Big-match verdict: Tenacious Barnsley and developing Middlesbrough serve up another enthralling contest

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DO NOT let it be said that this particular fixture has ever been boring over the years.

Reds fans will fondly recall a wonder goal from ‘Derry Pele’ Patrick McCourt almost four years to the day; a sweet Christmas win in 2009 and an opening-day success in 2012 – although it is probably best to gloss over the final-day triumph in May 1991 when home players celebrated with fans after seemingly clinching a play-off place, only for late drama elsewhere to deny them.

Tom Bradshaw, of Barnsley, is tackled by Ben Gibson, of Middlesbrough (Pictures: James Hardisty)

Tom Bradshaw, of Barnsley, is tackled by Ben Gibson, of Middlesbrough (Pictures: James Hardisty)

For Boro, this Oakwell meeting has also brought joy and pain. It was the stage for Tony Mowbray’s last appearance both as a player and a manager of his boyhood club, while there was a magical episode in the early nineties when young Irish winger Alan Moore cast a spell and had away punters presumptuously drawing comparisons with Ryan Giggs.

This latest encounter rarely disappointed, too. In the month of October, historically associated with revolution, a chaotic opening ensued before some order was found, more especially by the visitors, yet they reckoned without the hosts’ spirit and tenacity.

They may not have been at their best, but no-one could accuse Barnsley of lacking identity. A clear game plan based on counter-attack brought its rewards, as did the second-half introduction of livewire Mamadou Thiam to provide much-needed support to the tireless Tom Bradshaw.

Others in red had afternoons to draw comfort from too including Cameron McGeehan, who marked his first home league start with a maiden Reds goal and Zeki Fryers, whose uplifting display showcased the pedigree of a player formerly on the books of Manchester United and Spurs.

I have been in and out of the team, but you have to get on with it. When the manager picks you, you have to show him what you can do. Hopefully he gives me a run of games to prove that I can help the team.

Middlesbrough’s Stewart Downing

McGeehan nodded in Brad Potts’ cross after Boro’s defence and keeper Darren Randolph prevaricated to put the Reds 2-1 up in the ninth minute, after a riotous opening brought three goals, with Fryers providing the assist for the hosts’ opener with a devilishly-inswinging corner which went in via a deflection off ex-Barnsley loanee Ashley Fletcher.

Britt Assombalonga’s sharp near-post leveller on the hour denied Barnsley their win bonus. But there was plenty to take for the hosts – who had chances to win it through Thiam and Harvey Barnes, who hit the post.

McGeehan, making up for lost time after breaking his leg with old club Luton in January, said: “It is nice to be back playing in front of big crowds in important games when the pressure is on.

“I have missed getting up on a Saturday and playing a game. I have been to watch a lot of games while I was out, so it is nice to be pain free and playing again.

Fabio Da Silva, of Middlesbrough, makes a move onto Adam Hammill, of Barnsley

Fabio Da Silva, of Middlesbrough, makes a move onto Adam Hammill, of Barnsley

“Obviously the Championship is a step up at every area. There is a bit more quality and people are fitter and stronger.

“This was a good point against a team who have spent a lot of money and like to keep the ball.”

While strains of Barnsley’s footballing DNA after a summer of upheaval are increasingly noticeable, Boro are only partway through their style makeover under Garry Monk.

Their possession play was pleasing on the eye on the day, but issues remain at the sharp end.

Cameron McGeehan, of Barnsley, celebrates scoring his team's second goal against Boro

Cameron McGeehan, of Barnsley, celebrates scoring his team's second goal against Boro

Strikes from Martin Braithwaite and Assombalonga were clinical, but in isolation. Aside from that, Boro were wasteful in the final third, with Fletcher being the major culprit.

So unyielding at the back under Aitor Karanka, the Boro rearguard is also rather more accommodating these days with Ben Gibson lining up with his third different central defensive 
partner in successive league games.

Boro’s habit of making it hard for themselves continued too when they conceded the first goal for a fifth straight league match.

The main plus points alongside the vibrant display of £9m summer arrival Braithwaite, who struck for the second consecutive match to notch Boro’s first equaliser and soon cancel out Fletcher’s unfortunate own goal, were the performances of returning ‘old-stagers’ Grant Leadbitter and Stewart Downing.

It was the latter who provided a touch of sublime quality to slip in Assombalonga with an exquisite defence-splitting pass as Boro levelled for a second time – on an afternoon of warm sunshine after coming in from the cold for the former England winger.

On his recall, Downing said: “I was surprised. It has been difficult, I cannot say it has not been.

“I have been in and out of the team, but you have to get on with it. When the manager picks you, you have to show him what you can do. Hopefully he gives me a run of games to prove that I can help the team.

“I am happy to be back involved, but disappointed that we did not get the win.”

Offering his take on a stodgy start to the season for the promotion favourites, far from ‘smashing up the league’ in the way that chairman Steve Gibson envisaged in the summer, Downing is looking at the longer-term picture.

He added: “I remember at Christmas (2015-16) when we were about 10 points clear with a game in hand and thinking this is quite easy. Within a few months, we were chasing and six points behind.

“There is still a long way to go. If we win a couple of games we will be near the top six. You just have to keep in that pack and not let too much of a gap open up.”