MICHAEL Duff’s introduction to the majority of Barnsley fans was a happy one as his side narrowly beat Cheltenham Town by a single goal.
The head coach said at the start of the season that there was an air of inevitability about an early clash with his former employers, with whom he won a League Two title and developed a reputation as one of the Football League’s brightest young managers.
Perhaps less inevitable was his side’s beating of the Robins given their poor start to the season and lingering question marks over whether they’ve got in enough new recruits of the required quality.
It was not a perfect performance but there was enough here – particularly in the outstanding display of goalscorer Luke Thomas – to at least temporarily stave off any major concerns.
Thomas’s 66th-minute strike was the midfielder’s reward for a tireless display of running, with and without the ball, as he grew into his role as Barnsley’s major attacking fulcrum sitting behind the front two.
The Reds’ new head coach Duff began his playing career at the Robins, scoring the goal that took them into the Football League in 1999, and ended a four-year stint at their helm when he moved to Barnsley ahead of this season.
The Reds’ owners clearly thought he could replicate his success in Gloucestershire 150 miles north up the M1, but the side’s poor performance in the 1-0 loss at Plymouth made clear how far they are from where they need to be to survive in League One.
In a fairly low-profile opening few minutes, Norwood, youngster Jack Aitchison and Thomas – who started his career at Cheltenham Town and is desperately looking to restart his faltering time with the Reds – showed some good movement to stretch the Robins’ defence, but supply was lacking.
Jordan Williams had a good opportunity to cross in the early exchanges but wasn’t able to find a way through, then Dan Nlundulu had the best chance of the first ten minutes but his limp effort was wide of the far post.
A decent chance fell to Callum Styles 17 minutes in, Thomas driving forward with the ball and finding Norwood who produced a neat flick for Liam Kitching who frequently advanced from his centre-back position.
Norwood had an effort deflected for a corner five minutes later, then Aitchison played a neat one-two with Thomas and will wonder how ‘keeper Luke Southwood kept his low strike out.
Elliot Bonds had a crack from long range following a corner just after the half-hour mark, but it was comfortably held by Brad Collins.
Nicky Cadden limped off with eight minutes of the first half to go, with Styles moving to left wing-back.
A few minutes from half-time, Josh Benson tried his luck from a free kick but his powerful effort hit a man in the wall, rounding out a fairly nondescript first half.
Benson then capitalised on a sustained period of pressure as the Reds came out flying for the second half, the midfielder having a crack from the edge of the box 50 minutes in.
Mads Andersen followed it up and knocked it past Southwood, but the centre-back was deemed to be offside.
The home fans needed something to cheer, and the mood was indeed lifted as the sun began to shine on Oakwell.
As the Reds continued to press high, Andersen played a neat one-touch pass out to Styles who dribbled past his man and fired over from the left of the box.
A few minutes later, Thomas advanced on goal and sent a swerving left-footed shot past Southwood.
Cheltenham Town have been tipped to struggle this season and for a significant passage of play, the home side looked content to let them aimlessly pass the ball around non-threatening areas.
But on the hour-mark, Liam Sercombe was able to let fly from outside the box, his shot hitting Alfie May who four minutes later lifted George Lloyd’s cross over the bar from a few yards out.
Barnsley saw out the latter stages in a composed fashion, a late diagonal run by Kitching from his own half into the opposition box – where he sent an effort over the bar – providing the last bit of excitement for the near-10,000 Reds fans in attendance.