Barnsley 2, Middlesbrough 2
There is always a certain amount of disappointment when a team fails to win at home.
It could be argued that was doubly true of Barnsley on this occasion, having twice taken the lead.
However, the Reds can be eminently satisfied and justifiably proud that a team very much a work in progress earned a point against a very good Middlesbrough side.
Yes, there were things they might have done better, but there was also a great deal they did right.
For example, apart from two inexcusable errors – which could have cost them the game – they defended well with a doggedness and determination which brought its due reward.
The Reds’ game plan was one usually adapted by an away team – massed defence to nullify the pace and power of the opposition and swift counter-attacks to open up goalscoring opportunities of their own.
It worked to a degree, but, until a second half substitution brought a switch to 4-4-2, the plan foundered on the fact that there was only one out-ball option in Tom Bradshaw. If that did not find the lone striker it came straight back to put more pressure on the home defence.
Having said that, there could be no complaint about the desire, the commitment and the energy of this burgeoning Barnsley side and if they maintain this level of whole-hearted teamwork there will be no fears of relegation.
It is also exciting to note the impact of 25-year-old former Crystal Palace full-back Zeki Fryers deservedly taking the supporters’ man-of-the-match accolade. He has pace, he is strong, he can tackle and he delivers a potent corner-kick, one of which led to the opening goal after only two minutes.
His swerving cross caused confusion in the Boro defence and, under pressure from Bradshaw, former Reds’ loanee Ashley Fletcher headed into his own net.
That sparked off a frenetic spell of three goals in the space of seven minutes, thus setting the scene for a riveting and highly entertaining encounter.
Boro took only five minutes to level matters, Cyrus Christie’s long throw from the right eventually falling at the feet of Martin Braithwaite, but two minutes later the Reds were back in front. Fryers was again involved, linking with Brad Potts down the left to provide Harvey Barnes with the chance to curl in an inviting cross which was headed home by Cameron McGeehan (pictured) on his home debut.
With Braithwaite pulling the strings Boro went in search of a second equaliser. Skipper Grant Leadbitter brought a save from Davies with a good volley from a deep corner and Fletcher fired weakly wide from 25 yards after a good run.
Just after the half-hour mark a terrible throw from Davies went straight to a Boro’ player, but the visitors failed to take advantage of the gift, Britt Assombalonga shooting high and wide.
Still the Reds were subjected to long spells of Boro’ pressure, Assombalonga having an effort deflected for a corner; Fletcher’s left-footer clearing the bar and a powerdrive from Leadbitter flashing inches wide.
It was more of the same on the resumption and only three minutes had elapsed when it seemed certain that the visitors would draw level, but Davies made a magnificent save at point-blank range from Fletcher.
In a bid to stem the tide by giving the visitors’ defence more to think about – and no doubt acting on relayed instructions from head coach Paul Heckingbottom, seated in the West Stand while serving a two-match touchline ban – the Reds sent on striker Mamadou Thiam in place of midfielder Potts, thus providing support for the tireless Bradshaw, whose task until then had been a thankless one.
There was no denying Boro their equaliser, however, and it came on the hour when Assombalonga beat Davies at the near post.
Heckingbottom was unhappy with the way his side conceded both goals, citing two lapses of concentration, but that was maybe a little harsh after the way his players had stood up to almost incessant pressure.
However, there is no denying that the Reds have to continue to improve, as Heckingbottom reflected, if they are to compete with Championship teams most of which have far more financial clout. Middlesbrough’s point-saver Assombalonga, for example, cost a reported £15m!
And the head coach did appreciate the positives in his side’s performance. “This was another step in the right direction,” he said. “I was pleased that we still looked strong off the ball. We knew they have good players and they were going to have long spells of possession.”
Had it not been for a brilliantly heroic length-of-the-field recovery sprint by Fryers when Boro had a three-on-one situation when counter-attacking following a corner, there could have been a much larger slice of disappointment at the final whistle.
Just four minutes after Boro had made it 2-2 a potential winner looked very much on the cards before the youngster arrived to make a lung-bursting challenge which enabled Davies to complete the rescue act with a good save.
Then Boro were almost handed another opportunity on a plate when Davies and a couple of co-defenders failed to realise that Assombalonga was still lurking in the penalty area behind them.
Yet it was the Reds who went closest to snatching all three points in the 75th minute when Barnes hit the post from an angle with Darren Randolph beaten.
Thiam also made his presence felt with two good efforts in the last ten minutes which brought saves from Randolph.
The Reds still had to survive some heart-stopping moments, notably from corner kicks, and the roars from home fans at the final whistle were more of relief than celebration.
But it was a very well-earned point, even if it did leave visiting manager Gary Monk, himself a former Barnsley player, ‘frustrated’ with the result.
“We dominated the game,” he said, “but were not clinical enough. We had good chances but didn’t take them.”
It would be no surprise, however, to see them challenging for a play-off spot come the end of the campaign.
As for the Reds, they are now unbeaten in three games, with a another home fixture to come against Hull City next Saturday, and all the signs are that Heckingbottom is piecing together yet another side capable of punching above their weight in a very tough Championship.
Barnsley (4-1-4-1): Davies; Pearson, Jackson, Lindsay, Fryers; Williams; Hammill, McGeehan (Bird, 86 mins), Potts (Thiam, 53 mins), Barnes (Hedges, 87 mins); Bradsahaw.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Randolph; Christie, Ayala, Gibson, Da Silva (Friend, 73 mins); Downing (Bamford, 83 mins), Braithwaite, Leadbitter, Clayton; Fletcher, Assombalonga.
Bookings: Pearson, Williams (Barnsley).
Referee: Lee Mason