Barnsley 2, Hull City 0
By Keith Lodge
Barnsley fans turned up at Oakwell for the last home game of the season hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.
The five-thousand plus contingent from Hull, on the other hand, were full of optimism, confident that their team would collect the three points they required to clinch a return to the Premiership.
In the event, it was the hopes of the home supporters that were realised in stunning style, while the confidence of the away fans proved to be mightily misplaced.
For make no mistake about it, a two-goal victory margin was the least the Reds deserved. It was they who looked to be the ones bidding for promotion, with Hull performing like a side doomed to the drop.
David Flitcroft’s battlers were bright, bubbly, eager, full of energy and totally committed to what had looked a lost cause at the turn of the year before he took over the reins. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, was left bemoaning the listlessness, the carelessness, and the strange lack of desire shown by his players who must have performed far better than this for most of the season to be where they are in the table.
The media were present in great numbers – 80 of them representing television, radio, newspapers and websites – and most of them were there in anticipation of recording the Tigers’ triumphal return to the top flight.
They were treated to a team performance that was as close to perfection as you can possibly get – but it came from the perceived underdogs, and not next season’s potential Premiership participants.
It was the kind of all-action display which had stunned those other promotion hopefuls Watford on the same ground in mid-March. The tenacious Reds never allowed the opposition to settle. They chased, they chivvied, they hustled, they harassed, and they were far more tigerish than the Tigers themselves.
They also played some good quality football and, crucially, scored two splendid goals at exactly the right time – four minutes into the first half and six minutes into the second, courtesy of Jacob Mellis and Chris ‘O’Grady.
I am therefore compelled to mention those two, as it would be absurd not to identify the goalscorers. However, to name anyone else, as man of the match, for example, would be an injustice to the other nine heroes who started the game. Each of them played a key role in a vital victory and the praise should be shared equally amongst them.
And a word, too, for the manager. Not only has Flitcroft revitalised the players, he has won over and revitalised the supporters as well. Despite the fact that the Reds are still in a precarious situation the fans are 100 per cent behind the team – and that is due in no small measure to the rapport which the Barnsley boss has built up with them.
They appreciate his honesty, his work ethic, and the togetherness he has brought to the club in the last four months, not to mention his infectious enthusiasm.
Oakwell’s biggest crowd of the season provided a terrific atmosphere for a derby day confrontation which was so hugely important to both teams for such different reasons, and three sides of the stadium erupted in the fourth minute when Mellis exploded a firecracker into the Hull net off the underside of the bar from a very narrow angle, after clever work by the twin spearhead of O’Grady and Chris Dagnall.
There was a momentary scare barely a minute later when Tom Kennedy’s astute reading of the situation enabled him to be in the right place at the right time to head a George Boyd lob off the line with Steele stranded, but otherwise the first half was pretty much plain sailing for the home team.
All that was lacking was a second goal to provide a little breathing space and it so nearly came seconds before the half-time whistle when Reuben Noble Lazarus embarked on a mazey run which left four defenders trailing in his wake only to send his shot just wide. What a wonderful individual goal that would have been had it gone in.
Noble Lazarus, incidentally, was carrying an injury and had an injection before the game to get him through the 90 minutes, which makes his powerful performance in an unfamiliar wing-back role even more creditable.
The expectation was that City would come out for the second half much more fired up after what must have been a half-time kick up the backside by their manager, but instead it was more of the same as the Reds continued to dictate matters, and only six minutes after the resumption O’Grady picked his spot unerringly to rifle the ball low into the bottom corner of the net.
A tremendous roar went up from the home fans; the players rushed over to the touchline to share hugs and high-fives with a delighted bench; and we all sensed then that there was no way back for Hull, who looked shell-shocked and totally dispirited.
There were still one or two moments when players had to hurl their bodies in the way of increasingly desperate goal attempts by the visitors, who at last began to show a little more urgency, and substitute Nick Proschwitz should have done much better with a couple of headers, but you could tell by the body language of the Hull manager that he, his side and the deflated supporters, were resigned to defeat.
That contrasted with the wild celebrations of all those of Barnsley persuasion at the final whistle. A little premature, perhaps, with the Reds’ fate still very much in the balance, but understandable nonetheless.
Many people were predicting weeks ago that Barnsley’s season would go down to the last match at Huddersfield – and so it has proved.
Even a win might not be enough to save the Oakwell Club from the dreaded drop, and yet, depending on results elsewhere, a mere draw could keep them in the Championship. Defeat, however, would be curtains.
That’s how tight it is.
Barnsley (3-5-2): Steele; Cranie, Wiseman, Kennedy; O’Brien, Etuhu, Perkins, Mellis (Scotland, 70 mins), Noble-Lazarus; O’Grady (Rose, 90 mins), Dagnall (McNulty, 79 mins).
Hull City (3-5-2): Stockdale; Brady, Chester, Faye; Elmohamady, Meyler, Evans (Rosenior, 79 mins), Quinn, McShane; Boyd (Simpson, 45 mins), Fryatt (Proschwitz, 61 mins).
Booking: Etuhu (Barnsley)
Referee: Chris Foy.
Attendance: 15,744 (5090 visitors).