Barnsley 2, Birmingham City 0
The potential of this young Barnsley side, knitted skilfully together by head coach Paul Heckingbottom, was plain for all to see in a dominant performance at Oakwell.
While sheer hard work, typified by the tireless Tom Bradshaw (pictured), is at the heart of it, there is also an exciting mixture of pace, improving technical skill, organisation and teamwork.
The advances that have been made since the current crop of players came together in the summer to replace an exodus of many of last season’s squad, is remarkable.
Because this is such a young and inexperienced side in the early stages of development it is inevitable that unnecessary mistakes will be made and matches consequently lost, but if the group can be kept together there is no telling what can be achieved.
Seven points out of a possible nine in an eight-day spell is evidence of the progress that has already been made, although there will be much bigger tests of their capabilities than that provided by a very poor Birmingham City side for whom defeat meant a slide into the relegation places.
The margin of victory could, and should, have been at least doubled, although Heckingbottom was more than pleased with the overall performance.
“We have probably dominated games as much, if not more, than that at Oakwell, and either drawn or lost,” he said, “so it’s nice to put in a good performance and get a good win.”
The Reds could not have hoped for a better start. Having survived a scare when Adam Davies was forced into a save from his former skipper Marc Roberts following a free-kick, they launched a devastatingly swift counter-attack to take the lead with less than two minutes gone.
Harvey Barnes led the charge, outpacing the desperately retreating City defence before crossing low from the left for the alert Bradshaw, having sprinted clear down the middle, to apply a clinical finishing touch from close range.
After the visitors had threatened briefly with a free-kick, Davies again being perfectly positioned to deal with David Cotterill’s over-hit cross, Barnsley enjoyed a period of total domination for the last 25 minutes of the half.
With Joe Williams outstanding in the middle of midfield, the pace of full-backs Andy Yiadom and Zeki Fryers adding to that already contributed by Lloyd Isgrove and Barnes down the flanks, Bradshaw darting hither and thither up front and Brad Potts and George Moncur completing the team’s midfield mastery, it seemed inevitable that the Reds would add to their early advantage.
Williams, encouraged by his ‘out of this world’ strike in the 4-2 victory at Burton in mid-week, attempted an ambitious repeat, but this time his swerving 25-yarder, although well-struck, was not good enough to beat Tomasz Kuszczak in the Blues’ goal.
And so it went on. Barnes was fractionally wide with a viciously curving effort; a hectic penalty area scramble saw two goalbound shots blocked and a third, from Isgrove, deflected for a corner by Jonathan Grounds; a Barnes’ cross-cum-shot was beaten away by the ‘keeper, and a penalty claim was dismissed by referee James Linington when Bradshaw went down in the box.
A second goal during that spell would surely have killed the game off against a City side lacking in both ideas and confidence, but at 1-0 there was always a chance, unlikely though it seemed, that the visitors could somehow snatch an undeserved, but potentially game-changing, equaliser.
It was much the same story after the break until the 67th minute when Fryers put the game beyond reasonable doubt with a low free-kick – awarded for a foul on the indefatigable Bradshaw – which somehow evaded a packed penalty area to end up nestling neatly in the far bottom corner of the net.
After that Moncur tried three curlers from the left, two of which went close; another penalty appeal met with deaf ears when substitute Adam Hammill went tumbling; and in the dying minutes Kuszczac had to make a brilliant double save, first from Bradshaw then from Yiadom after Potts had led a typically speedy counter which left City outnumbered three to two at the back.
The visitors’ response was very limited, just two efforts in the space of a minute from Jota, the first of which was comfortably dealt with by Davies and the second being dragged yards wide.
City are in big trouble and their fans know it. The game was only 25 minutes old before they were delivering a colourful verdict on their team’s performance.
On the other hand, the Reds go into the international break in buoyant mood, their three-match seven-point haul having lifted them three places in the table to 16th and the cheers of their supporters justifiably ringing in their ears.
Barnsley (4-1-4-1): Davies; Yiadom, MacDonald, Lindsay, Fryers; Williams; Isgrove (Hammill, 60 mins), Moncur, Potts, Barnes (Hedges, 77 mins); Bradshaw (Thiam, 86 mins).
Birmingham City (4-4-1-1): Kuszczak; Nsue, Roberts, Dean, Grounds; Cotterill, Davis, Kieftenbeld, Gallagher; Jota; Jutkiewicz (Boga, 74 mins).
Bookings: Roberts, Kieftenbeld (Birmingham).
Referee: James Liningtom.