Barnsley 2, Brentford 0
“Has that clock stopped?” queried the fraught female fan adjacent to the Press Box midway through the second half as she glanced nervously at the large illuminated digital timepiece situated in one corner of Oakwell.
Barnsley were leading 2-0 at the time and apparently on their way to a priceless three points to aid their relegation fight, but she had seen her team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory far too many times to be able to relax in confident expectation, and the minutes were ticking away far too slowly.
On this occasion, however, she need not have worried. The Reds, casting aside Tuesday’s wretched performance in the 3-0 defeat away to Nottingham Forest, were in no mood to let another opportunity slip away.
They continued to chase, they harried, they crunched into tackles, they were positive – and they worked together as a team. As a result Brentford, needing victory to keep alive their play-off hopes, never looked like forcing their way back into the game.
Head coach Jose Morais, left puzzled and perplexed by his team’s mid-week capitulation, was ‘a happy man’ as he reflected on the latest turn of events in the company of the media after the game.
“Today,” he smiled, “the team showed what I expect them to show. I was willing them on, because I believe they have a lot of potential, a lot of quality, that for some reason does not come out in some moments.”
Still confident his team can retain their Championship status, he went on: “The seeds are there and they will come out. Today it came in part and I believe there is still much more to come.”
It was only the Reds’ third win since New Year’s Day, and it lifted them out of the drop zone on goal difference. They are now level on points with Burton Albion, both teams leapfrogging Bolton Wanderers, who were beaten 2-0 on their visit to The Brewers, and they will escape relegation if they match or better both Burton and Bolton results on the final day of the campaign next Sunday, when they visit Derby County.
It is a case of two out of five for the slide into League One, with Birmingham City and Reading also candidates to join already relegated Sunderland.
What a climax it is going to be!
And there must be renewed hope that the Reds can claw their way clear. There was a lot of the old ‘battling Barnsley’ about the team against Brentford and a similar attitude at Pride Park will certainly give them a fighting chance, despite the fact that the Rams also have the incentive they need, with a win guaranteeing their place in the play-offs.
It was all change defensively yet again as Morais brought back captain Andy Yiadom, Zeki Fryers and Ethan Pinnock, while Connor Mahoney was given the nod wide right of the front three and 20-year-old goalkeeper Jack Walton made his first home appearance after an impressive debut at Forest.
But the big surprise was the decision to play Adam Hammill in the centre of midfield, and for the first ten minutes it looked like a big mistake as Brentford’s slick passing threatened to overwhelm not only Hammill but the entire Barnsley team.
And yet it was Hammill who ultimately received the fans’ vote as the Man of the Match, along with a standing ovation when he was substituted in stoppage time!
It was a double accolade he duly deserved for an energetic and purposeful performance complemented by a dead ball assist for the second half goal which gave his team that important two-goal cushion.
And while this was essentially a triumph for teamwork, three other individual contributions deserve particular mention.
Mahoney caught the eye with some deft footwork, weaving runs, and a praiseworthy desire to help out, to good effect, in defensive situations; Liam Lindsay was outstanding in the centre of defence, highlighted by a magnificent challenge to deny Sergi Canos what looked like a certain equaliser on the half-hour mark; and as for Oli McBurnie…..
What else can you say about the Swansea City loanee who, since his February signing has now scored nine goals, without which the Reds would already have been relegated?
The fans certainly realise what a big debt they owe him. Despite the fact he has been at Oakwell only three months they voted him as their Player of the Season, the trophy being handed to him before kick-off.
As with Hammill a minute earlier, the fans rose to cheer him off the pitch in what was his final home appearance before returning to Wales. It was a fitting send-off.
There had been little to indicate in the first ten minutes that the afternoon would end so happily for the Reds. The busy bees of Brentford buzzed around the Barnsley box, their slick inter-change of passes bewildering the home defence, and Walton was forced into a save as early as the fourth minute.
Another chance came and went and it looked as though the rocking Reds were in for a tough time of it.
But completely out of the blue it was Barnsley who took the lead in the tenth minute. Breaking clear down the left to relieve the pressure on an overworked defence, Keiffer Moore ran on to net with an effort than no goalkeeper in the world would have had a hope of stopping, the ball flying over Daniel Bentley and in off the far post.
The big striker will probably insist that he meant it. But everybody else knew that it was intended as cross. It matters not. It was a vital goal which completely changed the atmosphere. It gave the Reds, and their fans, hope. And it dented Brentford’s confidence.
Suddenly the visitors did not look so fluent. Attacks began to break down. And the Reds’ defence was transformed from rocky to rock-like.
There was just one moment of concern when a rare mistake by Pinnock gifted possession to Brentford just inside the Barnsley half. Canos was set free to career into the penalty area, but, just as he was about to shoot, the ball was swept away from him by a superbly-timed tigerish tackle from Lindsay.
Just before that Moore had missed a chance to increase Barnsley’s lead, heading wide at full stretch from a Mahoney cross.
But that welcome second goal did come five minutes after the interval when McBurnie was yet again in the right place at the right time to head home from a Hammill corner. It was greeted with a euphoric roar from the home supporters.
From that moment on the Reds were in charge. A stunned Brentford never recovered. The poise and purpose of their early play disappeared and they became ragged and desperate.
The Reds could – and should – have at least doubled their advantage, with Moore being the worst culprit when it came to missing chances.
Five minutes after McBurnie’s strike Mahoney slalomed skillfully down the right, cut inside and fired in a left-foot shot which Bentley could only parry, but Moore, faced with a gaping goal, put the rebound wide.
Then the marauding Hammill created another chance, but again Moore failed to find the target.
Hammill himself tested Bentley after he and McBurnie had shared some good build-up play down the left and these two were again involved after Gary Gardner had opened up the Brentford defence with a precise pass, Hammill this time shooting wide.
Brad Potts also tried his luck from 25 yards, his daisy-cutter flashing just the wrong side of the post.
Brentford finally managed to produce only their second shot on target in the 76th minute, a swerver from Henrik Dalsgaard being well caught by Walton, who was faultless in the Barnsley goal.
When the final whistle sounded there were premature celebrations from some foolish fans who invaded the pitch – despite having been politely asked not to do so by way of announcements over the loudspeaker system.
Their joy was understandable. But the Reds are not yet safe. There is still one more match to play. One more hurdle to overcome.
The clock is still ticking…..
Barnsley (4-3-3): Walton; Yiadom, Pinnock, Lindsay, Fryers; Potts, Gardner, Hammill (Moncur, 90+1 mins), Mahoney (Thiame, 86 mins), Moore, McBurnie (Cavare, 90 + 2 mins).
Brentford (4-1-3-2): Bentley; Dalsgaard, Egan, Mepham, Barbet; Woods; Jozefzoon, MacLeod (Yennaris (58 mins), Canos (Maupay, 58 mins); Sawters (Mokotjo, 73 mins), Watkins.
Booking: Barbet (Brentford).
Referee: Darren Bond.