Analysis of Barnsley's 1-0 play-off second leg win at home to Bolton Wanderers on Friday night. Liam Kitching's header midway through the first half secured a 2-1 aggregate win and put the Reds in the Wembley final against Sheffield Wednesday.
REMARKABLE ATMOSPHERE ON HUGE NIGHT
The football tradition of a ‘lap of honour’ after the final home game of a club’s season can often feel strange - a miserable squad hurrying to get off the pitch following a disappointing campaign with a light ripple of half-hearted applause echoing around the mainly-empty ground.
It was the totally opposite at Oakwell on Friday night following a pitch invasion after a deserved victory over Bolton booked a place in the play-off final at Wembley.
When fans returned to the stands, the home players and staff re-emerged to walk around the pitch and thank the supporters, the vast majority of whom stayed behind.
The fans have gone from contempt last season to autumn apathy then spring satisfaction – with some memorable wins over the likes of Derby, Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday – and now pure joy, pride and excitement on Friday night.
The atmosphere was tremendous.
The Pontefract Road End had been renamed the Norman Rimmington Stand, with the sign newly fixed on the roof for this match. The new nails holding it in place must have been tested when Liam Kitching got the winner, when the final whistle blew and when the victory procession passed a packed Ponty End at 10.20pm.
Some of the images of celebrations as well as a beaming team picture in front of a sea of red on the terraces will be hard to forget.
Two years ago a lucky 4,500 or so watched the play-off semi-final defeat to Swansea City in the first game back after Covid-19 forced football behind closed doors. This time about 10,000 extra Reds fans witnessed a 1-0 scoreline in the other direction.
The fans backed their side throughout the game. Every big tackle, blocked clearance after frantic pressing or winning of a corner or free-kick was greeted by huge cheers.
When Bolton - backed by about 2,000 away fans after Barnsley decided to deny them a raucous full away end - had a good spell early in the second half, the fans and players combined to wrestle the momentum back in the hosts’ favour.
Michael Duff had asked for a ‘big crescendo’ to the season at Oakwell and certainly got that. He said there would be ‘no kneeslides or swandives’ and there was very much a sense that this was just the stepping stone to a much wilder celebration if they win at Wembley, but they were certainly heart-warming and memorable scenes.
WINNING MACHINE BREAKS CLUB RECORD
In the 136 years of Barnsley FC, they have never won more games in all competitions in a season than this one.
This victory was the most important so far of a club record 32 - yes, thirty-two - in 2022/23, with 26 in the league, five in cups and now a play-off success.
The numbers are remarkable considering they won just seven games last season.
Although they are now playing in a lower division, the unity, discipline, team spirit and tactics are at a much higher level under Duff who has transformed a broken club into a winning machine.
They were actually winless in four going into this match and had lost the last two home games while conceding five goals but, when it really counted after some dead rubbers, they produced a big performance.
It was a first win over Bolton at Oakwell in eight meetings there since January 1998 when only five of the Reds starting 11 were alive.
WIN DESERVED OVER TWO LEGS
Barnsley finished five points above Bolton in the league table and were slightly but crucially better than them over 180 minutes of tense play-off football.
Duff’s excellent game plan nullified the Trotters’ possession-based expansive style and they were reduced to a handful of half-chances, only netting in the first leg due to a goalkeeping error and fortunate bounce.
After being marginally the better side in Bolton, the Reds kept the same 11 and were certainly on top in the first half at Oakwell then defended well during a nervy second half while roared on by a ferocious crowd.
The Reds again contained Bolton’s midfield and were better than in the first leg at keeping their dangerous wing-backs from creating opportunities.
Last time they came to Oakwell - and won 3-0 in January - Bolton regularly got in behind the home defence with long balls to Dion Charles. This time they had no room to pick up those accurate passes while Charles was a peripheral figure, marshalled by a steadfast back three.
