Eight hundred and sixty-five days after he finished off a 4-0 home win over Oxford United in League One, Victor Adeboyejo netted a far better and more important second Barnsley league goal to continue a remarkable resurgence for both him and his club.
The 22-year-old striker, who has been brought out of the wilderness by Valerien Ismael, fired in his second Championship goal with nine minutes to play.
A year previously, he was coming on for the final eight minutes of an FA Cup second round replay in Plymouth for Bristol Rovers during one of two unhappy loan spells which saw him net twice in 38 games for the League One Gas and League Two Cambridge.
Now he is Ismael’s ‘game-changer’, as he adds a physicality, power and strength to unsettle defences – as well as quality finishing as we saw on Tuesday and last month at Derby County.
Not only did he win the game, but he seemed to be an organiser in the Reds’ box while defending set pieces late on, listening to advice from the bench when others seemed too drained to heed it.
It was a big call by Valerien Ismael to bring on Adeboyejo and Luke Thomas, who was also lively, for the match-winner at Sheffield Wednesday three days earlier, Dominik Frieser, and Conor Chaplin who, as he often does, looked the most likely player to create a goal. But it paid off spectacularly as Barnsley began to build pressure and eventually broke through.
Only leaders Norwich City have scored more goals in the last ten minutes of Championship games this season than Barnsley’s eight, which have earned them eight points.They include Woodrow’s last-gasp penalty to secure a draw with Bristol City, the strikes by him and Callum Styles to beat Nottingham Forest, Styles’ winner at Birmingham City and both Adeboyejo’s goals against Derby County and now Preston.
It was hugely impressive that the Reds – who made one change to their 11 compared to the visitors’ five – seemed to get stronger as their third game in seven days and eighth in 25 went on.
The change to five substitutes rather than three was criticised by some who said it would benefit the wealthier sides, but Ismael has thrived on the ability to get people like Adeboyejo in the game earlier and more often.
Alex Mowatt sent a superb shot into the net from outside the box for the third time this season, after the equaliser at Millwall and the winner at home to Watford.
The Reds’ skipper is regularly coming up with moments of individual brilliance to get his team back into games or into the lead – emphasising how important it is that he extends his contract which is due to expire at the end of the season.
Mowatt’s equaliser in the 54th minute was the first time they have netted in the first 15 minutes of the second half, in which they had conceded seven goals.
Preston brought Daniel Johnson and Paul Gallagher – a 36-year-old who made his Premier League debut when Callum Styles was two – into the midfield three following injury, with 597 Championship appearances between them. But although they outnumbered Matty James and Mowatt, they could not outplay them as the home pair kept driving their side on.
James put in a good shift against his former club, while Mowatt broke forwards impressively including for his spectacular leveller before also playing a part in the winner.
Possession was almost exactly split evenly as Barnsley have seen a lot more of the ball in the last three games.
Michal Helik replaced the injured Aapo Halme in the middle of the back three and recorded almost unheard-of numbers by winning 16 aerial battles and making seven clearances. It was an impressive response to being dropped last week. He also made the joint most tackles along with fellow centre-backs Mads Andersen and Michael Sollbauer who produced decent displays but both should have scored their first Reds goals in the opening 13 minutes. Andersen headed wide a Mowatt free-kick then an unmarked Sollbauer nodded a Styles corner off-target.
The last time Preston visited Oakwell, Andersen gifted them their second goal by dwelling on the ball near the touchline and losing it – as he did so many times last season – while their third before half-time was due to a mix-up between and him and Halme. Now he is a strong, confident, ball-playing defender who has been back to his best this week after a small dip in form.
Sollbauer was signed days after the 3-0 loss at home to Preston in January and has hugely improved the defence.
This win moved Barnsley into the Championship’s top ten for the first time since early 2017 under Paul Heckingbottom, other than the first week of last season.
With the gap to the top six just four points, some fans will be starting to get seriously giddy about where the Reds can finish and, while a promotion challenge still looks a tall order, the fact it is even being quietly whispered about is huge progress from last season.
This was a seventh win of the season over bottom half opposition and, if the Reds can record a fourth straight victory by winning at high-flying Swansea on Saturday, then more and more supporters will start to dream of something very special come May.
Ismael and his players are repeatedly insisting that they are just focusing on securing their safety for another season, which is shrewd.
They are not even halfway through the campaign and the club need to stay true to their word that they will not sell key players in January – the undoing of Heckingbottom’s side and also Keith Hill’s promising team in the January of 2012.
Should they reach February with all their key players still at the club, with a few clever additions, and still in the top ten within a handful of points of the play-offs – after facing a series of promotion-chasers in January – then it will start to become really exciting.