Aston Villa 1, Barnsley 3
Aston Villa have one of the biggest wage bills in the Championship. Barnsley have one of the smallest. But Tuesday night’s encounter at Villa Park provided a telling reminder that the key element to success is not the amount of money players are paid, but the attitude of those players.
As Reds’ head coach Paul Heckingbottom said when he spoke to the media after the game: “We use the fact we’re a small group of players, staff and have a small budget, as part of our power and what we are. This is it; what we’re given; and how we’re going to excel.”
He went on: “What can we do better than anyone else? We don’t shy away from what we’re short of, but what we do is use that to work out how to bridge the gap.”
They certainly bridged it against Steve Bruce’s Villa. This was no fluke win. It was thoroughly deserved.
Although under pressure for much of the first half, the Reds once again defended well and were a threat on the counter-attack, but this time, unlike the previous two fixtures, they served up an end product as well to take a 2-1 lead into the break.
They were even better after the interval, pressurising the opposition, forcing them into mistakes, using the ball well, remaining solid at the back – and extending their lead. It was a blue-print for the ideal away performance.
And it means that the Reds are now unbeaten in their last three matches on opposition soil.
Villa, on the other hand, remain in turmoil. Seven defeats in the last eight games have put their team boss Bruce under mounting pressure, and the players were booed off the pitch, both at half-time and at the end.
Said Bruce: “The reason why we’ve got one of the biggest wage bills in the Championship is we’ve got to deal with that mentality and expectation. That’s why they get paid more than anyone else in this division.”
For the first 25 minutes there was little to indicate that the Villa would slump to their second home defeat in the space of four days.
They had much more of the possession and created several chances, Henri Lansbury going close on three occasions; Albert Adomah firing just over and former Barnsley captain Conor Hourihane – applauded at the start by his former fans from Oakwell in appreciation of the pivotal part he had played in the club’s rise from League One strugglers to Championship play-off chasers -failing to make the most of a free header.
The game-changer was a Barnsley counter attack in the 25th minute when Marley Watkins went crashing in the penalty area under a challenge from Jordan Amavi and the Reds’ Newcastle United loanee Adam Armstrong confidently converted the resulting spot-kick.
Ryan Kent then had a free-kick clawed away for a corner by the Villa goalkeeper before the Reds doubled their advantage two minutes before the break, Andy Yiadom setting up Tom Bradshaw for a clipped right-foot finish just inside the far post.
Barely a minute later the visitors’ one moment of indiscipline resulted in Villa pulling a goal back, defenders failing to intercept Adomah’s low ball from the right and Jonathan Kodjia giving his side renewed hope by coolly netting from a narrow angle.
Home fans might have expected their team to take confidence from that and put the opposition under fierce pressure on the resumption, but there was only one moment of concern for the Reds, when Kodjia shot wide, before Barnsley restored their two-goal advantage.
A Kent free-kick caused problems in the home defence; Marc Roberts managed to set up Bradshaw in the ensuing scramble and he instinctively steered the ball into the bottom corner of the net to complete a double in front of members of his family, who are Villa fans.
The former Walsall striker (pictured) has been a bundle of energy whenever he has been given a start this season, but has found goals hard to come by. The two on this occasion, both very well taken, will surely give him the extra confidence to go on and add considerably to his current tally of seven.
Kodjia continued to be the biggest threat for Villa, but he was kept in check for most of the time and when he did find a way to goal he met his match in Barnsley goalkeeper Adam Davies.
George Moncur was impressive as a replacement for the injured Josh Scowen in central midfield, demonstrating yet again that, despite a comparatively small playing staff, there is the back-up ready, willing and able to step into the breach when necessary.
Heckingbottom was also keen to praise the fans. “The supporters and the players feed off each other,” he observed. “The fans know and appreciate how hard the players work and the players can see what it means to everybody when they put in the effort like that.”
Now the ninth-placed Reds face an even tougher task in the next two games, albeit at home, with the visit of second from top Brighton and third from top Huddersfield on successive Saturdays.
However, if they continue to play the way they have been doing, then the two high-flyers will have to be on top form in order to have a chance of getting the better of them.
Aston Villa: Johnstone; Hutton (Bjarnason, 73 mins), Baker, Chester, Amavi, Adomah, Hourihane, Lansbury (Green, 73 mins), Grealish (Bacuna, 76 mins), Kodjia, Hogan.
Barnsley: Davies; Yiadom, Roberts, MacDonald, Elder (Jones, 55 mins), Watkins, Moncur, James, Kent (Williams, 85 mins), Bradshaw (Hammill, 75 mins), Armstrong.
Bookings: Watkins, Kent Barnsley).
Referee: Geoff Eltringham
Attendance: 26,435 (1,600 Barnsley).