Analysis of Barnsley's 2-1 home win over Bristol Rovers. Devante Cole opened the scoring just before the break then, five minutes after an equaliser, Corey O'Keeffe got the winner.
REDS RECORD FIRST WIN OF PROMISING NEW YEAR
BARNSLEY registered their first win of what just might be shaping up to be a very good year.
The result left them unbeaten in nine, while they have not lost in eight home games since September, and they gained ground on the top two ahead of a game in hand on Tuesday against lowly Carlisle United.
Added to the signing of Donovan Pines which was announced minutes before kick-off, everything appeared to be coming together for the Reds.
They were back from a 12-day break and had spoken about being fresh and rejuvenated, which they looked in the first half before again failing to put together a 90-minute good performance. But they rode their luck then reacted very well to an equaliser to secure a vital win in a tricky fixture at the start of a run of five games in 14 days.
It was not a perfect display but, without Pines and the injured pair Luca Connell and Jamie McCart, they still ground out an excellent result.
The Gas arrived in tenth, four places and nine points below the Reds, while they had recently beaten Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers who were then the top two.
They will be wondering how they suffered a fifth straight loss for their club at Oakwell or how they have taken just a point from two meetings with the Reds this season despite having the better chances in both. But Barnsley have shown time and again this season that they can find a win to pick up points.
COLE EQUALS LAST SEASON’S LEAGUE GOAL TALLY
For the second season in a row, Devante Cole opened the scoring in a home win over Bristol Rovers.
Last season, his shot was deflected in to give him his first goal of the campaign following a tough first year back at Oakwell in the Championship.
It was the first of 15 in League One in 2022/23, as he turned his Reds career around - a total he equalled on Saturday with 21 matches to play. He is a remarkably reliable goal-scorer.
This goal - which was also his 40th for the club - came just before half-time and had a slight element of fortune as, when his header from John McAtee’s right-wing cross hit the post, it rolled straight back to him to tap in on the line. But the duo deserved some luck for a lively and impressive performance up front, with McAtee making the most tackles of any Reds player.
Cole, who also played a part in the build-up to the winner, was rightly given a standing ovation after being taken off late on.
REDS RESPOND TO SECOND HALF WOBBLE
A recent issue for the Reds has been following up good first halves with poor performances after the break and dropping points.
Over the whole season, only Peterborough have a better second half goal difference but, during the festive period, the Reds lost half-time leads to the Posh and Wigan while nearly doing so at Port Vale too.
For the first 25 minutes after the interval, it looked like being another example of this as the Reds - who had been the better side before the break if conceding two big chances through individual errors - struggled to get going again and saw Rovers create a stream of opportunities.
They were kept out several times by an outstanding goalkeeping performance by Liam Roberts who, in 2022, was denied a promotion with Northampton by Bristol Rovers who won 7-0 on the last day to overtake them.
They eventually took a chance with Chris Martin netting his eighth goal against the Reds as he beat Jordan Williams in the air to head a right-wing cross into the bottom left corner. But Martin missed a good chance soon after - another Roberts save - and the lead was restored within five minutes as the Reds showed character to wrestle the momentum back with a quality winner before seeing the victory out professionally.
GOOD TIMING FOR O’KEEFFE WINNER AS COMPETITION INCREASES
Donovan Pines’ signing was announced minutes before kick-off and, while the American may take time to be fully fit, his arrival could have repercussions for several other players.
The towering Pines is expected to play between Mael de Gevigney and Jamie McCart in a back three with Jordan Williams likely moving out of central defence and competing with Corey O’Keeffe and Barry Cotter at right wing-back. Given that Williams has played every minute this season and is captain, that might have put O’Keeffe’s place in the starting line-up in doubt. What better timing then to come up with the winner which was his second goal for the club.
After the dangerous Adam Phillips - with a second assist in as many games - superbly beat a man and played him in on the right, O’Keeffe supplied a cool finish into the bottom left corner.
He currently looks more confident than Williams who, despite doing some good things, lost another header for Rovers’ goal and, more avoidably, coughed up possession in key areas. Those are recurring themes. It is to be hoped that he has not been damaged permanently by his generally harrowing spell in the back three. It was clear in the reverse fixture in mid-August, when John Marquis bullied him, that he would struggle to compete aerially but it has taken five months to start to hopefully resolve that issue, with many goals and chances gifted.
SHEPHERD IMPRESSES AS REDS WIN DESPITE KEY INJURIES
One of the most impressive aspects of this win was that Barnsley achieved it despite the absence of midfield linchpin Connell and solid defender McCart due to minor muscle strains.
That meant returns to the side for Jack Shepherd on the left of the back three and Jon Russell in defensive midfield.
Shepherd made his first home league start for the club, just his third EFL start ever and first since September 2, while it was his first involvement with the first team since being sent off at Bradford City in the EFL Trophy two months earlier.
He was chosen as Collins wants to always have a left-footed player on that side of the back three.
Shepherd performed well, winning the most headers and making the most clearances of any home player while he belied any nerves with a superb early run out of defence past two defenders. He is still raw as you would expect from a 22-year-old who signed from the eighth-tier last summer but his performances in his three league starts so far have been very encouraging overall. He also adds a goal threat from attacking set pieces which has not been present for most of the season - with only Mael de Gevigney’s freak goal at Cambridge from the regular back three. He scored at Cheltenham but it was not given then came very close in this game.
Russell was less convincing, giving the ball away regularly on his first start for two months since the 3-0 loss at Derby.
He seems to need a run of games to get into any sort of rhythm which is not ideal for someone whose role this season is likely to be deputising for Connell now and then. One thing he does offer is more height defending set pieces and long balls which provides some assistance to a back three lacking aerial prowess at times.
Callum Styles - in for Nicky Cadden on his 150th appearance - was lucky not to gift former team-mate Luke Thomas a goal. De Gevigney was solid again in the middle of the back three, while Herbie Kane produced some decent passes but collected a ninth booking so is one away from a two-game ban. That is one of the issues the Reds will have to navigate in the coming weeks and months but they are showing they can continue to collect regular points despite their challenges.