Barnsley 3, Bradford City 0
(SkyBet League One)
(By Keith Lodge)
If anyone had any doubts about Barnsley’s promotion credentials they must surely have been blown away by the team’s derby demolition of Bradford City.
The visitors may have been bottom of the league and seven points adrift of safety after 20 matches; they may have arrived at Oakwell still fourth from bottom of the table; but they had been transformed by new manager David Hopkin into the current form team of the League with four wins – all with clean sheets while scoring 13 goals – in their last five games, the only blemish being a 1-0 defeat at high-flying Sunderland on Boxing Day.
And for the first 20 minutes one could see why they had lost only three of their last 14 fixtures in all competitions. They swarmed all over the Reds in a manner very reminiscent of those other derby day visitors Doncaster Rovers, who were so unlucky not to take all three points from Oakwell in late November.
A series of corners before a quarter-of-an-hour had elapsed had the home team on the back foot and the Reds, hustled and bustled out of their stride, struggled to find the fluency which had characterised their lucrative festive fixtures against the top teams.
Gradually, however, they began to match the intensity of City’s play; they eased into a more assured rhythm; and the game-changer arrived in the 27th minute.
A clever inter-change of passes between Mamadou Thiam and Alex Mowatt on the left opened up the City defence and the latter’s clipped cross found 20-year-old Jacob Brown perfectly positioned to head home.
Brown went on to produce the best performance of his fledgling career – which has seen him operate at full-back, central striker and winger – and totally vindicated head coach Daniel Stendel’s decision to give him the unenviable task of replacing the departed Brad Potts wide on the right of a four-man midfield.
After the game Stendel revealed that Brown was not in his Potts-replacement plans at the beginning of the week, but so impressed in training sessions that he changed his thinking. It proved an inspired decision.
It also emphasised that, even if one regular and popular first team player has been lured away, Stendel still has a very strong squad at his disposal. On the bench against Bradford were Kenny Dougall, Mike Bahre, George Moncur and Ryan Hedges, all of whom could claim to be very unlucky not to be included in the starting line-up.
It would, however, be unwise to weaken the playing staff with a further transfer window sale.
Brown’s goal sparked a period of domination by the Reds which brought a near miss, a disallowed goal, and then a legitimate one, all in the space of the next ten minutes.
More top quality play on the left flank, Thiam this time linking with Ben Williams, resulted in Cauley Woodrow heading over at the near post; and then Williams’ speared over a glorious cross for Cameron McGeehan to deposit the ball in the back of the net – unfortunately he did it with his hands rather than any other legal part of his anatomy, therefore not only was the score disallowed, it also earned him a booking.
It was a pity, because McGeehan deserved a goal for a man-of-the-match performance which emphasised just how well he has seized his first-team opportunity after being in the shadows at the start of the campaign.
He has performed better and better as the season has progressed, and this was his best. He has formed such a commanding central midfield partnership with Alex Mowatt that Kenny Dougall, so influential prior to his injury, cannot reclaim his place in the side now that he is fully fit again.
Stendel is blessed to have three players as good as these in such a pivotal part of the pitch, but he can only accommodate two of them, so it does provide him with a selection problem, albeit one he is no doubt pleased to have.
The second goal arrived in the 37th minute and this time the slick build-up play came down the right, with Thiam cutely flicking the ball to Mowatt with his heel, and the latter setting up top-scorer Kieffer Moore for a simple tap-in.
The Reds were in cruise control after the break and it became merely a matter of how many they would score. They finished with three. It could have been at least double that.
Shortly after the restart a McGeehan effort was deflected over the bar; Moore headed over from six yards; Cavare’s long-range drive was well-struck but straight at goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell; Moore had a chance to put Woodrow clear but delayed his pass and was robbed; a goal-worthy attempt by McGeehan from 30 yards was inches wide; Thiam had only the goalkeeper to beat but somehow managed to drag his shot wide; another flowing move resulted in McGeehan failing by a fraction to hit the target; substitute Victor Adeboyejo brought a full-length save from O’Donnell – and so it went on.
In the 88th minute Brown, scampering beyond the last line of the City defence, looked certain to score until he was brought down from behind by Adam Chicksen, who was shown the inevitable red card, and O’Donnell made another top-class save from Mowatt’s free-kick.
In stoppage time Bahre, having replaced Woodrow, set up Adeboyejo with a defence-splitting pass, but the youngster dragged it well wide, and it looked as though the Reds were going to have to settle for just a brace of goals.
However, Mowatt made the most of yet another opportunity, seizing on to a lofted pass from Brown, to provide a scoreline which more accurately reflected Barnsley’s superiority.
Even then, against ten-man City, there was still time for Adeboyejo to miss another sitter! And on his 22nd birthday, too!
Brown and Cavare on the right mirrored the threat posed by Thiam and Williams on the left, and there were times when the adventurous forays of the full-backs left the Reds exposed to a swift counter-attack, but central defenders Ethan Pinnock and Liam Lindsay were alert to the dangers, so much so that goalkeeper Adam Davies did not have a shot to save throughout the game, the resulting clean sheet being Barnsley’s fourth in the last five league games.
Victory means that the Reds, now unbeaten at home in 17 matches since March last year, have cut the gap on leaders Portsmouth, who were beaten by Blackpool, to eight points, and that on second-placed Luton Town, who lost manager Nathan Jones to Stoke City earlier in the week, to four. And they have a game in hand on those two teams who occupy the automatic promotion places.
Now Barnsley have an opportunity to close the gap even further, with their next five fixtures against sides currently in the bottom eight. But, as assistant coach Andreas Winkler has said, they need to take these games even more seriously than those against the top of the table teams, because they have not had good results against those nearer the bottom.
It is a warning that the players should heed. There are no easy matches. The momentum has to be carried on match by match, irrespective of the status of the opposition.
Consistency is the key.
But it does promise to be an extremely exciting run-in from now to the end of the campaign!
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; Cavare, Pinnock, Lindsay, Williams; Brown, McGeehan, Mowatt, Thiam (Moncur, 86 mins); Woodrow (Bahre, 70 mins), Moore (Adeboyejo, 81 mins).
Bradford City (5-3-2): O’Donnell; McGowan, O’Connor (Miller, 45 mins), Knight-Percival, Chicksen; Ball, Caddis (Akpan, 70 mins), O’Brien; Doyle, Payne (Wood, 72 mins).
Sending-off: Chicksen (Bradford).
Bookings: Lindsay, Brown, McGeehan, Mowatt (Barnsley). McGowan, Payne (Bradford)
Referee: Jeremy Simpson.
Attendance: 14,962 (3,602 from Bradford)