THE last time Barnsley were able to breathe in the rarefied air that comes with sitting above the Championship relegation zone, the summer of 2013 was still to give way to autumn.
Even then, the Reds’ stint outside the bottom three amounted to one game. To put that into context, Yeovil Town, all but relegated yesterday after losing 2-1 at home to Huddersfield, have had two, albeit brief, spells above the all-important dotted line that separates 21st and 22nd places.
Such a woeful record is an indication as to the sort of season the Reds have endured and yesterday brought no improvement as Danny Wilson’s side slid ever closer to the drop in an unfortunate fashion. An outrageous deflection that saw Johnny Russell’s shot hit team-mate Craig Bryson on the back before looping over the helpless Luke Steele is what, in the end, did for them.
It was a cruel way to lose, especially considering how valiantly Barnsley fought in a frantic finale that followed Nick Proschwitz reducing the arrears 10 minutes from time. As play raged from one end to the other, Steele saved Russell’s penalty brilliantly and Rams counterpart Lee Grant was twice called into action to prevent an equaliser.
Adding to the pain at the final whistle was the news that Charlton had won at Sheffield Wednesday, while 10-man Doncaster Rovers held out to claim a point from a goalless draw at Millwall.
Blackpool also claimed an unexpected point at play-off chasing Brighton to leave Barnsley four points adrift of safety.
With fourth-bottom Birmingham, who have a game in hand on all their rivals in the bottom six, boasting a far superior goal difference, that gap is effectively five points with just Saturday’s trip to Middlesbrough and the May 3 visit of QPR to Oakwell remaining.
On the task facing his side, Wilson said: “Funnier things happen. Everyone will write us off. We are down in a lot of people’s eyes but who knows what twist of fate is waiting on the final day of the season? We have to genuinely believe.”
Considering how abject and lifeless Barnsley had been in losing Saturday’s derby to Leeds United, Derby’s best approach was to go for the jugular in the opening stages and an early onslaught brought four chances inside the first ten minutes.
The best saw Russell control a lovely lofted pass from midfield before thundering a shot that goalkeeper Steele did well to turn behind.
Eventually, the pace had to ease but, when it did, Barnsley still found the going tough thanks to the manner in which their hosts were passing the ball.
Russell should have done a lot better than shoot wide after exchanging passes with Jamie Ward before the goal Derby’s enterprising play merited finally arrived on 34 minutes.
Jeff Hendrick was the scorer, the midfielder being afforded sufficient time to look up and drill a low 25-yard effort that seemed to deceive Steele, who stood rooted to the spot as the ball arrowed into the bottom corner of his net.
Barnsley, whose solitary stint outside the relegation zone this term came during the international break that followed the August 31 victory over Huddersfield Town, had started to ask questions of their own just before the goal with Tomasz Cywka bringing a sprawling save from Grant.
But, once behind, the Reds struggled for the rest of the half - Wilson complaining afterwards: “There was too much, ‘after you, Claude’ from us”.
Although the second goal of the afternoon had an element of fortune about it, Wilson’s men could not complain at falling further behind.
What turned out to be the winning goal came two minutes before the break, as Russell thundered a shot goalwards from 25 yards which struck Bryson on the back before looping up and over the unfortunate Steele.
If ever there was an indication that yesterday was not going to be Barnsley’s day, that was it. While the visitors were given hope courtesy of Proschwitz’s assured finish with 10 minutes remaining, there was to be no way back.
Even when Steele saved brilliantly from Russell’s penalty – awarded for Jean Yves M’Voto’s foul on Connor Sammon – Wilson’s side could not find the inspiration to snatch what would have been a precious equaliser as Grant beat away Dale Jennings’s shot and then Proschwitz fired over from a free-kick.
All in all, therefore, a bleak Bank Holiday for Barnsley, who must win at the Riverside on Saturday and hope results elsewhere go their way or an eight-year tenure in the Championship will be over.
Derby County: Grant; Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Thorne (Eustace 63), Hendrick, Bryson, Russell; Ward (Dawkins 65), Martin (Sammon 79). Unused substitutes: Whitbread, Legzdins, Bamford, Hughes.
Barnsley: Steele; Kennedy, Cranie, M’voto, Nyatanga; Cywka (Noble-Lazarus 68), Lawrence (Proschwitz 72), McCourt (Mellis 46), Dawson, Jennings; O’Grady. Unused substitutes:Turner, Hassell, Woods, Frimpong.
Referee: G Scott (Oxfordshire).