Barnsley 2, Blackpool 1
(SkyBet League One)
(By Keith Lodge)
A winning header just before the hour mark at Oakwell has put the promotion ball very firmly back in Barnsley’s court.
While there are still several last-day permutations to be considered, the bottom line is, that if the Reds beat Bristol Rovers on their visit to the Memorial Stadium next Saturday, they will be back in the Championship at the first time of asking.
It was a day when everything went right for the Oakwell team – apart from the 15th minute when Blackpool silenced the larger than usual crowd by taking a shock lead. Table-topping Luton Town were beaten 2-1 at Burton Albion while the Reds’ two other main rivals, Sunderland and Portsmouth, also lost ground after sharing a point in a feisty 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light, which did not do either of them much good.
It means that Daniel Stendel’s side now share top spot with Luton and can now not only clinch promotion in their final match they could even snatch the title away from the Hatters, who had looked to have the championship sewn up until recent slips.
A thoroughly deserved victory also means that the Reds have gone through a season unbeaten at home for the first time since the 1967-68 campaign, when they won promotion from the old Fourth Division by finishing runners-up – to Luton Town!
Central defender Liam Lindsay, scorer of the all-important winner against Blackpool, revealed after the game that when Stendel arrived at the club in the summer he said he wanted to make Oakwell a fortress – and his team have done just that.
The man who has promotion within his grasp in his first season in charge was quick to point out, in his post-match meeting with the media, that a lot of people were to thank for that. “It is all down to teamwork,” he said. “We are all together. Manager, staff and supporters.”
He was delighted with his side’s performance on the day. “We played well – especially in the second half – we created chances, and we deserved to win the game.”
As for completing the job in a week’s time he reflected: “We celebrated today’s win even more when we heard the other results in the dressing room. One more win and we’re up. We have worked so hard all season, we just want to win that last one. Then we really can celebrate.”
The celebratory scenes when the players returned to the pitch to receive their traditional final home game of the season appreciation from the supporters – after a premature ‘invasion’ by a small number who ignored the plea to remain in their seats – seemed to suggest that the fans are convinced that nothing can stop the promotion dream from ending happily.
That is patently not the case. Defeat at Bristol and the Reds could be left to rely on their luck in the play-offs lottery!
There is still a job to do. Do it, and then we – I say that as a fan as well as a career-long reporter of the Reds’ ups and downs – really can celebrate.
There was little worthy of note in the opening quarter-of-an-hour against a Blackpool side who had nothing to play for – any chance of the play-offs had disappeared and they were safe from any relegation fears.
The Reds had already begun to dominate possession, but had not come close to creating a single clear-cut chance, while at the same time there was a huge moment of prophetic concern when Blackpool caught them in a three on two situation in a swift counter-attack and the home team were rescued by a misplaced final pass.
Shortly after that came the stunned silence when Armand Gnanduillet flicked on a cross to the unmarked Harry Pritchard, whose shot deflected off the unfortunate Jordan Williams, past the wrong-footed Adam Davies and into the net.
Barnsley needed an early goal to settle the nerves. Instead it had gone to Blackpool, who could now sit back, defend in numbers, challenge the opposition to break them down, and rely on more quick-fire breaks to open up the possibility of a second ‘killer’ goal.
It made the Reds’ task harder than it should have been, but at least they responded immediately to this ‘kick up the pants’, as Lindsay later described it, at least in terms of increased energy and determination if not an equaliser.
A cross from the marauding Williams, eager to atone for his frustrating part in the Blackpool opener, was headed over the bar from six yards by Mamadou Thiam; Mike Bahre had a shot blocked in a frantic goalmouth melee; Ethan Pinnock headed wide during a series of Barnsley corners; a right-footer from Cameron McGeehan swung just wide from 22 yards; a great long ball from Alex Mowatt sent Thiam scampering goalwards but the angle was too narrow and Christopher Mafoumbi saved.
All that Blackpool could offer amidst all this pressure was a header from Ben Heneghan which looped over the bar following a free-kick.
But then, five minutes before half-time, came the threatened breakthrough. Cauley Woodrow managed to find both time and space at the edge of a crowded penalty area to turn and fire the ball past the Blackpool goalkeeper for his 19th goal of the season, and there was an audible sigh of relief from the fans before they broke into congratulatory cheers.
The singing quickly followed, but that was silenced four minutes later when Jacob Brown, who has been excellent since cementing his place in the first team, went down injured for the second time and had to be substituted. The cheers returned when that substitute was seen to be striker Kieffer Moore, continuing his build-up of match fitness after a lengthy injury absence.
In the second half it was all Barnsley. Five minutes after the break they produced their best passing move of the game, which ended with a Woodrow shot being deflected for a flag kick, and shortly after that Mafoumbi leapt to his right to make a superb one-handed save from a Thiam curler which was bound for the top corner.
Then, just before the hour mark, the Reds finally made the most of their glut of corners – they had 13 in all. An inswinger from McGeehan was met with a sweetly-timed glancing header from Lindsay and as the ball rustled the back of the net there was a thunderous cry of ‘Yeeee- s’ from the home fans.
Almost immediately there was a chorus of ‘If you’re going up, stand up’ – and so they did.
It was almost a training ground session of attack v defence after that as the Reds swept forward, but they failed to add the third goal which would have made the closing stages a little more comfortable. Everyone knows that, in such a scenario, it needs only one counter-attack, one chance, or one defensive slip, to undo all the good work that has preceded it.
Such a moment came 15 minutes from time, but Davies, who had little to do all afternoon, was alert enough to make a routine save from Pritchard following a corner.
Otherwise all the action was at the other end, Bahre timing his run to perfection only to fire wide; Woodrow blazing over the bar after breaking free on the right; Moore managing to hoist the ball up and over from a couple of yards, and then bringing a good save from Mafoumbi.
The statistics emphasise Barnsley’s dominance. They had 57 per cent of the possession; they had 22 attempts at goal to Blackpool’s five; they hit the target with six of them, while the visitors managed only two; and the corner count was a remarkable 13-1 in favour of the Reds.
They had enough chances to have more than doubled their advantage, but will be more than happy with the two goals they did score – not to mention the three points which accompanied them.
Barnsley (4-4-1-1): Davies; J Williams, Pinnock, Lindsay, Pinillos; Brown (Moore, 44 mins), McGeehan, Mowatt, Thiam (Hedges, 88 mins); Bahre (Styles, 90+3); Woodrow.
Blackpool (4-4-2): Mafoumbi; Nottingham, Heneghan, Tilt, Bola; Thompson, Spearing, Pritchard (Long, 85 mins), Kirby (Delfouneso, 45 mins); Evans (Feeney, 66 mins), Gnanduillet.
Booking: Evans (Blackpool).
Referee: John Busby.