A TRIPLE haul of sweet second-half goals helped yield Johnstone’s Paint Trophy glory for Barnsley, whose momentous season reached new exhilarating heights in a dramatic 3-2 victory over Oxford United at Wembley.
The Reds, in keeping with their topsy-turvy season, did it the hard way after trailing to a strike just before the half-hour mark from Callum O’Dowda, before strikes on the restart from Chey Dunkley (own goal), Ashley Fletcher and Adam Hammill - who netted an exquisite solo goal fit to grace any final - swung the game back in their favour.
A thumping header from Danny Hylton 14 minutes from time set up an anxious finale, but the trophy belonged to Barnsley for the first time.
“I’m still buzzing,” said Barnsley’s interim boss Paul Heckingbottom.
“I told the players ‘you’ve got to enjoy this’. That’s what you play for. We’ll be having a celebration tonight, not just the players, but the fans, the staff, the owner, the director - everyone’s there.
“I’m just going to enjoy tonight, I enjoy what I do, even more so than I thought I would - love it to bits.”
Even the possibility of being named the permanent Barnsley manager did not faze Heckingbottom, whose side sealed their place at Wembley under current Bristol City boss Lee Johnson.
Heckingbottom said: “The club know I’d give everything regardless, the fans know that. That’s why they embrace it.
“There’s a point in second half when I could just as easily have jumped in with the fans and celebrated with them!”
Both sides had their moments in a compelling and competitive first period, with OXford drawing first blood following O’Dowda’s downward header on 29 minutes.
It arrived after Oxford attacked down Barnsley’s left, where they had joy in the first half, with Alex MacDonald’s inviting cross met at the back post by O’Dowda, who beat George Williams in the air to head home.
The Reds, with fit-again top-striker Sam Winnall in the starting side along with Lloyd Isgrove, had the first effort of note when Winnall skipped past good friend Dunkley to fire a shot wide with the outside of his foot.
Adam Davies had to be alert to tip away a curling goal-bound free-kick from Jordan Evans on 18 minutes - after Josh Brownhill fouled the lively Hylton - before Benjamin Buchel made a telling save to turn away a looping strike from Hammill.
O’Dowda then made the breakthrough, with the goal temporarily rocking Barnsley before they were afforded the welcome sanctuary of half-time to regroup.
Barnsley’s lifeline came seven minutes into a captivating second half when Hammill’s lovely cross was latched onto by Hammill, under pressure from Dunkley, with the burly Oxford defender credited with the goal after diverting a header past Benjamin Buchel.
At the other end, Davies raced out to make a telling block to deny Hylton before the Reds took the lead on 68 minutes.
It was a big moment for Fletcher, who after hitherto having a frustrating game, saw his afternoon turnaround in welcome fashion after latching out a loose ball into the box following Williams’ cross, firing a close range effort past Buchel - before celebrating wildly.
A stunning strike six minutes from Hammill, who broke clear before netting with a delicious right-footed strike after a mazy run, looked to have sealed things for the Reds to make it 3-1.
But Hylton’s bullet header two minutes later following Kemar Roofe’s cross set up an anxious finale, but it was the Reds’ afternoon.
Barnsley: Davies, G Williams, Mawson, Roberts, White, Hammill, Brownhill, Hourihane, Isgrove, Winnall, Fletcher. Substitutes unused: Townsend, Scowen, Bree, Toney, Nyatanga, Chapman, Watkins.
Oxford United: Buchel, Roofe, Mullins, Sercombe, Hylton, MacDonald, Ruffels, O’Dowda, Kenny, Dunkley, Evans. Substitutes unused: Slocombe, Wright, Waring, Long, Ashby, Maguire, Bowery.
Referee: A Woolmer (Northants).