Doug O'Kane analyses Sunday's 2-0 FA Cup third round win over Tranmere Rovers.
REDS REWARDED FOR TAKING CUP SERIOUSLY
Valerien Ismael had said he would play his strongest side in this FA Cup third round game and did so, except giving back-up goalkeeper Brad Collins a start.
As for the outfield players, who he wanted to stay in rhythm for the upcoming league games with a free week either side of this cup tie, he picked his strongest possible team.
The Reds are long overdue a good run in this competition, while winning games often helps the league form and there are also the benefits of prize and TV money as well as the possibility of facing a big Premier League club in the next round – which is Ismael’s hope for tonight’s draw.
Despite taking the competition seriously, there was bound to be a subconscious drop-off in intensity as the Reds took a detour from their surge into the Championship’s top ten to face a fourth tier side.
It was far from a vintage Barnsley performance, on an Oakwell pitch that cut up badly and saw players slip over regularly while making slick play difficult.
But they survived two big scares in the first half before completing a professional performance which earned a fourth straight home win while they also kept a first clean sheet in 11 matches.
It has to be kept in mind that this was against a side who were 13th in the fourth tier, and had only won one in five League Two matches, but Tranmere did knock out Premier League Watford last season. It was a weekend of shocks with the likes of Leeds United being thrashed by League Two Crawley Town, but Barnsley avoided such a humiliation and Tranmere are still without a win in 27 trips to Oakwell.
SIBBICK AND WILLIAMS RETURN, WHILE THOMAS IMPRESSES
Although he played a strong side, Ismael did give some gametime to players who have not featured recently as he used his five substitutes wisely.
Defenders Toby Sibbick and Jordan Williams came off the bench in the second half. Sibbick made an excellent interception in the 91st minute from a Kaiyne Woolery cross which looked set to be tapped in.
His return after a year spent on loan in Scotland and Belgium is a great example of Ismael’s ability to rejuvenate players and willingness to give them a chance despite what has gone before.
That is one of the factors which makes Oakwell a great place to be for young footballers at the moment.
Luke Thomas had been brought on at half-time for the ineffective Dominik Frieser. He added an extra dimension to the Reds, playing a part in the opener then winning another penalty after also being fouled for the previous Barnsley spot-kick against Wycombe in December. Thomas has been linked with a move this window but, although he lacks end product at times, his direct running and agility on the ball adds something to the squad and he should be kept at Oakwell unless another forward player is brought in.
Goalkeeper Collins started the match in place of number one Jack Walton and made two smart saves in the first half while looking good with the ball at his feet. Walton deserves to be first choice currently but they are almost joint number ones.
HELIK A PROLIFIC SCORER FROM CENTRE-BACK
Michal Helik is becoming a prolific scorer from centre-back.
The 59th-minute opener was the Pole's fourth goal of the season and third in four games.
He is the joint second top-scorer in all competitions.
Barnsley have struggled to score regularly from attacking set pieces in recent seasons but, with Helik in form and Herbie Kane providing good crosses, they are starting to become a threat from corners and free-kicks – as well as long throws – which adds an extra dimension and threat in tight games.
Helik has responded well to being dropped last month after a series of errors and has taken advantage of Aapo Halme’s unfortunate injury to establish himself in the 11 again. It is now a very congested position for Barnsley with Halme, who could return to training this week, pushing the starting three centre-backs along with Sibbick and new signing Liam Kitching as well as youngster Jasper Moon.
WOODROW IN DOUBLE FIGURES FOR 3RD STRAIGHT SEASON
Cauley Woodrow secured the win with his tenth goal of the season from the penalty spot right at the end.
He is the first Barnsley player to reach double figures in three successive campaigns since Sam Winnall whose tally of 48 Woodrow is now just four short of having played 15 fewer matches. He also has five goals in five FA Cup appearances for the Reds.
Those are exceptional numbers and he is one of the club’s best, if not the best, strikers of the last two decades.
Woodrow could easily have had a very different day as he was almost responsible for two Tranmere goals. He twice flicked on set pieces he was supposed to be defending at the front post - both times gifting the dangerous Kaiyne Woolery a good chance.
The winger was deep in the Barnsley box when he headed straight at Collins early on then volleyed over at 1-0 down.
Woodrow assisted a Preston goal last month in that front post defending role and needs to work on his positioning and leap to make sure he stops dangerously flicking set pieces into his own six-yard box.
Woodrow drifted in and out of the game but did produce a few wonderful moments of skill with turns, dummies and flicks to attempt to break through the resilient Rovers rearguard.
He could have made it 2-0 before he scored the penalty as he was gifted the ball in the 91st minute by Manny Monthe and went through on goal but his shot from the right of the box was easily saved.
Before that, he had sent a diving header wide from a first half cross by Dominik Frieser who Woodrow had impressively flicked the ball to near halfway.
HILL BEATEN 9 YEARS ON FROM LOSING STAR PLAYERS WHEN REDS BOSS
Keith Hill in the dugout at Oakwell, with Barnsley on good form and within touching distance of the Championship play-offs in January – we have been here before.
Nine years on from the January transfer window in which Hill lost Ricardo Vaz Te, Danny Drinkwater and Jacob Butterfield then fell from the top half to 21st, only surviving due to Portsmouth’s points deduction, on Sunday he was in the away dugout as Tranmere boss.
This was Barnsley’s first FA Cup victory at Oakwell in at least the third round stage in eight years since a team containing John Stones scraped past Burnley in 2013, days after Hill’s sacking as he could never fully recover from that January transfer window.
He is not the only manager to suffer such anguish – Paul Heckingbottom’s promotion side of 2016 lost three key men the following January and again dropped from the top ten.
Hill is entitled to feel slightly aggrieved that his methods of signing lower league players were so derided before being turned into the club’s main transfer strategy – albeit with more data-led precision than his recruitment of honest but limited lads he knew from the North West, mainly his old Rochdale employees.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why there was some tension, and foul language, on the touchline he shared with Valerien Ismael – a head coach who appears confident of keeping his star players throughout the transfer window which could help him maintain a push towards the top six.