Analysis from Barnsley's 2-1 home win over Carlisle United on Tuesday. The visitors took the lead but Devante Cole levelled then Herbie Kane won it with a late penalty.
BARNSLEY GET AWAY WITH TERRIBLE START
THE LAST time these two clubs met in the league, in March 1986, Prince Andrew’s engagement to Sarah Ferguson had just been announced, a company called Microsoft had just been floated on the stock market and Freddie Starr was denying The Sun’s allegations that he had eaten a hamster.
A League One footballing story more bizarre than all of the above looked to be unfolding in the opening minutes at Oakwell on Tuesday when the promotion-chasing Reds produced one of the worst starts to a football match imaginable.
Carlisle arrived second-bottom, six points from safety, and with the worst away record in the division, but should have registered a fourth straight win in their visits to Oakwell.
They could have been 4-0 up after 13 minutes but only one of those glorious chances was taken and the other three missed by Daniel Butterworth who, if Barnsley achieve their objective this season by a point or two, will deserve some unwanted thanks.
On a very cold night, the Reds played like they had collective brain freeze as they looked likely to lose the ball nearly every time they had it in the first 30 minutes.
Young centre-back Jack Shepherd put Butterworth through on goal twice in the first six minutes while goalkeeper Liam Roberts showed his kicking is nowhere near as good as his shot-stopping with an error for the opener.
Those two seemed particularly shaky playing out from the back - with Roberts kicking the ball into Shepherd’s back in the 25th minute before Barnsley scrambled clear in their box - but the malaise and mindfog contaminated most of the badly misfiring team.
Barnsley often bely their status as one of the youngest teams in the division but certainly looked a naive and inexperienced outfit early on - badly missing the reliability and cool head of the injured Jamie McCart.
Eventually the game settled down and, although they never really played well, Barnsley showed some character to come from behind with a quality equaliser then a controversial penalty to record a vital win in their game in hand.
The stats shows the Reds had 62 per cent of the ball and all seven corners but made four of the 30 tackles and were dispossessed 17 times while Carlisle never were. A very strange football match.
Neill Collins admitted he could not explain the performance, stopped short at saying his side were complacent against lowly opponents but conceded there was ‘something not quite right’ and some players lacked focus.
Only time will tell if this was just a bizarre aberration that they got away with and will not be repeated in the promotion run-in or a warning that the Reds will sometimes produce woeful performances that will be harshly punished by better sides.
REDS SHOW CHARACTER TO CONTINUE FINE FORM
Collins made changes at half-time, bringing on wing-backs Barry Cotter and Nicky Cadden who at least added energy and drive to the side with some decent runs down the flanks.
He took off Luca Connell - who was unusually overwhelmed on his return from injury - and Corey O’Keeffe but suggested that nearly every player could have been replaced at the interval without complaint.
The Reds were better after the break, if still not themselves, but struggled for the most part to break down a Carlisle side fighting for survival and defending with a back five.
Devante Cole showed his class to level then they were the only team attacking late on for the winner when they were awarded the decisive penalty.
This side just finds ways to win, no matter how they play.
They have come from behind to win against Reading, Stevenage and Carlisle – three of their last seven games – and their total of 12 points from losing positions is the fourth best in the league and four times higher than last season.
They are unbeaten in ten and, although they feel they should have won more than six of those games having led in the other four before drawing, 22 points from ten matches is automatic promotion form.
The win halved the gap to the top two to three points and moved them up a place to fifth, four points off leaders Portsmouth.
Barnsley are in the thick of the promotion battle with 20 games remaining and no positions above them out of reach.
They now have 24 points from 14 home league games, a comparable record with most of their promotion rivals after struggling at Oakwell in the opening months.
They are unbeaten in nine at home since September with five wins and four draws.
Fans must have left on Tuesday delighted with the result and league position but baffled by a performance which must not be repeated if they are to reach the Championship.
LEAGUE’S TOP-SCORER SHOWS HIS CLASS
Cole is now joint top-scorer in League One after netting his 16th goal of the season.
It was the first real moment of quality Barnsley produced, and their first shot on target, as Cole impressively controlled a powerful pass on the left of the box and supplied a fine finish across the goalkeeper.
After a comparatively lean spell, he has four goals in as many games and seems to be back to his best. He was one of the few players who looked something like their usual self.
Jordan Williams provided the assist for Cole’s goal and also had a good game, driving his time forward at times from right centre-back.
Williams has had a tough season – and may be moved out of the back three to right wing-back when Donovan Pines is fit – but he played like a captain in this game then did the post-match press conference with a bloodied lip.
KANE KEEPS COOL AFTER ‘DISGUSTING’ PENALTY DECISION
Williams also created the winner as he surged into the Carlisle box to receive a pass from Cotter after a nice move on the right involving Cole.
He squared to Adam Phillips who went down under a challenge by Carlisle substitute Jordan Gibson.
Referee Will Finnie awarded a penalty which Carlisle manager Paul Simpson said was a ‘disgusting decision’.
There was certainly contact but it looked fairly soft – unlike Kane’s spot-kick which he smashed high into the net.
It was Kane’s seventh goal of the season – three from the spot – and his fourth in the last nine matches.
He had moved to defensive midfield after Connell was taken off and anchored the team fairly well if, like nearly everyone else, he was not quite at his best.
REDS RUTHLESS AGAINST LOWER SIDES AND NOW FACE TWO TOUGH AWAY GAMES
Barnsley remain unbeaten against teams outside the top eight – a group who have broken away from the rest and look likely to compete for promotion.
Against everyone from ninth down, the Reds have taken 45 points from 19 games with 13 wins and six draws – scoring 42 goals, conceding 14 while recording their eight clean sheets of the season.
Barnsley, given their budget and quality, are expected to win those sort of fixtures but it is not easy to consistently churn out results every single time – as some of their promotion rivals have found with recent shock losses.
The Reds are now going into two games this coming week at fellow top eight sides, Stevenage and Oxford. Their record in those sort of fixtures is much worse with four points from seven matches but they beat Stevenage last month then played well in a draw at Peterborough.
It is a huge opportunity – especially with Oxford being another game in hand on most – to fully establish themselves in the top six and catch up with the top two. They will have to play far better than against Carlisle but they are more than capable of doing so.