IS time running out for the Championship’s great escapology act?
After eight years and umpteen close shaves during which the club have never finished higher than 17th, Barnsley’s stint in the second tier may finally be ebbing to a close.
An abject derby defeat to Leeds United coupled with Millwall’s surprise win at Middlesbrough means the Reds are three points adrift of safety with just three games remaining.
With two of those final trio of matches against Derby County and QPR, third and fourth respectively in the table this morning, it is no wonder that the bookmakers rate Danny Wilson’s side as odds-on for the drop.
Certainly, the insipid manner of Barnsley’s performance against a limited Leeds side hardly suggested that one of the club’s famous last-day rescue acts could be in the offing.
Toothless in attack and distinctly second best in midfield, the Reds failed to score for the fifth consecutive game at Oakwell and the boos that greeted the final whistle were very much deserved.
What was perhaps most galling for those unhappy supporters was how contrasting their display had been just four days earlier when beating Charlton Athletic at The Valley to breathe fresh life in the club’s survival fight.
However, where last Tuesday had been everything that you would expect of a team fighting for their survival, the – for want of a better word – ‘performance’ against Leeds was one that smacked of an acceptance that relegation is now a formality.
It is to be hoped that Wilson can elicit a huge improvement over the final 270 minutes of the season as Barnsley, after all those famous escape acts, deserve better than to slip meekly back into League One.
One man who thinks the Reds can survive is Jack Butland, the Leeds United loanee who spent three months at Oakwell before Christmas.
His final appearance for the Tykes came in a goalless draw at Elland Road on December 21, which coincidentally was Wilson’s first game back in charge of the club he led into the Premier League.
While Barnsley have spent the intervening four months in the relegation zone, Butland is adamant they can stay up.
“I enjoyed my time at Barnsley,” said the 21-year-old Stoke City goalkeeper to The Yorkshire Post.
“They are a brilliant club and the spell I had with Barnsley was really good for me.
“I sincerely hope they have enough to get out of trouble and stay in the division. They are a club that never gives up.
“That is why Barnsley have stayed in the division so long. The lads really dig in and work hard. I thought they were pretty sound defensively against us.
“It was only that one bit of skill that led to our goal. Everything that Ross (McCormack) hits seems to be going in at the minute. But Barnsley won’t be up against that every week.
“If they can stay as solid as that for the next few games then they can, hopefully, stay up.”
Whether Butland is right about Barnsley’s survival prospects remains to be seen.
But, in terms of summing up a largely grim derby played at near testimonial pace for long periods, the loanee got it spot on.
McCormack’s 16th-minute winner was pretty darn special and completely out of kilter with the rest of the game.
Collecting a knockdown from Matt Smith, the striker pulled off an audacious flick and turn to delightfully wrong-foot the home defence before drilling a left foot shot beyond Luke Steele. It was a goal worthy of winning any game and one to which Barnsley had no reply.
Butland, who in 13 outings for the Reds conceded just 14 times, has endured a torrid time since moving to Elland Road in February with a five-goal hammering and two four-goal defeats among the memories he will return to Stoke with come the end of the season.
Despite that, Barnsley asked very few questions of their one-time loanee whose only task of note was to catch a couple of looping headers from Dale Jennings and Chris O’Grady close to his own crossbar.
Those apart, Butland was able to enjoy the Oakwell sunshine as an error-ridden game was played out 30 or 40 yards in front of him.
Of the two teams, Leeds were marginally better. Even without McCormack’s classy winner, the visitors were first to most 50-50s thanks to Michael Tonge and Michael Brown keeping a tight rein on midfield.
United could have had a second-half penalty when Liam Lawrence handballed Stephen Warnock’s cross, and Noel Hunt muscled his way through late on only to then try to square to Matt Smith when a shot might well have brought the game’s second goal.
It was a let-off for Barnsley, though not one they were able to capitalise on with even the closing stages being strangely bereft of urgency on the part of the hosts as Leeds clinched a first away win since February.
Delighted Leeds manager Brian McDermott said: “Our victory was well deserved.
“We haven’t won at Barnsley since 1997 apparently, though I am just glad no one told me that before kick-off.
“The game was settled by a piece of real quality, the header down for Ross and then Ross’s first touch were fabulous. The finish was great, too.”
As the final whistle blew, the frustration of the Barnsley fans still inside Oakwell saw the boos rain down from three sides of the old ground.
The United contingent, meanwhile, could not resist milking the moment by chanting, ‘We’re only here, to send you down’.
That was not something that was in Leeds’s power., but there can be no mistaking that Barnsley have been nudged that little bit closer to the trapdoor marked ‘relegation’. How Wilson’s men react to that later today at Pride Park could go a long way towards answering the question as to whether Barnsley’s time in the Championship is almost up.