Barnsley 1, Burton Albion 1
Barnsley’s hopes of rounding off their home campaign with a win went for a Burton at Oakwell.
Much credit for that has to go to the visitors, who required one point to be mathematically certain of avoiding a return to League One after only one season in the Championship; secured what they came for, and duly joined in jubilant celebrations with their faithful fans after the final whistle.
However, they were helped, to some extent, by a Barnsley team who failed to provide the necessary quality in certain areas to convert their significant possessional superiority into a three-point reward, and therefore left their own fans frustrated at yet another home game without a win – the last one was way back in January – and yet another game where a winning position was yielded to the opposition.
Yet the wider picture is one which shines a very satisfactory light on the achievement of both these newly-promoted teams in retaining their Championship status when the odds were stacked against them doing so in competition with clubs backed by far greater financial resources.
Indeed, but for the loss of their top scorer, their most influential midfield player and one of their best defenders in the January transfer window, the likelihood is that the Reds, destined to finish just below mid-table, would have featured in the promotion play-offs for the second successive season.
And that really would have been remarkable!
As it turns out, they felt the loss of Sam Winnall, Conor Hourihane and James Bree more and more keenly as the campaign progressed. Since winning their first two fixtures at the end of January they have only two more successes to their credit in the ensuing 16 encounters, although eight of them resulted in draws – six of them in successive home games!
One has to feel a certain amount of sympathy for Paul Heckingbottom’s side on this occasion, for the visitors were obviously intent on packing their defence in a bid to hold out for the vital point they needed to be safe, while at the same time seeking to snatch a goal on the counter to provide them with additional security.
And it worked a treat.
The Reds’ first team coach, Jamie Clapham, taking Heckingbottom’s usual place in the post-match press conference, summed it up neatly and honestly.
“First and foremost,” he said, “congratulations to Burton on staying up. They were whole-hearted; they put their bodies on the line; and managed the game. It’s nothing we didn’t expect, but unfortunately we couldn’t break them down.
“We knew they would make it really difficult for us. We’d have loved to have had that little bit of quality in front of goal to kill them off. We had the chances but I don’t think the ‘keeper had too many saves to make.
“It’s been a long, tough season, but we would have liked to have won today.”
Then he added: “It’s some achievement from both clubs to do what they’ve done this year.”
That sentiment was echoed by Albion manager Nigel Clough, who said: “I’d say this is our greatest achievement because of the clubs we have been up against this season and the strength of the league. And for Barnsley, too, it is incredible what they have done.”
With just one fixture for both clubs remaining, satisfaction all round, then, at what has been attained over the last nine months. But it could be even harder to survive next season!
As far as the Oakwell Club is concerned, with a number of current members of the squad destined to leave, it all hinges on what wheeling and dealing can be done in the summer to bring in players with both the quality and resolve to continue to compete successfully in a very tough league against clubs with infinitely greater financial clout.
It then falls to an undoubtedly frustrated Heckingbottom to rebuild for a third time in his very short but astonishingly successful period in charge of team affairs.
Against Burton the Reds made a bright and promising start, with the ever-improving George Moncur (pictured) forcing a save from Stephen Bywater in the first minute, but seconds later there was a scare for an inexperienced makeshift back four at the other end when Michael Kightly got clear on the left but failed to produce a shot on target.
Then a rare mistake buy MacDonald resulted in a shooting opportunity for Jackson Irvine but the midfielder’s attempted lob was easily fielded by Adam Davies.
From then on there was little worthy of note until the 37th minute when Moncur took full advantage of some smart build-up play between Ryan Kent and Tom Bradshaw to provide an equally smart finish.
One-nil to the Reds – and that’s how it remained at the end of a first half in which there had been too many misplaced passes by both teams and, despite their best intentions, not a great deal to excite the supporters.
Thankfully it was more entertaining after the break, with the Reds providing a pulsating prelude to the second half during which Moncur and Bradshaw brought splendid saves from Bywater, and Bradshaw also had another goalbound effort blocked.
Seconds later MacDonald launched into a acrobatic bicycle kick attempt following a Kent free-kick only for Bywater to make an exceptional save diving to his right.
It looked at that stage as though the Reds were going to sign off their home fixtures in style with a long-awaited victory. But it was not to be.
Just two minutes later Burton were level, Luke Varney, who had just gone on to replace Kightly, scoring with his first touch of the ball as he headed home from a Lasse Vigen Christensen corner. It was his first goal since joining the club from Ipswich Town in January.
Varney continued to make his presence felt, being thwarted on three occasions by Davies,who made two fairly routine saves and then raced yards out of his area to block a third effort in a one-on-one confrontation.
Kent was always a threat down Barnsley’s left and, having had one shot saved by Bywater he sent another flying narrowly wide.
The best chance fell to Tom Bradshaw in the last minute of normal time when he had the ball at his feet close to goal but failed to connect cleanly as five desperate defenders converged on him, and Bywater was able to gather.
And so only a visit to already promoted Newcastle United remains for the Reds, and Clapham stressed that they are keen to go to a packed and celebratory St James’s Park, and finish on a high as a thank-you to the Oakwell fans.
“The fans have been fantastic all season,” he said. “We’ve got one game left, so let’s go to Newcastle and spoil their party.”
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; Jones (Mowatt, 65 mins), Jackson, MacDonald, Elder (Hedges 90+30); Scowen, Moncur (Armstrong, 80 mins), James, Kent; Watkins, Bradshaw.
Burton Albion (5-3-2): Bywater; Brayford, Mousinho, McFadzean, Turner, Flanagan (McCrory (76 mins); Christensen, Murpy, Irvine (Akins, 45 mins); Kightly (Varney, 50 mins), Sordell.
Bookings: Jones (Barnsley); Flanagan, Varney (Burton).
Referee: Jeremy Simpson.
Attendance: 12,952 (1,238 visitors).