Barnsley prove an each-way bet for promotion

ON Grand National day, it usually pays to back a stayer.

Winners: Daryl Dike celebrates his goal with Alex Mowatt. Pictures: Bruce Rollinson

Barnsley, under the incomparable Valerien Ismael, are exactly that. The lungs are in fine working order, the hearts are willing and they clear hurdles.

They are not thoroughbreds, but their form is good and they get the trip.

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In a game which was never likely to be a classic, there was no panic or restlessness after a total non-event of a first half which Ismael called ‘sleepy’. Barnsley still backed themselves.

Opener: Alex Mowatt's corner finds the back of the net.

Granted, it required a quite dreadful error from loanee goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli – who followed up some poor concessions in the EFL Cup tie between these two in September and reinforced the belief that he probably will not be at Boro next season – to send Barnsley on their way.

But after that, it was impossible not to be guided by the thought that Barnsley would not be moved en route to their 21st league victory of a remarkable coming-of-age campaign.

Another win was ticked off with minimum fuss and the game management was sound. The Oakwell outfit have now won as many second-tier games (21) as they have managed in their previous two seasons at Championship level in 2019-20 and 2017-18.

How Neil Warnock would have been entitled to look on with envy. His Boro side have lost as many games – 16 – as they have won in the league this season and you do not know what you will get from them. You do with Barnsley.

Points sealed: Daryl Dike's header hits the back of the net.

Warnock spoke afterwards of things being different next term, but it is hard not to think that Boro must rebuild in many respects again and it will take time.

Their defensive options are worthy of a top-six contender – and the likes of Paddy McNair and Grant Hall would get in most sides – but they have issues in goal, all across their forward line and lack energy in midfield.

By contrast, Barnsley clearly sense this is their time.

A cheeky airing of Let’s Dance – a smash hit for Middlesbrough-born singer Chris Rea in the Eighties – was delivered at the final whistle.

Barnsley look destined to continue their season in the play-offs and Boro have had the last waltz.

For more seasoned Barnsley supporters watching at home, there was also maybe a sense of historical satisfaction.

Their side were relegated after a defeat to Boro in April, 2014. Famously, Barnsley also thought they had clinched a play-off place with a victory over the Teessiders at Oakwell almost 30 years ago at the end of the 1990-91 season in another painful episode.

Home players celebrated at the final whistle with fans before information was relayed that rivals Brighton had scored two late goals to usurp them.

This time, Barnsley look on safer ground. As is customary, some big players stepped up. It would have been no surprise that Alex Mowatt did just that.

The Championship’s player of the month for March had already hinted at danger with an inswinging corner which caused Bettinelli major problems in the first half.

Bettinelli’s effort to deal with another whipped-in set-piece from Mowatt, again on the right, was similarly abject just after the hour and rather more fateful.

After attempting a weak punch with his left hand at the near post, the ball sailed into the net at his far post. It did not leave Warnock enamoured afterwards as most would have suspected.

The big moment in fact came to Boro early on.

Played in by a woefully short header from Toby Sibbick, George Saville anticipated the mistake, but his execution was weak and tame and straight into the arms of Brad Collins when he really should have nodded the ball over the stranded Reds goalkeeper.

Saville almost connected with a deflected McNair free-kick and Duncan Watmore shot across goal early in the second period. But that was it, attacking-wise, from Boro, with the impact from their substitutes being anaemic.

Barnsley’s backline made one error all game and that was it.

Warnock would certainly not have been surprised at the player who clinched it either.

One of the big reasons why he is so envious of Barnsley is the presence up top of Daryl Dike and he came to the party eventually as many thought he might.

Hall did a decent marking job against him in the main. But he erred once and that was enough.

Bettinelli had initially denied interval substitute Carlton Morris from point-blank range after the striker – played onside by Darnell Fisher – latched onto Mowatt’s downward volley.

The recycled ball found its way to Callum Brittain and his fine first-time cross was dispatched by the head of Dike for the eighth goal of his outstanding loan spell after he pulled away from Hall.

Job done and 71 points for the season now. A play-off ticket is Barnsley’s to lose and a third-placed finish is a realistic aim.

Barnsley: Collins; Sibbick, Helik, Andersen; Brittain, Mowatt, Palmer (Halme 57), Styles; Frieser (Morris 45), Woodrow (Chaplin 57), Dike. Unused substitutes: Walton, J Williams, Oduor, Sollbauer, Adeboyejo, Moon.

Middlesbrough: Bettinelli; Fisher, Hall, McNair, Bola (Johnson 80); Howson, Saville; Spence (Coulson 80), Watmore (Assombalonga 70), Kebano (Bolaise 70); Akpom (Fletcher 70). Unused substitutes: Archer.

Referee: K Stroud (Hants).

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