OAKWELL might be remembered with a distinct lack of fondness by one former Champions League winning-manager, but it was much more to another’s liking last night.
Exactly three weeks to the day since Aston Villa manager Roberto di Matteo had plenty to contemplate following a sobering midweek night in Barnsley in what turned out to be his penultimate match in charge, Rafa Benitez was left to survey a job well done.
The Spaniard’s finest managerial hour came when he instigated Liverpool’s ‘Miracle in Istanbul’ from a 3-0 interval deficit against AC Milan in May 2005.
It will not have been lost upon him that it was Barnsley who helped inflict his nastiest surprise as Anfield chief.
That came in a painful loss to the South Yorkshire outfit, who famously triumphed 2-1 in a huge FA Cup upset when he was in charge on Merseyside in 2008.
But there no major shocks in store for his high-flying Newcastle United side last night, who went top of the Championship, despite a difficult first half.
The Championship’s capacity to rip up the form book may have preceded it over the years, but not on this occasion as Barnsley’s winless streak was extended to six matches and they have now lost five of their last six games.
In contrast their powerhouse visitors secured their fourth win on the spin to firm up their title bid.
One glance at last night’s teamsheet underlined the extent of Barnsley’s task in indelible ink.
While Paul Heckingbottom was down to his last 16 senior players, Benitez was blessed with a complete embarrassment of riches in comparison.
His only quandary was which multi-million pound player to leave out with a starting line-up described as “Premier League quality” by Heckingbottom.
It was one of their stellar talents in Dwight Gayle who proved the difference with a second-half brace to take his season’s tally to 11 goals, to the delight of the 5,501 travelling Newcastle fans.
In front of a crowd of 18,597, Barnsley’s biggest league crowd since September 2010, both sets of supporters saw a quiet opening 45 minutes.
Barnsley restricted Newcastle to next-to-nothing, the visitors’ only effort on target being a free-kick from Gayle which was fielded in straightforward fashion by Adam Davies.
The Reds’ focus was on being competitive and keeping their shape, with debutant Adam Jackson impressing in the heart of the back four in a restructured defence.
Captain Conor Hourihane also returned from injury to provide further assurance and it was from his 32nd-minute free-kick that Barnsley went close to a breakthrough.
The Irishman’s effort was blocked with the recalled James Bree seizing upon the loose ball and drilling a low shot wide.
Barnsley’s only other opportunity saw Sam Winnall fire a free-kick straight at Karl Darlow with Newcastle failing to prise open the hosts, but their most dangerous moment saw Gayle acrobatically fire over from Matt Ritchie’s cross.
After being so stout defensively in the first half, Barnsley switched off following a Ritchie corner four minutes after the break and it cost them.
The inswinging delivery from the right was not dealt with and Gayle pounced on the loose ball and fired home at the near post.
Barnsley responded with the hard-working Sam Morsy firing over before Jackson glanced a header wide following a long throw from Marc Roberts.
But any hint at a fightback was ended on 68 minutes when Newcastle sealed the three points thanks to Gayle. It was a moment of class with Ritchie and the striker combining again. The Scottish international’s defence-splitting pass was latched onto swiftly by Gayle and he raced clear before hooking the ball past Davies.
Barnsley made a double change in the 71st minute with Adam Hammill and Marley Watkins making way, with the former involved in a furious exchange with Heckingbottom as he was coming off the pitch.
Newcastle proceeded to play out the rest of the game in relative comfort, with Mo Diame heading wide and Gayle going close to sealing his hat-trick on two occasions.
The first instance, Davies blocked his touch following Jonjo Shelvey’s cross befor the Barnsley goalkeeper held Gayle’s low shot. Barnsley went close to a late consolation through substitute Tom Bradshaw, who almost turned in Ryan Kent’s cross before Shelvey went close to a third goal at the other end.
Barnsley: Davies, Bree (Kpekawa 83), Roberts, Jackson, Yiadom, Kent, Hourihane, Morsy, Hammill (Bradshaw 71), Watkins (Lee 71), Winnall. Unused substitutes: Bird, MacDonald, Townsend, Williams.
Newcastle: Darlow, Anita, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett, Shelvey, Hayden, Ritchie (Atsu 83), Diame (Colback 90), Gouffran, Gayle. Unused substitutes: Lazaar, Perez, Yedlin, Sels, Mitrovic.
Referee: P Tierney (Lancashire).