Walsall 1 Barnsley 3 (agg 1-6): Superb Reds return to Wembley with plenty to spare

Sky Bet League One play-off 2nd leg.
Walsall  v Barnsley.
Barnsley's Marc Roberts, Adam Davies and Ash Fletcher celebrate.
19th May 2016.
Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
Sky Bet League One play-off 2nd leg. Walsall v Barnsley. Barnsley's Marc Roberts, Adam Davies and Ash Fletcher celebrate. 19th May 2016. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
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THERE was none of the nail-biting drama that had accompanied Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday booking their own trips to Wembley earlier in the week.

Nor the outpouring of sheer, unadulterated relief that met the final whistle in both of those semi-final second leg ties involving the Yorkshire duo.

Barnsley's Adam Hammill scores the opening goal.
 Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Barnsley's Adam Hammill scores the opening goal. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe.

READ MORE: Wembley experience will serve jubilant Barnsley well - Paul Heckingbottom

But, for Barnsley, guaranteeing their place at the League One play-off final almost at a canter proved no less satisfying.

Already three goals ahead from the first leg, the Reds settled any possible nerves with an early strike from Adam Hammill that effectively sealed a second trip this season to the national stadium for Paul Heckingbottom’s side.

The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was bagged on that first visit last month thanks to a thrilling 3-2 victory over Oxford United.

Barnsley's manager Paul Heckingbottom congratulates his players.
 Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Barnsley's manager Paul Heckingbottom congratulates his players. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Whether promotion can be added to that success remains to be seen, but Barnsley will surely head to the capital on Sunday, May 29 hugely confident of completing a notable double.

After putting four goals past champions Wigan Athletic on the final day to secure sixth place, the Reds made light work of a Walsall outfit who had finished 10 points clear of them in the table.

That double-digit advantage can largely be put down to the wretched run of form that left Barnsley in the relegation zone at Christmas, but this is a very different team to the one that lost eight games in a row during the autumn.

Hammill has played a big part in that transformation. Signed in late November, the winger has rediscovered the form that lit up his first spell at Oakwell to become once again a talismanic figure for the club.

Barnsley's fans celebrate.
 Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Barnsley's fans celebrate. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

It was fitting, therefore, that Hammill should score Thursday night’s all-important opening goal by latching onto a floated 18th-minute cross from Conor Hourihane before coolly finishing from close range.

By that stage, Barnsley had already missed a gilt-edged chance when the unmarked Alfie Mawson headed a corner over from five yards.

Walsall, having seen both Hull and Sheffield Wednesday made to sweat by Derby and Brighton respectively despite building substantial first-leg leads in the Championship, may have hoped this let-off could be the prelude to a comeback that would have made history.

Instead, Hammill’s cool finish meant the tie was all but over as a contest. Despite that, the Saddlers did go close a couple of times to pulling a goal back before the interval.

Barnsley's Ash Fletcher celebrates scoring the second goal.

Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Barnsley's Ash Fletcher celebrates scoring the second goal. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

First, Tom Bradshaw was desperately unfortunate to see his header clawed to safety by Adam Davies just after the half-hour.

Then, after Romaine Sawyers had wriggled free in the penalty area, Davies again produced a smart save to his right.

Those two chances apart, however, the Reds always looked the most likely to score the second goal of the evening.

Ashley Fletcher was twice denied by Neil Etheridge towards the end of the opening 45 minutes, the second of those stops coming at the end of a flowing Barnsley move that illustrated beautifully the confidence flowing through Heckingbottom’s men in the wake of that remarkable charge up the league table in 2016.

Hourihane and Josh Brownhill typified that attitude in midfield, as did Lloyd Isgrove down the right flank with a series of jinking runs that pegged back the hosts.

One of those surges early in the second half brought another chance for Fletcher, but the Manchester United loanee took one touch too many and was crowded out.

Barnsley's Ash Fletcher celebrates scoring the second goal.
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Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Barnsley's Ash Fletcher celebrates scoring the second goal. . Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Fletcher then wasted two further glorious opportunities in quick succession, but he refused to be bowed and his reward came just after the hour when the striker fired in from close range after being picked out by Hammill.

Walsall pulled a late goal back through a stunning long-range effort from Jordan Cook, but the visitors had the last word when Brownhill capped a fine display with a last-minute strike.

Barnsley now stand on the verge of becoming the first team since Grimsby Town in 1998 to follow lifting the Trophy by winning promotion to the second tier via the play-offs.

Millwall or Bradford City meet on Friday night at The Den to decide who will join the Reds at Wembley

The Lions are the favourites to progress thanks to their 3-1 first-leg lead and if it is to be the London club, they will be wary of a side that has now won 13 of 21 games since Heckingbottom succeeded Lee Johnson in February.

Walsall: Etheridge; O’Connor, Downing, Taylor (Cook 63); Demetriou, Chambers, Mantom, Henry; Sawyers; Hiwula (Lalkovic 72), Bradshaw (Forde 83). Unused substitutes: MacGillivray, Preston, Morris, Kinsella.

Barnsley: Davies; Scowen, Roberts, Mawson, Williams; Isgrove, Brownhill, Hourihane, Hammill (Chapman 74); Winnall (Toney 70), Fletcher (McCourt 70). Unused substitutes: Townsend, Nyatanga, Tuton, White.

Referee: D Deadman (Cambridgeshire).