baardsen - was a hearteningly modest 96.
As Tsega's prediction implied, however, Barnsley came out by far the more urgent of the two sides, and enjoyed most of the early pressure. Richard Naylor sounded an early warning, twisting his neck to head David Mulligan's near-post right wing cross narrowly over.
For all their aggression and possession however, the combination of Watford's now confident defending and their own limitations restricted their effectiveness. 90% of Barnsley's attacking came down their right flank - Patrick Blondeau had a relatively easy afternoon - and most frequently resulted in a cross being floated over into the path of a largely impotent aerial bombardment. On the odd occasion when Barnsley ran at the defence, they were similarly repelled... as early as the twentieth minute (ish) Kevin Betsy resorted to a desperate dive over a Robinson challenge when his run inside was halted. As it turned out, sustaining such a policy given a highly random refereeing performance might have borne fruit, but more of Mr.Cooper later.
Filippo Galli was, again, particularly impressing at the back - Richard Naylor had a largely fruitless first half, and clearly wasn't enjoying himself - and Gavin Mahon was again doing a tidy anchor job in midfield. Our own attacking, however, was almost non-existent. A lack of pace in Smith's absence was proving a significant handicap against a back four playing a tighter offside trap than might have been suggested by the two new signings in their ranks, and our midfield, for all Hyde's industry, was increasingly losing the battle.
The first on-target attempt by either side that I can recall came just before the half hour, when yet another right-wing cross from a corner was met by Flynn beyond the far post... he directed a header back towards Chettle whose own header dropped through the defence and straight into Alec's midriff.
On a rare Watford excursion upfield Gifton Noel-Williams came close when, having battled out an opening saw one shot blocked by a defenders legs from the corner of the area, then held off his marker to send a second shot narrowly wide across the face of goal. Noel-Williams' single-mindedness had perhaps provided our best chance of opening something up, but he had also attracted a yellow card from Mr.Cooper, a slightly arbitrary selection of one from an increasing number of similar challenges.
When Barnsley scored, it was at a particularly unfortunate time for the Hornets. Their early fury dispelled and ineffectiveness beginning to eat away at their self-belief, had the game reached half-time goalless you'd have to have been optimistic about our chances. Instead, Dyer received a rare left-wing ball on the near corner of the penalty area, rolled around his marker and slammed the ball past the helpless Chamberlain.
Barnsley's fury was renewed, and with inopportune timing injury knocked our forlorn-looking formation further out of shape as two players went down simultaneously. Most obvious was the incident which led to an injury to Filippo Galli... Naylor, thoroughly pissed off at being bullied out of the game, dived in with an extremely late, vindictive challenge that for intent alone could have earned him more than a yellow card. With Galli prone on the turf, attention was drawn to Gifton Noel-Williams also pitchbound further away from us. Not having seen the incident that led to the injury it is impossible to comment further, but certainly Noel-Williams' injury seemed the more serious, as he left the pitch in obvious discomfort. His reintroduction suggested that he might be able to play on, but five minutes after the goal both he and Galli were replaced with Anthony McNamee and Lloyd Doyley respectively.
Doyley proved a straight replacement for the Italian, forming a central defensive partnership of two players more frequently employed at right-back, but after a nervy start the youngster did well. McNamee, introduced for his pace after his glittering debut cameo last weekend, provoked a reshuffle as Watford moved to a five-man midfield. Cook switched to the right with McNamee playing down the left and Gayle on his own up front.
The immediate effect of this change was to curtail Barnsley's possession in midfield for the remainder of the half, giving us a lot more of the ball in our hosts' half. McNamee had limited opportunity to impress in the first half, but his irresistable positiveness refreshed the side and promised much after the break. Neil Cox, meanwhile, came closer than any Watford player to scoring during this period, belting a left foot shot off the underside of the crossbar through a crowded penalty area. The ball appeared to bounce on the line or near to it, one of those incidents that's hard enough to judge with a decent view let alone from the far end of the pitch. The referee adjudicated that the ball hadn't crossed the line, and the half ended with the sunshine paling and a growing suspicion that this wasn't going to be our day.
Half time was enlivened by Batman and friends performing for the crowd. The message to the Watford side over the interval, meanwhile, clearly emphasised the importance of the midfield getting up to support Gayle who, in common with many of his less effective days, got his head to every high ball but probably didn't kick the ball too many times. Watford broke from the kick-off with Hyde surging imperiously down the centre as Barnsley backpedalled in panic. The attack came to nothing, but the standard had been set, and we prepared for a Watford onslaught. Then Barnsley scored again.
Dyer, Barnsley's most direct threat all afternoon, powered into the area and was challenged by Robinson. The ref gave a penalty for a trip, and the lack of argument from the Watford players suggests that the decision was correct, though again it was difficult to see from our position. Alec's record at stopping penalties, play-off semi-finals notwithstanding, is hardly the stuff of legend - he dived to his left, correctly on this occasion, but Barnard's penalty was perfect, low into the corner, and gave him no chance.
