Barnsley 0, Aston Villa 3
Aston Villa were the real ‘Villains’ of the piece as Steve Bruce’s side gatecrashed the 130th anniversary celebrations of the Oakwell Club.
There were consequently no happy returns for the Reds’ legends from various eras who had been paraded in front of the home supporters prior to kick-off.
It was a disappointing performance by Paul Heckingbottom ‘s men, especially after the thrilling mid-week victory over Derby County in the Carabao Cup, which had landed them with an exciting third round tie away to Spurs – and a third Wembley appearance in the space of 17 months.
Could it be that the thoughts of Tuesday night’s visit to this season’s temporary home of one of the Premiership’s elite clubs was preying on the players’ minds?
Possibly. But a more likely explanation is that this is still very much a team in the early stages of yet another rebuilding project and therefore such swings in form are to be expected.
Consistency is the key to any successful operation and that is a virtue that has yet to be attained.
It could be argued that the Reds, after gifting the visitors an opening goal, were unfortunate to concede a second two minutes before the interval when Villa were awarded a penalty for a challenge by Adam Jackson on Kienan Davis only for the Sky television cameras to show that the central defender had, in fact, played the ball.
However, there was no disputing the fact that the men from the Midlands were much the better side throughout and they fully deserved their victory.
Although the Reds had a greater share of possession it was not until they were already 3-0 down that they managed to conjure up their first effort on target and even that was a weak header from substitute Ike Ugbo which provided Villa goalkeeper Sam Johnstone with the easiest of saves.
Adam Hammill was responsible for the only other occasion when Johnstone was called into action but his long range shot in stoppage time was far too little and far too late.
It was Ugbo who had the best chance of a consolation goal in the 87th minute but he dragged an angled shot wide of the far post.
There were spells in the first half when the home team suggested that they could silence the raucous visiting fans, but there was no-one in the right place at the right time to provide the necessary finishing touch to some enticing low crosses from both flanks.
As head coach Heckingbottom (pictured) said in his post-match comments: “There were lots of good things, but we weren’t a goal threat. There was a bit of belief missing.”
Marauding full-back Jason McCarthy – improving by leaps and bounds – along with veteran winger Hammill, continued to provide Barnsley’s greatest threat down the right, but even this was diminished as the game wore on and Villa, who had thus far made a disappointing start to the campaign, began to grow with the confidence that comes from scoring goals.
Two-nil down at the break Heckingbottom sent on Ryan Hedges and Ugbo in place of Harvey Barnes and George Moncur respectively and switched from a 4-1-4-1 formation to the more standard 4-4-2, in a bid to turn the tide, knowing that the next goal was the crucial one.
If the Reds could reduce the gap to 2-1 they would be in with a chance of at least salvaging a point. Should Villa make it three it would be game over.
Sadly, it was the latter, as Davis, who was a handful throughout, netted within three minutes of the restart.
Said Heckingbottom: “At half-time we knew that a third goal would be everything – and they got it. Villa put the game to bed and they had a very easy half-an-hour after that.”
Despite the Reds’ early attacking promise it was the visitors who provided the first goalscoring effort in the 13th minute when Adam Davies was forced into a save at the foot of the post from Robert Snodgrass.
However, five minutes later Davies was at fault when he failed to collect a through ball and Albert Adomah pounced gleefully to give his side the lead.
Barnsley responded with their best move of the game, a visionary pass from Barnes sending George Moncur scampering clear down the left. but once again there was no-one in the middle to take advantage of the goalscoring invitation of the resulting cross.
At least it seemed that the Reds would reach the break still only one goal adrift and with an opportunity to try to ‘sort things out’ in the half-time team talk.
But then, with just two minutes to go before the interval whistle, Jackson, trying to make amends for the fact that Davis had been left clear to home in on goal on the right, launched into a desperate chasing tackle which sent the striker tumbling to the ground.
While the reaction of the assistant referee on that side of the pitch suggested that he thought it was a corner kick, Simon Hooper, the man in the middle, hesitated only momentarily before pointing to the spot. From his vantage point it was an understandable decision, but that was no consolation to the Reds when Sky TV’s action replay showed that Jackson had, in fact, got the slightest of touches on the ball.
Adomah made no mistake with the resulting penalty and Barnsley’s problems duly doubled.
Hopes that a change in tactics and personnel at the start of the second half might yet save them from defeat were dashed after only nine minutes when tormentor-in-chief Davis rose to head home despite the efforts of near-namesake Davies, who got his hands to the ball but could not keep it out.
There was, however, no extinguishing the mobile-phone-illuminated live on television tribute to cancer-stricken owner Patrick Cryne, who had revealed in the previous match programme that it was unlikely he would see out the current campaign.
Despite the fact that the match was live on Sky, Cryne was there in person, sitting in his usual place in the West Stand, his family beside him. For him it must have been a comforting light in the darkness and he applauded the fans as they applauded him – one of their own.
And at that moment the fact that a football match was being won and lost seemed of little consequence.
Barnsley (4-1-4-1): Davies; McCarthy, Jackson, Lindsay, Pearson; Williams; Hammill, Potts, Moncur (Ugbo, 45 mins), Barnes (Hedges, 45 mins); Bradshaw (Thiam, 70 mins).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Taylor; Snodgrass (Bjarnason, 82 mins), Whelan, Hourihane, Adomah; Davis (Hogan, 74 mins), Kodija (Onomah, 60 mins).
Bookings: Hammill (Barnsley), Hourihane (Aston Villa).
Referee: Simon Hooper.