Leeds United 2, Barnsley 1
Barnsley fans are still hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. After this latest defeat most are now resigned to the prospect of watching League One football next season. And it hurt more that it came at the hands of a team led by someone they had not so long ago lauded as ‘one of their own’.
Paul Heckingbottom (pictured in his trophy-winning Barnsley days) had gone on record as saying that he wanted the Reds to stay up – but he also wanted to beat them in this derby clash.
Well, one wish has been granted. But the second has become far more unlikely. Indeed, even the ever-optimistic Jose Morais, Heckingbottom’s head coach successor at Oakwell, has conceded that his side face the definitive ‘must-win’ fixture away to Nottingham Forest in their game in hand on Tuesday night.
Said Morais after the latest blow to his hopes of leading the Reds to safety: “Tuesday is a must win game. Definitely. Winning this game would mean that we are in a good position and we will be able to make the results on the teams in the direct fight.”
It could be argued that being just one point off the relegation places with only two matches to play is hardly ‘a good position’ but it is certainly a better prospect than defeat, which would leave the Reds stranded level on points with second from bottom Burton Albion and still two adrift of fourth from bottom Bolton.
As at Ipswich in their previous away fixture missed chances were a a contributory factor in their Elland Road downfall, but defensive failings were also very much in evidence, and one has to come to the conclusion, despite some recent signs of improvement, that the simple explanation for the club’s plight is that the current squad is not good enough for the Championship, and they will be extremely fortunate to survive.
Morais rang the changes again, Tom Bradshaw preferred to Kieffer Moore in attack, Connor Mahoney making his first start for the club at the expense of George Moncur in midfield and Matt Mills replacing the injuted Adam Jackson in the centre of defence, and the Reds made a bright start, forcing a series of corners, but there was a sign of things to come when poor defending let in Ezgjan Alioski who, however, failed to find the target.
It was a big let-off for the Reds, but they were made to pay for more incompetence in the 17th minute when a misdirected pass provided another opportunity, this time for Tom Pearce, and he took full advantage, driving forward unchallenged to find the corner of the net from the edge of the penalty area.
Apart from the first few minutes Leeds had been very much on the front foot until that point, but the goal seemed to galvanize the visitors and they rediscovered some of their earlier zest, with Brad Potts and Adam Hammill both testing Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the home goal.
Reward came in the 36th minute when another shot, this time from the marauding Zeki Fryers, was deflected into his own net by Paudi O’Connor.
As half-time approached it was still the Reds who were on the offensive and good link-up play between Mahoney and Hammill resulted in the former bringing a brilliant save from Peacock-Farrell at the expense of a fruitless corner.
Surprisingly, Barnsley looked lethargic at the start of the second half and Leeds were allowed to resume the control they had lost before the break. They consequently regained the lead in the 50th minute when Kemar Roofe outpaced Mills wide on the left and pulled the ball back from the by-line to present the unmarked Alioski with the simplest of tap-ins.
Once again the goal awoke the Reds from their slumbers and five minutes later Oli McBurnie had the ball in the net from a Hammill cross only for the goal to be ruled out for offside.
Then Potts created an opening for himself and fired in a shot from the edge of the box only to see it deflect off a defender, but this time, unlike the first-half incident, straight into the arms of the goalkeeper.
With ten minutes to go another appetising Hammill cross seemed certain to be converted by Moore, but somehow the ball squired away to safety.
Morais admitted afterwards that he could not believe that the ball had not ended up in the back of the net. “I was surprised it didn’t go in,” he said. “But now I have heard the player’s version of how it didn’t go in, and we are all disappointed. But we have to forget that now and move on to Tuesday. He has another chance to score then.”
Morais was also surprised when his side were denied a penalty shortly afterwards. Substitute Moncur set up a shooting chance for Hammill, who went sprawling under a challenge from Matt Pennington, but referee Steve Martin instead booked the Barnsley player for ‘simulation’.
Said the Reds’ head coach: “I was expecting the foul to be given. It is my opinion, but I think it should have been a penalty.”
It was a real battle in the closing stages, but the Reds were unable to make the breakthrough and Morais, not for the first time in his brief 12-match run in charge of team affairs, was left pondering what might have been.
“A result that is not a winning one is always disappointing,” he told the media. “And it is disappointing because it is a result that should have been a different on. It is a result that has happened because we missed opportunities to score and make it a different one.
“There were some good moments from our team, but those moments should have achieved a different result for them. We controlled big moments in the first half, but it was a sad moment when we conceded. After we conceded we tried to run and change the result, but Leeds is a team with good players.
“I would say to my players that I am behind everything they are trying to do and we all know what we have to do.”
Yes. Beat Forest on Tuesday night. And thus keep hope alive.
Leeds United: Peacock-Farrell; Pennington, Jansson, O’Connor, Pearce, Phillips, Vieira, Alioski (Ekuban, 71 mins), Saiz (Forshaw, 84 mins), Roofe.
Barnsley: Davies; Yiadom, Mills (Hedges, 81 mins), Lindsay, Fryers, Gardner, Hammill, Mahoney (Moore, 62 mins), Potts, McBurnie, Bradshaw (Moncur, 73 mins).
Bookings: Vieira (Leeds); Hammill (Barnsley).
Referee: Steve Martin.