Analysis of Barnsley's 3-1 loss at Exeter City which left them fourth in League One, six points off the top two. Bobby Thomas cancelled out an early opener but the hosts netted at the start and end of the second half.
BAD NIGHT WITHIN FANTASTIC RUN
WHEN Michael Duff achieved his lifelong ambition of reaching the Premier League as a player in Burnley’s 2009 play-off final victory, he was standing alongside centre-back partner Steven Caldwell and the pair shared a knowing grin in the final seconds before the whistle blew.
On Tuesday, Steven’s brother Gary – the Exeter manager – put a dent in the Reds boss’ chances of reaching the highest level of his managerial career with a deserved home win.
Barnsley are still in contention for the top two but would need to repeat the form they showed in the games building up to Tuesday for the remainder of the season with no more slip-ups for them, plus some for their rivals.
To even be in that position is beyond the expectations of most in Duff’s hugely successful first season.
The good work the Reds have done over the last five months – taking 51 points from 22 games, which is title-winning form – suggests this will be a one-off or even a valuable wake-up call, rather than the start of a late-season wobble.
They were unbeaten in 12 with ten wins, including the last four, while they had not conceded in three away games. It was a sensational run which took Duff’s side from play-off hopefuls to serious top two contenders having comfortably defeated a series of promotion rivals with brilliant performances.
Those standards were always going to be difficult to maintain and they fell well below them on Tuesday. There was a question mark over how the Reds would react to such a memorable win like the derby defeat of Sheffield Wednesday a week earlier and there may have been an emotional hangover from that in a very different atmosphere in Devon – although Duff denied it was a factor.
The impressive Grecians – who had won their last three home games including a 5-0 thrashing of Accrington Stanley on Saturday – became the first side to do the double over Duff’s Barnsley, having won 2-0 at Oakwell in October to end a six-game unbeaten run.
That was the start of a run of one point and no goals from four games for the Reds but they are now in a much better position to bounce back from this loss.
EXETER NOT HAPPY PLACE FOR REDS FANS
This match was originally called off in January due to a frozen pitch with three hours notice and no prior warning, prompting apologies from the Grecians and official complaints from the disgruntled Reds.
The fact the away attendance this week was more than 100 more than for the original fixture shows the momentum and excitement the team had built in recent months.
An away crowd of 450 was a very impressive number for a 520-mile round trip in midweek which many of them had already made.
Fans were presented with a free hot drink and a letter of thanks from chief executive Khaled El-Ahmad.
Sadly that was where the good gestures ended as Barnsley produced a poor performance, losing their first game at St James Park since 1980 and suffering a ninth defeat there in 11 games.
To misquote the poet John Keats, if the last attempt to play at Exeter was ‘Ode to a Grecian U-Turn’ this was more ‘Ode To Melancholy.’
But there was no noticeable vitriol from the fans after the match, more a mixture of disappointment and recognition that this was one bad night after several superb months. The players applauded the away end as usual and received the same in return.
FIRST GOAL TENDS TO DEFINE REDS MATCHES
The Reds have now fallen behind in 11 league games this season, collecting just two points from those fixtures – the fewest in the division from losing positions. Only Championship clubs Rotherham and Blackburn have fewer in the top four divisions.
The first goal seems crucial as, when Barnsley have scored it this season, they have won 22 games and drawn two with Port Vale and Accrington Stanley – the best record in the division.
The last time the Reds came from behind to win was in November 2021 against Derby County at Oakwell under caretaker Jo Laumann with goals by Victor Adeboyejo and Aaron Leya Iseka.
They would argue that they had not been behind at any point in their 12-match unbeaten run while it is one of few poor statistics for a generally admirable side.
They actually responded well to falling behind the first time in Exeter but could not do so again.
The problems in midweek were more based on a poor performance than a fragility when conceding the opener but is unlikely that they will gain promotion without at least some comeback victories.
ANDERSEN BREAKS APPEARANCE RECORD
Mads Andersen broke a record for the most Barnsley appearances by a non-British or Irish player when he played for the 165th time on Tuesday.
He surpassed the total accrued by fellow centre-back Arjan De Zeeuw who was also brought over from the continent by the Reds a quarter of a century earlier.
Barnsley have had some terrific foreign talent over the years so to be top of that list is a fine achievement.
It has been a pleasure to watch Andersen grow from a callow youth thrown too early into a Championship relegation scrap in an equally young defence in 2019 into an extremely consistent performer over the last three years, earning him the captain’s armband.
The smiley Dane is an extremely popular figure at Oakwell and in the fanbase – as well as probably in recruitment departments across English and overseas clubs with his contract due to expire next summer.
He was the most solid Barnsley defender on Tuesday.
BARNSLEY GENERALLY OFF THEIR BEST
When Exeter won at Oakwell in October, Duff said his side were ‘lifeless and limp’ adding: ‘no hungry, no energy, no quality.’
He was not quite as scathing this time but again Barnsley produced a flat and disjointed performance littered with basic errors. Exeter, with former Barnsley midfield battler David Perkins on their coaching staff, just had more energy and buzz as they won most of the loose balls.
They played too many aimless long balls, especially in the first half, and, when they did get in good positions, the crosses, passes and shots lacked accuracy and composure – usually badly overhit.
The goals they conceded were extremely poor – with Jordan Williams twice beaten easily by Jay Stansfield in similar positions by the byline on the left for the first two then Harry Isted’s fumble and Bobby Thomas’ wild tackle led to the penalty which finished the Reds off. Williams and Thomas had particularly tough nights on the right of the defence.
Barnsley’s three away games in March brought generally underwhelming performances as, although they drew at Bristol Rovers and won at Wycombe, they were nowhere near as impressive or energetic as in their excellent run of home wins.
Exeter are a young and talented side on their way to a decent mid-table finish following promotion and, after the Reds started brightly, managed to play around Barnsley’s press and force their lacklustre visitors into errors.
Herbie Kane and Luca Connell had good moments in the first half but struggled after the break, while Adam Phillips continued a mini run of lesser performances in an excellent season overall, and most of the rest were not at their usual levels.
The bench, which has helped the Reds turn the tide in previous games, was surprisingly ineffective with Luke Thomas particularly subdued.