Barnsley 1, Crystal Palace 1
(Championship) By Keith Lodge
It is difficult to envisage a more deserved man-of-the-match performance than that served up by David Perkins against the high-flying Eagles of Crystal Palace at Oakwell.
The fair-haired midfielder was worthy of the accolade even without his stunning equaliser which arrived courtesy of a left-foot strike curled gloriously beyond the grasping fingers of visiting goalkeeper Julian Speroni and into the top corner of the net four minutes from time.
Perkins’ critical interventions also twice rescued his side from falling further behind after Palace had taken an early lead and he had been conspicuous throughout with a human dynamo display of selfless endeavour, one minute winning the ball in his own penalty area, the next driving boldly forward at the heart of the visitors’ defence, a willing workhorse display of total commitment which, at times, had both the fans and his manager applauding instinctively.
In the end the Reds deserved to share the spoils against a very good Palace side who made light of the fact that their popular manager, Dougie Freedman, had absconded to Bolton Wanderers earlier in the day.
However, it would be folly to gloss over the concerns which were emphasised during the course of the game. In the first 20 minutes the Reds’ defence was almost non-existent as the visitors sliced them open with consummate ease and it was alarming to see the home team lose possession or give the ball away so often.
Even after the break, when their overall play improved and dominating possession, Barnsley failed to summon up a shot on target until Perkins dramatically popped up with his point-saver.
Scott Golbourne did his best with marauding runs down the left, where he was a constant threat, and he might have expected the strikers to do rather better with the quality of crosses he produced, but otherwise, in the injured absence of leading marksman Craig Davies, the home team were toothless.
Having said that, even Davies might have struggled to make an impact against a disciplined, well-drilled Palace defence, who denied the Reds any space. Two banks of four made it very difficult to manoeuvre sufficient room to get in a shot and when that did, occasionally, seem a possibility, defenders showed their bravery by putting bodies on the line to make the necessary blocks.
It was Palace, however, who commanded the first 20 minutes. They served notice of their intentions in a bright, positive opening when Owen Garvan and Glenn Murray both went close, and they took the lead in the 11th minute when the latter coolly side-footed home his eighth goal of the season from a left-wing cross after the Barnsley defence had again been torn apart.
A minute later Perkins performed his first rescue act by scurrying back to steal the ball away when a second goal seemed inevitable and almost immediately Ben Alnwick had to go down to his left to save from the ever-dangerous Murray.
A worried Keith Hill responded by making the first of his tactical substitutions, sending on Mattie Done for Chris Dagnall in the 17th minute and it had an immediate effect. The Palace attacks fizzled out and Barnsley themselves began to threaten, Done’s well-struck 30-yarder being saved at full stretch by the sprawling Speroni, who then dealt rather more comfortably with an effort from Marlon Harewood.
Just after the half-hour mark Hill made another, perhaps more surprising, substitution, Kelvin Etuhu taking over from Tomasz Cywka, who had scored the winner at Charlton three days earlier, and again it had an energising effect, Harwood being a boot-lace away from connecting with a great cross from Golbourne and a mis-hit effort from Stephen Dawson bouncing just wide.
The second half was pretty much one-way traffic, but there was barely a hint of a goal and Hill made his last roll of the dice in the 67th minute when he sent of Danny Rose in place of Dawson.
It seemed to be all in vain as the minutes continued to tick by and it was almost the final curtain as far as Barnsley were concerned in the 78th minute when a hopeful cross from the right by Dikgacoi sailed over the head of Alnwick and clattered against the far post before rebounding to safety.
But then, with just four minutes left, Perkins produced his memorable equaliser. He set the move in motion with yet another surging run, played a neat one-two and then had the fans leaping out of their seats in delight ~ and no little relief ~ with a sublime strike.
Palace will, no doubt, feel hard done by after seeing their hit and run tactics come so close to fruition, but overall it was no more than Barnsley deserved and it provided a fitting conclusion to a hard-fought and sportingly contested encounter.
Barnsley (4-2-3-1): Alnwick (mark out of 10, 7); Stones 6, Foster 7, Wiseman 7, Golbourne 8; Dawson 7 (Rose, 67 mins), Perkins 9; Dagnall 6 (Done, 17 mins), Mellis, 7, Cywka 6 (Etuhu, 31 mins); Harewood 6.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Speroni; Ward, Delaney, Ramage, Parr; Dikgacoi, Jedinak, Garvan, Bolaise; Moritz (O’Keefe, 22 mins), Murray.
Booking: Foster (Barnsley).
Referee: David Webb.
Attendance: 8,125 (469 from Palace).