Barnsley 3, Sunderland 0
For 20 minutes or so home fans were wondering whether to be excited by Barnsley’s attacking verve or worried by their defensive indecisiveness.
But then two goals in the space of four minutes dispelled all fears and sent confidence flowing through the veins of both those who were roaring their team on from the stands and those who were bidding to turn on the style on the pitch.
Gradually the back four – with yet another new central pairing of Adam Jackson and Scottish debutant Liam Lindsay due to the enforced absence of banned skipper Angus MacDonald – having looked likely to come apart at the seams in the early stages, began to knit together, and by the second half they had formed an impenetrable barrier.
Brad Potts’ powerfully purposeful driving runs from midfield were a feature of the Reds’ positive, up and at ’em philosophy, while Adam Hammill was back to his promotion season best wide on the right with his pace, his twinkle-toed trickery and his cultured crosses.
Ike Ugbo, operating in the unselfishly thankless role of lone striker, was not as eye-catchingly prominent as those two aforementioned colleagues, but can be just as pleased with a performance which saw him score one opportunist goal and provide a classic assist with another.
Similarly, while George Moncur may have been overshadowed somewhat by the dynamic display of fans’ man-of-the-match Potts (pictured) in central midfield, he was the one who rounded things off with a gem of a third goal.
However, while some may have deservedly taken extra plaudits for their individual contributions, this was essentially a stunning victory built on the foundations of planning, organisation and collective teamwork.
Those early moments apart, the Reds closed down quickly, vigorously and mercilessly; won all the 50-50 balls, and showed immeasurably greater determination.
Sunderland, surprisingly poor, simply wilted in the fact of such energy and application and in the end a 3-0 margin did not flatter a rampant home team.
They were cheered to the heavens at the final whistle while the large, ever-loyal Sunderland following made their feelings known with a derisory chorus of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt.’
The Black Cats’ manager, Simon Grayson, had no complaints about that. “It’s never acceptable to lose a game in the manner we did,” he said. “Too many players wanted to do their own individual stuff instead of playing for the shape of the team. Our fans had a go and rightly so.
“Barnsley deserved to win because they did the basics right. They ran further and harder; they made their tackles; and that’s what the Championship is about.”
His opposite number, Paul Heckingbottom, would have been delighted to hear that assessment and he was quick to heap praise on his players for the success.
“I’m very pleased for the players,” he said, “because they’ve deserved it. We have to play to our strengths and hide our weaknesses and I think we did that today.”
Then he added: “The most pleasing thing was the way we weathered that storm at the start.”
That ‘weathering’, however, also owed something to Sunderland’s inadequacies when it came to putting the ball in the back of the net, Aiden McGready and George Honeyman both failing to hit the target from good positions.
Jackson also came close to an own goal, diverting a low James Vaughan cross just past the post, and for a while the visitors continued to open up the Barnsley defence, especially with quick counter-attacks, but slowly and surely the Reds began to find their feet.
It is often said that attack is the best form of defence and that was certainly true for Heckingbottom’s side on this occasion. As they bombed forward with ever-increasing fervour Sunderland found themselves having to concentrate all their efforts into keeping their opponents at bay.
Hammill and marauding full-back Jason McCarthy set up Potts, who fired wide from an angle; the latter forced a corner with a typically forceful direct run; Moncur had a shot turned round the post by goalkeeper Robbin Ruiter; and Potts could manage only a weak close-range header straight into Ruiter’s arms after a pin-point delivery from Hammill.
But the Reds were not to be denied. In the 31st minute more excellent work by Hammill resulted in a low cross into the box and the lurking Ugbo just managed to get a foot to it and divert it into the net for his first Barnsley goal.
Four minutes later it was 2-0 and Hammill was again the architect, another delicious chipped cross finding the unmarked Harvey Barnes, who thundered an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net from a fairly tight angle on the left.
Two teenage loanees, in the Reds starting line-up for the first time, had given their side a 2-0 lead – against a side which was in the Premiership last season – with their first goals for the club.
Something else for Heckingbottom to be pleased about!
Sunderland rallied briefly just before the break, the Reds surviving a penalty appeal when Lindsay brought down Grabban – referee Chis Kavanagh instead awarding a free-kick right on the edge of the area – and Adam Davies being forced into his first save of the game from a deflected attempt by Lewis Grabban.
It was anticipated that the visitors would come out for the second half with all guns firing in a bid to salvage something from the game – if only their pride – but they were strangely subdued and the Reds had little difficulty in maintaining their stranglehold on the game.
It was no more than they deserved when Moncur increased their lead in the 66th minute with a superbly struck shot which flew past Ruiter almost before he had time to blink.
At the other end Davies, a mere spectator for most of the time, was called into action in the 79th minute to tip a powerful long-range effort from Grabban over the bar, but otherwise Sunderland showed nothing to suggest that they were capable of denying their opponents their first clean sheet of the campaign.
As Heckingbottom continues to rebuild his team yet again there will inevitably be disappointments such as the derby defeat against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, when the Reds failed to play to their potential, but their performance on this occasion, coupled with spirited displays against Ipswich and Nottingham Forest, suggest that there will be more good days than bad.
And back-to-back home victories was just the tonic the doctor ordered to take them into the international break.
Barnsley (4-1-4-1): Davies; McCarthy, Jackson, Lindsay, Pearson; Williams; Hammill (Thiam, 89 mins), Moncur, Potts, Barnes (Hedges, 66 mins), Ugbo (Bradshaw, 70 mins).
Sunderland: Ruiter; Jones, Oviedo (Matthews (80 mins), Cattermole, Vaughan (Gooch, 54 mins), Grabban, N’Dong, Browning, McGeady, Kone, Honeyman (Khazri, 64 mins).
Bookings: Lindsay (Barnsley); Oviedo, McGeady, Khazri (Sunderland).
Referee: Chris Kavanagh.
Attendance: 15,697 (4,249 visitors).