Analysis of a thrilling second leg of the League One play-off semi-final at Bolton Wanderers. Barnsley, trailing 3-1 from the home leg, took the lead through Sam Cosgrove but were 2-1 down at half-time before Adam Phillips and Cosgrove put them ahead on the night. They missed chances to level on aggregate and missed out on the Wembley final.


AFTER just falling short of completing possibly their greatest ever comeback, there will have been a mixture of pride and frustration for Barnsley and many of their fans as another bid to reach the Championship ended in play-off defeat.

They won a game at the side with the best home record in League One, who had not been beaten at home in the league in 12 matches since December and who finished the season unbeaten in eight league games, 11 points above the faltering Reds. The visitors showed a lot of character, and quality, to first take the lead on the night then recover from being 5-2 down on aggregate and very nearly make it 5-5, just missing out on an extra-time period in which they would have had momentum and probably been favourites for Wembley.

But ultimately that impressive last half hour – and the late 15 minutes of dominance at Oakwell on Friday – just make the defeat all the more annoying because they showed they can compete with fallible Bolton side. The Reds were second best for 75 minutes at Oakwell and an hour in Bolton, where they are unbeaten in five visits.

Bolton midfielder George Thomason said post-match that Barnsley, who have troubled the Trotters regularly in recent seasons including winning last year’s semi-final, ‘have our number’ and are Wanderers’ ‘kryptonite’. But the Reds remained as the weak, timid Clark Kent for far too long and needed too much of a miracle when they eventually became Superman late on.

Wanderers scored two good goals, their first on each night, but three which were nightmares from a Barnsley perspective, even if the killer 3–1 goal in the first leg was one of several disputed refereeing decisions.

Barnsley have still never lost an away play-off game in their history, with wins at Birmingham in 2000, Huddersfield in 2006, Walsall in 2016 and Bolton this week as well as a draw at Swansea three years ago. They showed why they have set a club record for away points this season and finished as the division’s top-scorers by far away from home.

They ended a seven-game winless run, restored some pride and displayed glimpses of potential for next season, but ultimately the damage was done in the first leg, which was a continuation of a dismal final quarter of the season.


This was Martin Devaney’s first win as a caretaker manager in his sixth attempt across two spells.

The interim boss, who will now return to being a first team coach, conducted himself well following the shock sacking of friend Neill Collins at the crucial point of the season and the failed attempt to bring in Dominik Thalhammer.

The popular former player, who has fallen in love with the club over almost two decades, at least got the team to show some fight at the end and came very close to a magnificent comeback.

The Reds certainly gave Bolton many more problems than most people expected.

Devaney could do nothing about his captain making an inexplicable error in the first leg or controversial refereeing decisions in both games while he had only ten days to address the defensive issues which others were responsible for across most of the season.

Critics will say he should have put on Fabio Jalo on on Tuesday, kept John McAtee on, or started Conor Grant, while his side were dominated for large parts of both games. But his substitutions in both legs made a major difference, with the midweek triple change of Grant, Devante Cole, and Barry Cotter breathing life back into the visitors.

We will never know how Collins – who oversaw an awful run before his sacking – or the unknown Thalhammer would have done but, in general, Devaney can be proud of the job he has done in difficult circumstances.


Barnsley’s three goals on Tuesday took them onto 101 in all competitions this season – the first time they passed three figures since reaching the second tier play-off final in 2000.

But the issue this season has been the 82 goals conceded at the other end – far too many for a promotion-chaser, and only one fewer than in the 2021/22 relegation season from the Championship which is the low watermark in the club’s recent history.

They shipped 32 in the last 15 games, keeping only two clean sheets in their final 31 matches, with Donovan Pines’ injury a key factor.

Set pieces have been an issue all season, especially in the last few months, with teams knowing that, if they regularly swing decent corners or free-kicks into the Reds’ six-yard box, they will eventually score at least once.

Bolton’s second goal on Tuesday exemplified that perfectly with goalkeeper Liam Roberts – who was targeted by attackers putting pressure on him at set pieces in both legs – making the latest in a long list of mistakes in the second half of the season. A closer inspection of the goal shows chaos in the Reds box with players not really suited to defending set pieces making bizarre decisions. Herbie Kane ran away from Gethin Jones who got the assist and Adam Phillips tried a head-height kick instead of challenging scorer Eoin Toal in the air.

The defence in front of Roberts also struggled at times, with Mael de Gevigney having a particularly tough evening against a lively Bolton attack led by the impressive Aaron Collins.

Left wing-back Nicky Cadden made the most clearances but could not make an attacking impact like previously against Bolton in the play-offs, with a pass completion rate of 8.3 per cent. Corey O’Keeffe had some difficult moments defensively but made the most tackles and could have had an assist with a wicked free-kick late on.


Sam Cosgrove netted as many goals in the two play-off games as he had in 32 league appearances. He drew level on the most goals for the club in play-off games with Bruce Dyer, who was also mainly a back-up in the 1999/2000 season before destroying Birmingham in the semi-finals.

Cosgrove scored as a substitute in the first leg so was rewarded with a start in place of Cole, repaying Devaney with two goals and an assist in an outstanding performance. He tormented the home defence, including their captain Ricardo Santos who was dominant at Oakwell, winning regular headers but also linking play well.

He twice came close to a hat-trick goal which would have made it 5-5 while, at 0-0 on the night, he was taken out by goalkeeper Nathan Baxter which should have been a penalty. Bolton may also say they should have had a spot-kick at 0-0 when Aaron Collins tangled with Mael de Gevigney.

Referee Oliver Langford had given eight penalties in 15 Barnsley games including one to each side in a match at Bolton in 2017, but this time was very lenient.

Cosgrove has been underused this season, partly due to his own inconsistent performances as well as coaches’ decisions as top-scorer Cole continued to start despite poor form and the Reds generally favoured more mobile strikers who can press quicker. But the tall targetman showed his potential at this level if the Reds can find a style and set-up which suits him next season.

Two of Cosgrove’s three goals in the semi-final were assisted by Conor Grant who impressed off the bench in both legs and made a good case for Barnsley taking their option to buy him after the loan from MK Dons.


It would be fair to speculate that the majority of Tuesday’s starting 11 may not be at the club next season.

The four players who made the most appearances this season – Kane, Cadden, Cole and Williams – are all now out of contract while Roberts and McAtee’s loans are over. There is a good chance that most, potentially all, of those players made their final appearance for the Reds at the Toughsheet Stadium in midweek. Midfielders Phillips, who netted a 12th goal of the season on Tuesday, and Luca Connell – who the Bolton fans chanted ‘is a White’ – as well as teen striker Jalo are all likely to attract interest in the summer with cash-strapped Barnsley likely to sell at least one if they get strong seven-figure offers.

The Reds must look to create a new team revolving around the likes of Cosgrove, potentially Grant if he is bought, and Pines once he returns to fitness to likely join de Gevigney and Josh Earl in the back three.

The recruitment department and sporting director will be extremely busy trying to fill the many gaps in the squad, and it is likely that the ins and outs of senior players will both be in double figures. They obviously also need a head coach, ideally soon so that he can have time to prepare and at least play some part in the rebuilding process.

It is a crucial summer and they need to make smart decisions to ensure they are in promotion contention for a third year in a row.