Barnsley 1, Sheffield Wednesday 1
Barnsley were the better side, but….
The Oakwell Club may have been forced to swap their head coach for a caretaker manager in the past week, but that post-match assessment of this South Yorkshire derby remained exactly the same as in the majority of recent home fixtures.
The introduction of the negative ‘but’ after the positive ‘better’ has been triggered by the Reds’ inability to add an end product worthy of their superior football.
But at least on this occasion there was hope that they may have found a solution to their season-long goalscoring problem.
Twenty-one-years-old Oliver McBurnie (pictured) on loan from Premiership side Swansea City, crowned an impressive man-of-the-match performance on his home debut with a superb solo goal which earned a precious point after derby rivals Sheffield Wednesday had taken the lead with an early penalty.
It would have been three points had the result been a fair reflection of the respective merits of the two teams, especially in the first half – and if referee Lee Probert had not controversially denied the Reds a penalty of their own in the second.
There were no signs of any adverse reaction on the part of the players following the departure of Paul Heckingbottom – a move which ‘shocked’ the Oakwell hierarchy – and that is to the credit not only of those on the pitch, but also the Under 23 team coach who had subsequently been dramatically thrust into the Championship spotlight.
Paul Harsley impressed in his work with the squad during the week; impressed with his attitude to the daunting derby encounter; impressed with his decision-making; and impressed in his meeting with the media afterwards.
Said Harsley: “You never know what’s going to happen, but the second I walked into the changing room on Tuesday morning I knew everyone was onside.
“After the game I told the lads I couldn’t thank them enough. They could have had their heads turned, but they were brilliant.
“I was asked to do this game and I’ve done it to the best I could in the short space of time. I’m just gutted we didn’t get the three points.”
Harsley’s best was, in fact, so good that the Oakwell Board may not need to look any further for a Heckingbottom replacement.
There was pace and positivity about Barnsley’s play right from the first whistle, the fleet-footed runs of Lloyd Isgrove on the right and the energy of McBurnie down the middle causing problems a-plenty for the visitors.
Joe Williams was outstanding in his central midfield role, repeatedly winning possession then using the ball with intelligence and precision, and the introduction of new signing Matt Mills added a stabilising influence in defence alongside Liam Lindsay.
Apart from a Wednesday corner, which caused some early concern, the Reds were totally dominant in the first 15 minutes. Andy Yiadom fired wide with a volley; a thrilling weaving run by Isgrove had the visiting defence in a tizzy only for the final ball in the box to be over-hit; and a Tom Bradshaw header was saved at the foot of the post by Joe Wildsmith.
But then, in the 16th minute Yiadom, who had a very good game in his new captaincy role, was adjudged to have fouled Lucas Joao, who appeared to go down rather too easily, and the Owls were awarded a penalty.
Atdhe Nuhiu smashed the spot-kick straight down the middle and a stunned Barnsley were a goal down.
But not for long. Three minutes later, after receiving the ball from Gary Gardner just inside the opposition half, McBurnie set off on a bulllishly brilliant dribble which took him through the heart of the Wednesday defence before planting a precision left-foot shot into the opposite corner of the net.
Just past the half-hour mark the Reds were denied a second goal when Wildsmith acrobatically turned a Bradshaw header over the bar and then Williams won possession to set McBurnie off on another run, but this time the striker’s cross-shot flew wide.
It was the same story at the start of the second period, the Reds driving forward and Wednesday very much on the back foot.
McBurnie headed over from an exquisite Adam Hammill cross; Bradshaw had a chance but shot tamely straight at the goalkeeper; and then came the penalty appeal.
All eyes turned towards referee Probert in the 53rd minute when Hammill, battling to get round the outside of David Jones on the left-hand side of the 18-yarder, went tumbling under the full-back’s challenge, but there was no response from the official.
Five minutes later McBurnie had a shot turned round the post for a corner, but, as the game wore on, the Reds became less and less of a threat, especially after a tiring McBurnie’s substitution in he 72nd minute, and there was a fear that the Owls might even snatch a most undeserved winner.
The accuracy of their shooting, however, left a lot to be desired and it is a significant fact that their only effort on target throughout the game was the penalty which earned them a rather fortuitous point.
Thus the Reds, having added to their chances missed tally, were left to reflect on a run which now sees them having sunk into the relegation places after only one win in the last 17 Championship matches.
When it was announced earlier in the week that Heckingbottom had left for Leeds United it looked as though he had abandoned his home-town club in a critical situation.
He had done an exceptionally good job for so long with so few financial resources – promotion from League One, a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success, the highest Championship position for 17 years – but no club can go on selling their best players, as the Oakwell Club has done, and maintain that kind of success, and this season the chickens have come home to roost.
Heckingbottom no doubt realised that. The offer from Leeds – the club he said he ‘hated’ not so long ago – provided him with an opportunity to avoid the possibility of relegation and maintain his hitherto glowing reputation as one of the best young managers around.
His exit left the Oakwell Club shocked – he had signed a new contract only a few days earlier – and the fans fearful that the drop back to League One was now far more of a probability than a possibility.
After all, there is so little time for a new manager to come in, assess his players, develop a system to suit, create a team ethic and spark a status-saving revival.
But there was renewed hope in this performance, against an admittedly poor Sheffield Wednesday side, that the Reds, who have 28 points and are third from bottom, could still be staging Championship football next season.
The remaining February fixtures will go a long way to deciding their fate. They entertain bottom team Burton Albion (24 points) on the 20th, and then face away games at the two teams above them in the table – Birmingham City (30 points) and Hull City (29 points) on the 24th and 27th respectively.
The latter should have been played next Saturday, but has been switched due to Hull’s continued involvement in the FA Cup on that date, which means that the Reds have an additional weekend to prepare – another incentive for a quick appointment of a new head coach/manager.
Barnsley (4-4-2): Townsend; Yiadom, Mills, Lindsay, Pinillos; Isgrove (Mahoney, 61 mins), Gardner, Williams, Hammill; Bradshaw, McBurnie (Moore, 72 mins).
Sheffield Wednesday (5-4-1): Wildsmith; Palmer, Venancio, Jones (Nielsen, 80 mins), Thornley (Stobbs, 67 mins), Fox; Wallace, Pelupessy, Reach, Joao; Nuhiu.
Bookings: Hammill (Barnsley); Jones, Nuhiu, Wallace (Sheffield Wednesday).
Referee: Lee Probert.
Attandance: 16,858 (4,500 visitors).