Barnsley 0, Preston North End 0
This being the season of good cheer it is appropriate to dwell initially on the positives in Barnsley’s Boxing Day performance. And there were quite a few.
For example, it might have been only a draw when victories are required, especially at home, but it was against a good Preston side challenging for the play-offs, and it took the Reds one point further away from the four teams below them in the table, who all lost.
Then there was the discipline and resilience shown by a defence that has been constantly changing this season. North End are a team capable of quicksilver counter-attacks and, although they did threaten in that manner in the first half, they were thwarted on every occasion, and after the break such raids became rarer and less of a concern as the Reds tightened their defensive grip.
An imposing contribution to that came from 24-years-old Ethan Pinnock (pictured) who was a such commanding figure in the middle of the back four that it suggests the Oakwell Club may well have plucked another gem from the backwaters of non-league football with Forest Green Rovers in the summer, who could go on to even bigger and better things if he continues his current rate of development.
Another plus was the return after injury of on-loan Lloyd Isgrove. Although not quite up to match fitness yet, he was the Reds’ most dangerous attacker until his substitution in the 74th minute, and his performance must have delighted head coach Paul Heckingbottom.
Finally, there was the attitude of the players. In one or two recent fixtures, notably in the televised encounter with Leeds United at Oakwell, there has been a worrying lack of belief running through the side, but not on this occasion. They were up for the fight, and their spirited play was thoroughly deserving of the point they collected.
First team coach Jamie Clapham made that very point in the post-match press conference: “The positive thing is the performance of the players,” he said. Over the last three games performance levels have risen to where we know they can be.”
He went on: “It was a very enjoyable Boxing Day fixture – a high-energy, passionate game. It was enjoyable to be on the sidelines watching it. I think we were on top in the first 15 minutes, then they [Preston] really came into the game. In the second half I think there was only one team who looked like scoring. But it wasn’t to be. So we will take the point.”
Aye, and there’s the rub. The Reds failed to score. For the fourth successive home game. And for the fifth time in the last eight Championship fixtures.
The Reds’ last goal at Oakwell came from full-back Zeki Fryers in a 2-0 victory over Birmingham City – currently bottom of the table – on November 4, and it is now nine games without a win since then.
Amidst all the positives it is that most crucial negative which increases the concerns that, for all their other qualities, the Reds may be heading back to League One at the end of the season.
The hope must be that the recent take-over will enable the club to strengthen that area in the January transfer window. But how many goalscorers of the experience and quality necessary for the Championship will be available?
However, while the fighting spirit remains there is every reason to believe that the Reds can – and will – survive for another campaign in the second tier of English football.
Preston, managed by former Barnsley player Alex Neil, came into this game on a good run of form, unbeaten in eight matches and very much in contention for a play-off spot, yet they were matched by a young and inexperienced Barnsley side in a very keenly and closely-contested encounter, and a draw was the fairest outcome.
The first 15 minutes set the pattern for the rest of the first half. Barnsley, reverting to their once-preferred 4-1-4-1 system, with Tom Bradshaw as the lone striker, attacked with verve and vigour, with good crosses flying in from left and right, but nothing quite clicked near goal and it was the visitors who carried the more potent threat.
Within 18 seconds of the first whistle Adam Davies had to make a save, comfortable though it was, from Tom Barkhuizen; in the 13th minute the Reds’ goalkeeper went flying through the air to palm away a header, and Jordan Hugill hit the outside of the post from the rebound.
Just after the half-hour mark the Reds were indebted to a magnificent tackle by Andy Yiadom just as Daniel Johnson was about to pull the trigger in the penalty area, but two minutes later Gary Gardner fired just over from the edge of the box from the home team’s first attempt at goal as play swung from one end to the other.
However, it was difficult to see where goals were going to come from, and the stalemate continued throughout the second half, despite the laudable efforts of both teams to find a winner.
Preston striker Hugill cleared the bar with an ambitious attempt from 30 yards; Josh Harrop fired narrowly wide after a driving individual run just a couple of minutes after going on as substitute for Paul Gallagher; and then, in the 62nd minute the Reds thought they should have had a penalty.
Yiadom slid the ball with admirable precision into the 18-yarder at the perfect pace for Gary Gardner to fasten on to without breaking stride and when the midfielder went down under a strong challenge from Calum Woods all eyes turned to referee Geoff Eltringham, who stopped, paused – and then decided in favour of the defender.
That meant that the Reds’ fans had to wait until five minutes before time to see their team’s first shot on target. It came from substitute Harvey Barnes, just 11 minutes after replacing the tiring Isgrove. He cut in from the left and unleashed a low drive which brought a good save by the foot of the post from Chris Maxwell.
Having waited so long for the first on-target effort the home supporters were treated to another seconds later when Maxwell had a bring off another top-class save to punch away a shot from Stevie Mallan which was speeding towards the roof of the net.
However, not even seven minutes of added on time were sufficient for either side to break the deadlock.
The Reds have another opportunity to end their barren run in the final fixture of 2017 at home to Reading on Saturday, but they do so in the knowledge that is only six games ago that they were beaten 3-0 in the re-arranged away game at Elm Park.
No doubt the faithful Reds’ fans will be happy merely to see their side score a goal. But three points would see them greeting the New Year happier still!
Barnsley (4-1-4-1): Davies; Yiadom, Lindsay, Pinnock, Fryers; Williams; Hammill, Gardner, Mallan, Isgrove (Barnes, 74 mins); Bradshaw.
Preston North End (4-4-2): Maxwell; Woods (Browne, 77 mins), Huntingdon, Davies; O’Connor; Gallagher (Harrop, 58 mins), Johnson, Pearson, Horgan (Mavididi, 68 mins); Barkhuizen, Hugill.
Bookings: Williams (Barnsley), Woods, Huntingdon, Harrop (Preston).
Referee: Geoff Eltringham.