Bristol Rovers 2, Barnsley 1
(SkyBet League One)
Memories of 51 years ago were stirred for older Barnsley supporters as the Reds’ bid for a league title were dashed by a last-day defeat at Bristol.
The previous Saturday Daniel Stendel’s side had completed a season unbeaten at home for the first time since the 1967-68 campaign,. On that occasion they won promotion from the old Division Four by finishing runners-up to Luton Town.
History has repeated itself in 2019. The Reds went into the final day level on points with the Hatters, but with an inferior goal difference, which meant they had to better the Luton result or, if both teams won, exceed their rivals’ winning margin by five goals, if they were to add the title to their automatic promotion prize.
It was always asking a lot, and any hopes of a fairy-tale conclusion to what has been a dream season were virtually dashed just before half-time, when central defender Liam Lindsay was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Luton were leading visitors Oxford United 1-0 at the time, so defeat for them was unlikely, while Barnsley’s chances of bridging that five-goal gap had been reduced from fanciful to zero.
The half-time substiutions of defenders Dimitri Cavare and Zeki Fryers for striker Kieffer Moore and attacking left-sided midfield player Mamadou Thiam made it obvious that head coach Daniel Stendel had decided to take the only sensible option – cling on to the one-goal advantage provided by an early Moore header and hope that somehow or other Oxford could stage a game-changing come-back at Kenilworth Road.
It proved too much, however, for the Barnsley ten, and a stoppage time goal saw them taste defeat for only the second time in 21 matches.
Disappointing, yes. But it mattered little. Not like last season, when a final day defeat confirmed relegation to League One. What a wonderful change has been brought about by the new man in charge in leading the Reds back to the Championship at the first attempt.
In doing so the team has broken club records for points totals and clean sheets while delighting their supporters with some thrilling football. That will live in the memory long after the disappointment of this defeat has been erased by the passage of time.
As Stendel said: “Our big goal was to get back to the Championship, so I am very happy.”
So are the fans!
Stendel made just one change for the visit to Bristol, Moore replacing Jacob Brown and playing up front with Cauley Woodrow, Mike Bahre switching from a central position to take Brown’s place on the right flank.
Rovers posed the bigger threat in the opening exchanges, but it was Barnsley who took the lead in the 12th minute when Cameron McGeehan set up the initial chance for Thiam, whose header was beaten away by Adam Smith in the home goal only for Moore to follow up with another header to notch his first goal since his come-back from a nasty head injury.
Liam Sercombe sent a volley just wide as the home team hit back but it was Alex Rodman who posed the biggest threat to the Barnsley defence and not only did he score both his side’s goals, he was also involved in the two incidents which completely changed the complexion of the game.
First he was brought down by Lindsay near the half-way line as he attempted to break away and a minute before the interval he found himself on the receiving end of another rash tackle from the Barnsley defender, who was given another yellow card – and then a red – by referee Darren Drysdale.
The double substitution at the start of the second half was designed to boost the Reds’ defensive capabilities and enable the team to cling on to their one-goal advantage and for a while it looked like the tactics would be successful, although they were rescued by a superb double save from goalkeeper Adam Davies.
But then, in the 71st minute, that man Rodman popped up again, this time to net the equaliser after his first attempt had been parried by Davies.
To their credit, the Reds managed to weather the storm which followed the Rovers’ breakthrough and they went close to restoring their lead when Woodrow was narrowly wide on two occasions.
They could not quite make it to the final whistle, however, and the home team snatched victory in the second minute of stoppage time when man of the match Rodman was left unmarked at the far post to net the winner following a swift counter-attack.
Bristol Rovers: Smith; Kelly, Lockyer (Kilgour, 90+4 mins), Craig, J Clarke, Sercombe, Upson (Lines, 83 mins), O Clarke, Ogogo (Reilly, 57 mins), Rodman, Jakubiak.
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; J Williams, Pinnock, Lindsay, Pinillos; Bahre (Green, 78 mins), McGeehan, Mowatt, Thiam (Fryers, 45 mins), Moore (Cavare, 45 mins), Woodrow.
Sending off: Lindsay (Barnsley).
Bookings: (Upson (Bristol Rovers); Mowatt (Barnsley).
Referee: Darren Drysdale.