That was the killer blow, albeit there were almost forty-five minutes still to play. What fire Watford had was quickly doused, and an infuriating lack of movement was the dominant feature of our attacking play for the rest of the game.
That, and the unignorable Anthony McNamee. The one intriguing duel of the second half was that between the tiny seventeen-year-old and Barnsley's Mulligan, only two years his senior. All things considered the Barnsley man didn't do too badly, snuffing out the threat tidily on more than one occasion, but such is the irrepressible directness of the winger that, given more than forty-five minutes on the pitch, he was always going to deliver. The speed, immediacy and accuracy with which he delivers balls into the box should be an education for at least one senior right-winger in the squad; on one occasion here he pulled open enough space to whip a cross into the near post where the onrushing Hyde thumped a header expertly towards the top corner only to be denied by Marriott.
More thrilling still, having appeared to lose control of the situation under challenge he refused to either relinquish possession or hit the deck, retaining his balance impossibly despite being almost horizontal to the pitch. He scurried into space, regained his balance and vertical stance, slipped effortlessly past three challenges and slammed a shot across the face of goal - unfortunately at shoulder-height, permitting Marriott to make a fine save.
Barnsley continued to compete, but had less possession around Watford's area than in the first half. Which was fine as far as they were concerned, two goals up and with their opponents, McNamee aside, unable to generate much at all as the match disintegrated into an untidy mess. Mad Heidar came on for the disappointing Cook as Watford reverted to 4-4-2, but barring an entertaining bellow as he charged down the keeper, Helguson's main contribution was to the offside count.
There appeared, as you may have gathered, to be little prospect of us re-opening the game; such hope as there was was being obliterated by an astonishing refereeing performance by Mike Cooper. There was no prejudice to his incompetence - Watford were the beneficiaries of bizarre decisions on a number of occasions - but with Barnsley still dancing along the line between legal and illegal competitiveness, they certainly gave him more occasions to toss a coin over than their more lackadaisical visitors. With the match clearly over, and Watford's last pathetic attempts at attacking dribbling away into crosss into the stand and through-balls to nobody, Robinson's frustration boiled over in a crude hack on Betsy resulting in the left-back's eighth booking of the season.
The match ended with Oakwell now very chilly and a decidedly gloomier away end than two hours earlier. On the way out, Spiderman was glumly remonstrating the state of the display with a gentleman in a black afro wig and open-chested seventies garb. Barnsley, on this evidence, have a fair chance of staying up but ironically, with their competitiveness, directness and blunt edges are as typical of a Division Two side as I've seen in the league this season. As for Watford, the result is less significant than the relative ease with which we were knocked out of shape. Performances have improved recently, but there still needs to be a Plan B.
I have, as you may have gathered, been attempting to paint a picture of a pleasant day that gradually soured; the final negative note of the day rises above and beyond the general disintegration of a single Saturday afternoon. It's perhaps a positive sign, on the whole, that stories of aggressive and provocative stewarding are now unusual and worthy of comment. In most corners of the country the penny has dropped that if you treat people as customers and human beings they are likely to behave as such; not at Barnsley, it appears, where sullen provocation and indiscriminate obstructiveness seems to be par for the course. This was the third consecutive visit on which visiting Hornets, a generally peaceful bunch (too peaceful, according to the club management) have been nonplussed by hostile stewarding.
The first notice of this was when Peter Fincham, noticeably light in the clothes department, was ungently removed and evicted by the matchday staff to the apparent bemusement of the onlooking police officers. It transpires that he had refused to put his T-shirt on. Criminal. We watched him trotting forlornly up and down the hill from our seats in the stand trying to keep warm for fifteen minutes until the police did what the stewards refused to do, and ferried him his clothes.
On leaving the stadium we discovered that Dave Messenger and two friends had been refused entry as a result of less than an hour's worth of drinking with a pubful of Barnsley fans. Two hours worth of Stella later, Dave still appeared to be affected by the alcohol to a far from offensive extent. Dave's father Ed, having returned from the stand to look for his son, was also evicted for questioning his son's omission. The police, whilst appearing sympathetic, were powerless to intervene. This sort of nonsense is not, apparently, a rare event at Oakwell.
The fact that we've endured this sort of manhandling at Barnsley since 1999 suggests that the club is not free of responsibility here. Certainly there's no excusing whichever neanderthal security firm they employ to marshal the marauding armies of visiting customers, but after four seasons they cannot be tied into a Beeton Rumford style contract trap. In every other respect Oakwell is a good place to visit in a friendly part of the country, whatever the result. Their stewards, however, appear to be a law unto themselves and this is the enduring memory of the afternoon.