Analysis of Barnsley's 2-1 loss at Burton Albion on Friday.
MAJOR REFEREE ERROR SETS TONE FOR GAME
When John Brayford threw himself to his right to block a James Norwood shot with his hand in the 12th minute, it looked like Barnsley’s wait for a league penalty this season was finally over.
There would surely also be a red card for the home captain, leaving the in-form Reds nearly-certain winners.
But referee Adam Herczeg - who had been well-placed to see the incident on the edge of the box - confidently and instantly waved away the protests of the stunned visitors.
It was a blatant penalty and a terrible error by the official - an incredibly frustrating moment for the Reds with a potentially career-changing promotion on the line as well as millions of pounds for the cash-strapped club.
It only compounded frustrations that have been bubbling all season in which the Reds have not been given a penalty and seen a series of big decisions go against them.
Barnsley have not been awarded a spot-kick in 49 league matches since the 1-1 draw with Fulham at home more than a year ago.
The only other teams who have not been given a league penalty this season in the top four divisions are Bournemouth, Norwich and Morecambe.
The incident was at the end of a fine move which saw Adam Phillips release Jordan Williams on the right whose low cross was cleverly touched by Devante Cole to Norwood six yards out.
That was the best move Barnsley put together for the majority of the match, as the decision seemed to knock them off their game until a late onslaught.
To add insult to injury, Herczeg soon after gave a handball against Phillips when he chested it in good position on the attack.
When it was put to Michael Duff by a reporter after the game that, if it was a boxing match it would have been stopped due to Barnsley’s plethora of chances, the smiling Reds head coach said ‘not by this referee.’ Duff said the decision was ‘mind-blowing’.
REACTION TO FALLING BEHIND
‘We can emotionally react a little bit better when we go behind.’
That was the honest assessment of Duff who, in a months-long spell when there have been very few downsides to his team’s performances, had been reluctant to criticise them for failing to come from behind so far this season. But it is an issue.
They have collected just two points from the 12 games when they have conceded the first goal. Only Blackburn have fewer in the EFL.
They looked shell-shocked by Burton’s opener early in the second half as they have done on many of the rare occasions they have fallen behind recently.
Captain Mads Andersen agreed it was a problem after the game and the Reds are surely going to have to react better to adversity if they are to reach the Championship.
They eventually began to create chances, mainly after a quadruple change midway through the second half, then had several in injury-time after Nicky Cadden responded immediately to Burton’s second goal.
REDS DENIED BY INSPIRED ‘KEEPER
While the best ‘save’ of the day was by Brayford, home goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray produced an inspired display, way above what you would expect from a League One veteran.
The Reds created enough chances to win comfortably but MacGillivray was outstanding.
He made two stunning stops when he leapt to his left to keep out Andersen’s looping header then - with the last action of the game - somehow stopped Slobodan Tedic’s header from going in. MacGillivray also pushed away powerful strikes by Josh Benson, with a bicycle kick, and Tedic as well as turning behind a close-range Max Watters header. When Tedic looked likely to beat him from a Cadden cross, a defender turned the ball over the bar from a yard out.
At the other end, Harry Isted had far less to do but will be disappointed that an innocuous cross crept past him at his near post for the opener.
That came from a quick free-kick which the Reds were slow to react to, and they looked slightly behind the hosts for both goals from Burton’s only shots on target.
There were spells when they played good football on a poor pitch, exploiting space on the wings with fine moves, but others when they looked disjointed and distracted.
Andersen was dominant in defence, winning 12 headers, while the wing-backs were threats on the attack - particularly Cadden who created several chances. But the midfielders seemed to alternate between one good pass or touch then a poor one, while - after the handball incident - Norwood and Cole were quiet with Duff frustrated with the latter for not getting on the end of more crosses.
The Reds - who brought Norwood and Phillips back in for Max Watters and Luke Thomas - had 60 per cent of the ball, 20 of the 27 shots and nine of the 11 on target.
BIG BLOW FOR TOP TWO CHANCES
The Reds are now six points off the top two with seven games left.
They may have to win every game to have a chance of automatic promotion, unless two of the sides above them have major meltdowns.
But they must just stay focused, as they have been all season, on the next game - which is at home on Monday to Shrewsbury who have lost their last three while conceding 11 and scoring none.
If they can win the next four before they host Ipswich on April 25 - no easy task but the margins are that fine - then they will have at least made that game mean something.
Each defeat feels like a major blow but it must be taken in the context of an impressive season in which the Reds have achieved far more than almost anyone expected.
BACK TO BACK AWAY DEFEATS
Barnsley have lost back-to-back away league games for the first time this season, with this result following the defeat at Exeter.
This was actually their best performance of the last four away games.
Since the 4-0 win at Cheltenham in mid-February, they played out a dull 0-0 at Bristol Rovers, netted a gutsy late winner after a poor performance at Wycombe and were well-beaten at Exeter.
They could still equal the club record of 12 away wins in a league season if they triumph at Forest Green, Lincoln and MK Dons.
This was never going to be a straight-forward match against a side who had won eight of their last 15 games to move clear of relegation trouble.