Walsall 0, Barnsley 1
(SkyBet League One)
Barnsley assistant coach Dale Tonge had warned that relegation-threatened Walsall would be no push-overs – and so it proved.
Not until the second minute of stoppage time did the Reds manage to produce one moment of quality, in a most uninspiring game, to snatch the three precious points which boosted their hopes of clinching the second automatic promotion place.
Tonge hit the nail on the proverbial head in his pre-match interview when he stated: “I’m surprised Walsall are in the position they are in, as they were one of the best teams to come to Oakwell when we drew 1-1. It will be difficult for us, as both teams have something to play for”.
And difficult it was. So difficult, in fact, that even head coach Daniel Stendel admitted his side were lucky to win.
He told the media after the game: “We cannot be satisfied with the performance, but we can be very satisfied with the result. It was an important victory for us and just what we needed at this stage of the season. But we were lucky.”
Very often, of course, a team needs good fortune during a season if they are to be successful, and it certainly smiled on Barnsley at Banks’s Stadium.
At the same time, however, one cannot ignore the statistics which spell out quite clearly the strengths the Reds have which have been largely instrumental in their impressive record this season.
This was their 20th clean sheet of the campaign – the first time that has happened since 1984-85 – as well as their seventh in successive games – and you have to go back as far as 1955 to find the last time a Barnsley side achieved that distinction.
Once again the solidity of the defence, particularly the central pairing of Ethan Pinnock and Liam Lindsay, was the rock upon which this latest success was built, and a huge debt of gratitude must also go to stand-in goalkeeper Jack Walton, deputising for skipper Adam Davies, absent on Welsh international duty. The youngster made two excellent saves to prevent Walsall taking the lead, and possibly the points.
However, the hero of the hour – or rather the 95 minutes – was Jacob Brown, back in the side after serving a three-match suspension, who snatched the winner in the second minute of stoppage time.
Cameron McGeehan also returned after missing the last three encounters as a result of his retrospective red card in the 3-0 away win at Southend, but he looked off the pace following his enforced absence, and was substituted by Victor Adeboyejo in the 76th minute.
The only other change in the starting line-up saw the recall of Mike Bahre in his now familiar support role just behind lone striker Cauley Woodrow, who cut an isolated figure on this occasion as the Reds, not for the first time in recent games, struggled to find the high tempo and fluidity which had characterised earlier performances in a very impressive run of 19 league fixtures without defeat.
Scrappy was probably the best word to describe the game as a whole and it was hardly the kind of fare to set before a live mid-day television audience.
After Alex Mowatt had an early shot saved easily by Liam Roberts came Barnsley’s first slice of good luck, when Walsall ‘s Isaiah Osbourne had a spectacular volley from the edge of the penalty area controversially ruled out.
Zeli Ismail was a constant threat down Walsall’s right, but the home team were unable to find a way through the compact Barnsley defence and it was the Reds who engineered the best chance of the half.
It came ten minutes before the break when Mamadou Thiam forced his way into the penalty area and let fly with a powerful drive which was brilliantly turned over the bar by Roberts. On reflection there would probably have been a more favourable outcome had the winger opted for placement rather than power on this occasion.
The second half followed a similarly unexciting pattern, although there were moments when it looked as though the Reds’ unbeaten run was going to come to an end.
First Ben Williams reacted quickly to hook the ball off the line after a Corey Blackett-Taylor shot had beaten Walton, who then saved with his legs from Gordon before bringing off a stunning reaction save from Ismail only a minute later.
Woodrow, lacking the service essential to any striker assigned a thankless lone role, finally manufactured a chance for himself in the closing minutes, cleverly side-stepping two defenders in the penalty area, only to see his low shot well saved.
A goalless draw seemed inevitable after that.
But then, in the second minute of stoppage time, Dimitri Cavare’s good work on the right sparked off the best move of a disappointing match, Adeboyejo and Mowatt then proving the dual link to the lurking Brown, who saw his first effort blocked, but made no mistake from the rebound, steering the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs and low into the bottom corner of the net.
Cue ecstatic celebrations from the last-ditch hero, his team-mates, the Barnsley bench and the one thousand or so Reds’ fans.
It was a golden goal which maintained the Oakwell team’s four point advantage over third-placed Portsmouth, with Sunderland a further point behind, although with two games in hand.
Luton, meanwhile, went sailing serenely along, five points clear at the top, with a 4-0 victory over Doncaster Rovers.
It is looking more and more like a three-horse race for the second automatic promotion spot.
Walsall: Roberts; Devlin, Scarr, Guthrie, Osbourne (Cook, 90+4 mins), Dobson, Kinsella, Blackett, Taylor, Gordon, Ismail (Ferrier, 89 mins).
Barnsley (4-4-1-1): Walton; Cavare, Pinnock, Lindsay, B Williams; Brown, McGeehan (Adeboyejo), Mowatt, Thiam (Green, 84 mins); Bahre (Styles, 68 mins); Woodrow.
Bookings: Dobson (Walsall); Lindsay, Green, Brown (Barnsley).
Referee: Ben Toner.