Barnsley 1, Fulham 3
It was overwhelmingly frustrating that such a disciplined performance by beleagured Barnsley should be ruined by one mad moment of red-mist indiscipline.
As the board went up to indicate two minutes of first half stoppage time the Reds appeared to be on their way to a much-needed first home win since November 4 after outplaying promotion contenders Fulham to earn a deserved 1-0 lead.
It was an admittedly slender advantage, but Paul Heckingbottom’s side had carried out the head coach’s plan to such perfection that there was no reason to doubt that they could not retain it, or even increase it, after the break.
They set a high tempo from the first whistle; closed the opposition down quickly, aggressively and successfully; won the 50-50 challenges; attacked with vigour and verve; defended with due diligence; and completely stifled any threat posed by a Fulham team who had soared up the table with a run of eight wins in their last 11 matches.
Then came the game-changer. Full-back Dimitri Cavare, having already been booked, reacted rashly to a challenge by Stefan Johansen, pushing the Fulham midfielder with such force that the latter sent Stevie Mallan crashing to the ground as he himself fell.
It was certainly a yellow card offence, if not a straight red, but either way it meant that Barnsley would have to face the second half against the Championship’s form team with only ten men.
They put up a magnificent fight and might even have regained the lead with a couple of brisk breakaways, but two Fulham goals in five minutes of stoppage time brought heart-break defeat.
Cavare owes a big apology to his team-mates, his head coach and the supporters. Especially the supporters. They had turned out in force to honour the Oakwell Club’s former owner – and saviour – Patrick Cryne, who died the previous weekend after a 15-month fight against cancer.
A minute’s silence was impeccably and respectfully observed before kick-off and then the players took up the baton, tapping into the emotion, as requested by Heckingbottom, and controlling the pace and pattern of the game from the outset.
It was all so uplifting after a run of only one win in 14 matches which had seen the Reds plunge headlong into the relegation scrap, and the crowd roared them on as they proceeded to put Fulham to the sword.
They made clear their intentions as early as the third minute, visiting goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli being forced into a good save from a Mallan 30-yarder after a neat lay-off from Kieffer Moore, and a minute later Tom Bradshaw fired wide.
Then followed a free-flowing passing move which deserved better reward than Mallan’s goalbound effort striking team-mate Moore and ricochetting clear of the target.
Moore was in the thick of the action again mid-way through the half, his header from a Cavare throw-in landing on top of the net, and Barnsley’s bright, bold play brought a deserved goal just after the half-hour mark.
A Mallan corner was cleared off the line by goalkeeper Bettinelli, but Liam Lindsay was on hand to force home the rebound for his first goal for the club.
That prompted a reaction from the under-pressure visitors, but a couple of free-kicks – one of which brought Cavare’s first booking – and a shot into the side-netting by Rui Fonte, were the best they could muster, and as half-time approached such had been Barnsley’s mastery that the Cottagers had still to produce a shot on target.
The Reds’ performance thus far had been very similar to the one which had earned them a goalless home draw with runaway leaders Wolves a fortnight earlier, with the bonus this time of a potentially match-winning goal.
But then, seconds after a fired-up Adam Hammill had tested Bettinelli with a first-time volley from 30 yards, came Cavare’s moment of madness, and Fulham were handed a lifeline.
Said Heckingbottom afterwards: “He [Cavare] let everyone down. The pleasing thing for me is, before I got in, apparently he was told that by the players as well.
“We’ve got to have trustworthy players in our team. When we recruit players they have to be trustworthy. They need to know what we’re about.”
It is to be hoped that Cavare will have learned that lesson after this costly aberration.
Bradshaw was the player sacrificed at the start of the second half to allow for the debut of new signing Daniel Piniloss in Cavare’s place at right-back, leaving Moore as a lone striker.
The task of the ten men was made even tougher just four minutes after the break when Fulham, keen to cash in on their numerical advantage, forced the equaliser, Ryan Sessegnon steering the ball home after an initial shot had struck the post.
It seemed then as though a Fulham victory was inevitable.
However, the Reds rallied. They closed ranks. They denied Fulham space. And gradually they began to offer the hope that, even with the odds stacked against them, they could still pull a winner out of the hat themselves.
Inspiration came from the lights from thousands of supporters’ mobile phones which lit up the arena in the 66th minute as a further tribute to Patrick Cryne – ‘one of their own’ – and within seconds Moore was inches away from connecting with a low cross from substitute Ryan Hedges.
It was Hedges again to the fore in the 77th minute, his driving run taking him past three defenders, but his shot was hit with power rather than placement, and arrowed straight at Bettinelli, who beat the ball away.
Two minute later Moore, who had run himself almost to a standstill up front, forced his way into the penalty area, but could not quite find the finish as a strong challenge came in.
At that stage it was Barnsley who were looking the likelier of the teams to turn one point into three, but with ten minutes remaining Fulham captain Kevin McDonald began a personal victory crusade, driving his side forward, while at the same time testing Davies a couple of times and just clearing the bar with another attempt.
However, the Reds continued their brave resistance until five minutes of heart-breaking stoppage time.
Davies could only parry a header and the ball ballooned up into the air close to the goalline. There was a frantic scramble as it fell and there was McDonald to force the ball over the line.
There was nothing left for the Reds but to push everyone forward in a bid to salvage a point, but that meant they were shorn of cover when Fulham countered and Sessegnon scored his second goal of the game with a virtual last-kick tap-in after Lindsay failed to cut out an Aboubakar cross.
Despite the fact that this was his side’s seventh successive home fixture without a win, Heckingbottom still found plenty to be pleased about.
“The performance in the first half was first class,” he said. Then he added: “And it was for most of the second half with only ten men.”
He was right. But that does not hide the fact that defeat leaves his team in a precarious situation, a mere two points clear of the relegation places, and there must be an upturn in fortunes quickly if the Reds are to retain their Championship status.
February could be the key. During that time they face three of the bottom four clubs – Hull City and Birmingham City away, and Burton Albion at home.
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; Cavare, Pearson, Lindsay, Yiadom; Moncur, Mallan, Gardner, Hammill; Moore (Thiam, 80 mins), Bradshaw (Pinillos, 45 mins).
Fulham (5-4-1): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Ream, Kalas, McDonald, Odoi; Piazon (Kebano, 62 mins), Johansen (Kamara, 68 mins), Norwood, R Sessegnon; Fonte.
Sending Off: Cavare (Barnsley).
Bookings: Cavare, Hammill (Barnsley). Bettinelli, Johansen (Fulham).
Referee: Andy Davies.