West Bromwich Albion’s visit to Barnsley this weekend means much more to Baggies summer signing Alex Mowatt, who is back just in time to make the journey to his old stomping ground.
The midfielder, who watched on from the sidelines as the Albion suffered defeats to Swansea City and Fulham in October, made his long-awaited return in a 1-0 loss to Huddersfield Town last month. And Mowatt, who had sustained a toe injury, admitted it was hard to watch his side navigate a sticky patch of results, whilst being kept out of the team.
However, he’s now back into the groove of things, with West Brom unbeaten in their last four Sky Bet Championship outings, recording back-to-back wins over Coventry City and Reading in recent weeks.
“I haven’t been injured in four years, so that’s the first one I’ve had,” he explained. “It was difficult to get back up to match fitness straight away. The last few games, I felt like I’ve done better. I’m feeling fitter and stronger.
“It’s harder to watch the games than it is to play in them. I was on the bench and the emotions are even worse when you’re on the bench. You’re wanting the lads to win and you’re checking the results as well, so it’s not nice.”
A trip to Oakwell awaits on Friday evening, when Valérien Ismaël’s men travel to South Yorkshire to take on Mowatt’s former team, Barnsley.
The 26-year-old spent three-and-a-half years as a Reds player, joining Barnsley in January 2017. After dropping down into the Sky Bet League One mid-way through his stay and bouncing back at the first time of asking, the Tykes took even themselves by surprise when, having salvaged their Championship status on the final day of the 2019/20 season, the Club made the Play-Offs the following year.
Mowatt has found the environment at The Hawthorns somewhat of a stark contrast. He believes the weight of expectation is a lot greater, with the Baggies having only recently been relegated from the Premier League last term.
“The expectation is a lot different from the fans,” Mowatt said. “At Barnsley, you’re not expected to win every game, whereas at West Brom, you’re expected to win every game you play.
“They get frustrated if you’re not winning, but rightly so because we’re expected to be at the top of the table, or in and around there. It’s a little bit different. As a team, we want to get promoted. That’s the aim and everyone knows that.
“We’ve had difficult spells where we’ve not played so well or picked up good results. There have been ups and downs. We started really well, then had a bit of a tough spell, but the last two results have been good. In them spells, you can feel the expectation from everyone around the Club.”
Mowatt first became acquainted with Ismaël at Barnsley when the Frenchman succeeded Gerhard Struber at the helm. The Reds, who were languishing in the drop zone upon his appointment, turned their season around in spectacular style.
Something clicked under the new boss and a 10-game unbeaten run between February and March, including a seven-game winning streak, culminated in Ismaël’s Barnsley side finishing in fifth, eventually losing to Swansea City in the Championship Play-Off Semi-Final.
“When the gaffer came in, we were third-bottom and to make the Play-Offs, I don’t think Barnsley have done that in I don’t know however many years,” he continued. “Nobody expected it after staying up the season before on the last day.
“At Barnsley, I was one of the more experienced players. I was the captain as well, so I was the leader of the team. The gaffer liked the way I played, and it suited his style of play as well. With him coming here, I was on a free and they were short on midfielders. It was a no-brainer really. This is the best Club I could be at.
“If I need to speak to him, his door’s open, and that goes for every player as well, not just me. It’s a good relationship. He does a lot outside of training. He runs all the sessions and then you don’t really see him inside – he’s quite private.”
On Friday evening, he’ll be reunited with the Tykes faithful, when third-placed West Brom make the trip to second-bottom Barnsley – and the excitement is already building for Mowatt.
“I had some great memories at Barnsley and loved my time there,” he added. “The last time I played there was in the Play-Offs, but there were only 3,000 or 4,000 fans there at capacity, but it was an unbelievable feeling and the atmosphere in the Play-Off games was unbelievable. It’ll be nice to go back with all the fans there.
“We’re in a great position going into Christmas. Hopefully, we can continue the form that we’re in at the minute.”