In attack, the Reds had worked on two different presses depending on whether Bolton played out from the back as usual or tried to be more direct. That set the tone for an energetic and professional performance.
DISPUTED FREE-KICK NOT DECISIVE MOMENT
Bolton boss Ian Evatt furiously remonstrated with referee Josh Smith and his assistants at half-time, following a decision well in the build-up to the winner.
Barnsley were given a soft free-kick as Eoin Toal pushed Devante Cole then made minimal contact with Nicky Cadden.
But the free-kick from Luca Connell was very poor and easily headed out then the Reds made several passes, venturing into their own half, then Connell sent in a fantastic cross which was superbly headed home by Kitching six yards out.
Bolton had so much time to react and defend that it certainly wasn’t a game-changing error. Duff also said they should have had several earlier free-kicks.
The only previous Barnsley players to net at Oakwell in the play-offs were Bruce Dyer - adding another against Birmingham having destroyed them in the first leg in 2000 - and Sam Winnall with a quickfire brace against Walsall in 2016.
Kitching deserves a big moment after an excellent season in which he has shown he can harness his natural aggression and put in consistent performances. His challenge will now be to get to the Championship and thrive there but, as a 23-year-old left-footed, aerially-dominant defender who can pass well, has shown tactical nous to drop into midfield mid-game, and charge forward effectively in attack, he could have a very bright future.
Kitching’s goal was his fifth of the season, while his fellow centre-backs Mads Andersen and Bobby Thomas have three each. When you add in the wing-backs, with Jordan Williams netting five and Nicky Cadden six, Barnsley’s first choice back five has contributed 22 goals this season.
BOBBY THOMAS EXCELS ON NIGHT OF TOP PERFORMANCES
Duff’s moment of the night was not the goal or the celebrations afterwards but a block by Bobby Thomas during a period of Bolton pressure early in the second half.
A meticulous defensive coach, he and his staff have worked hard on the training ground over months for moments like that - drilling the likes of Thomas until he is in exactly the right place to prevent a likely goal.
Thomas was imperious - as he has been for the majority of his loan from Burnley which is likely to be made permanent if the Reds go up.
His centre-back partners Mads Andersen - wrongly sent off last time Bolton came to Oakwell - and Kitching also excelled, other than one mistake each. Kitching lost the ball near his box just after the break, but was rescued by Andersen who then conceded an indirect free-kick for a pass back to Harry Isted, which led to Aaron Morley smashing Bolton’s best chance of the match just over from 15 yards.
The defence was protected superbly by the midfield, who also provided real energy and attacking threat. Adam Phillips won the ball on the edge of the Bolton box after 30 seconds and almost set up a goal, then thrilled the home crowd with a great sliding tackle to end an attack in first ten minutes. Connell provided the match-winning moment of quality with the assist for Kitching while, along with Herbie Kane, Barnsley’s midfield three were outstanding over the two legs.
At wing-back, Jordan Williams dealt much better with his namesake Randell then ex-Red Declan John while Nicky Cadden came out on top against highly-rated Liverpool loanee Conor Bradley over two legs.
The front two led the charge again, with Slobodan Tedic again preferred alongside Devante Cole ahead of James Norwood who came on and held the ball up well while adding energy to pressurise a tired visiting side.
DERBY AT WEMBLEY
‘Sheffield Wednesday we’re coming for you’ was sung slightly tentatively by a section of the crowd during injury-time then loudly by thousands more amidst the post-match celebrations.
It barely needs saying, but a South Yorkshire derby in a Wembley play-off final will be a truly special occasion, with probably 60,000 plus supporters from the county travelling to London.
The prospect might make some feel nauseous, others excited, and the majority a mixture of the two - with the usual play-off final stakes increased substantially by the nature of the opposition. A win will be even sweeter than usual and a defeat harder to take.
But Duff, beer in hand during his post-match press conference, said his players should enjoy the build-up - with a weekend off followed by a hard week of training starting on Monday.