Sunderland 0, Barnsley 1
Barnsley have a new hero.
On Saturday defender Ethan Pinnock notched his first goal for the club to rescue his side with a stoppage time equaliser against Reading at Oakwell.
Forty-eight hours later he went one better with the winner in the crucial clash at the Stadium of Light.
Two headers, four invaluable points for the Reds as the battle to avoid the dreaded bottom three places intensifies; the first win in 11 games; and the happiest of starts to the New Year.
With Burton Albion recording a shock 3-0 away win over managerless Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton beating Hull, defeat for the Reds against Sunderland would have left them in the relegation zone.
As it was, they moved up one place, overtaking Hull to claim 19th spot, six points clear of bottom team Birmingham City.
No wonder head coach Paul Heckingbottom was looking pleased when he spoke to the press after the game.
He commented: “In the last few weeks we’ve been saying we’ve been wasteful and that we needed a result, so we’re delighted with the win.”
Even so, it has to be said that the Reds were still wasteful. Several good chances were frittered away and yet again the only goal came from a dead ball situation.
Barnsley have scored a mere four times in the last 10 fixtures – and only one of them has come from open play.
As Heckingbottom also reflected: “I’m pleased, but there are still things we need to get better at.”
At the same time, there is no doubt that his side deserved the win. Even Sunderland manager Chris Coleman conceded that. They dictated the pattern and the tempo of play; they were more aggressive; and their work-rate was superior.
Right from the first whistle they took the initiative in a match they knew they had to win, and their positive approach eventually paid rich dividends – despite their wastefulness.
Their intentions were made clear as early as the fifth minute when Mamadou Thiam, playing as a lone striker with Tom Bradshaw relegated to the bench, rattled the bar from 25 yards and, after Callum McManaman had seen a weak effort easily saved by Adam Davies at the other end, the Reds were certain that they should have had a penalty.
Hands went up in confident appeals as Lloyd Isgrove went tumbling after getting goal side of Tyias Browning, but referee Robert Jones was totally unmoved.
Match-winner Pinnock (pictured) then showed his defensive qualities with a magnificent block to prevent James Vaughan converting a Donald Love cross midway through the half and Oviedo’s free-kick beat Davies only to rebound to safety off the post.
Barnsley, however, were still looking dangerous and another opportunity was created by Brad Potts only for Lloyd Isgrove. in the starting line-up because Leicester City had recalled Harvey Barnes from a season-long loan, to be foiled by Robbin Ruiter who turned his shot round the post for a corner.
The dynamic of the game was changed two minutes after the interval when Adam Hammill forced a corner with a purposeful run down the touchline. Zeke Fryers took it and when the Sunderland defence allowed the ball to bounce Pinnock pounced to power home an unstoppable header.
Liam Lindsay almost made it two when he fastened on to Thiam’s back heel, but his flick ended up on the wrong side of the post and the Reds went close again on the hour mark. The recalled Brad Potts powered past Adam Matthews after being fed by Hammill, but could not beat Ruiter from a difficult angle.
Sunderland then began to push forward in desperation. Substitute Paddy McNair blazed wide from a good position; Joel Asobo did likewise; Jota Maja glanced a McGready corner just over – and Davies was booked for time-wasting!
Hammill was narrowly wide with a 25-yarder and George Moncur also failed to find the target as the Reds sought to consolidate their slender lead, but the home team continued to pile on the pressure and they almost snatched the equaliser in stoppage time, substitute Jason McCarthy clearing off the line with Davies beaten.
However, in the final analysis Barnsley were full value for the three points as they completed the double over the Black Cats for the first time since the 1986-87 campaign, having won the home fixture by 3-0 way back in August.
A third round FA Cup clash away to Millwall on Saturday provides a welcome break from the ongoing battle to preserve their Championship status. but the following Saturday the Reds face a tough return to League action when they entertain free-scoring leaders Wolves at Oakwell.
Right now they could not face a bigger test.
Sunderland: Ruiter; Browning, O’Shea, Matthews, Love, Honeyman, Gibson (McNair, 33 mins), Oviedo (Maja, 45 mins), McManaman (Asobo, 61 mins), McGeady, Vaughan.
Barnsley (41-4-1): Davies; Cavare, Pinnock, Lindsay, Fryers; Williams; Hammill (McCarthy, 90+4 mins), Potts, Gardner (Moncur, 74 mins), Isgrove; Thiam (Bradshaw, 73 mins).
Bookings: Love (Sunderland); Davies, Lindsay, Fryers, Potts, Bradshaw (Barnsley.
Referee: Robert Jones.