OVER the previous decade or so, this fixture had taken on a level of trepidation for Leeds United supporters similar to that felt before a visit to the dentist.
Half a dozen visits to Barnsley had yielded five defeats and a smattering of good hidings that are not easily forgotten.
Be it the capitulations in back-to-back seasons under Simon Grayson that saw nine goals conceded or the afternoon when Neil Warnock faced chants of ‘Time to go’ from the irate travelling fans when making his way down the touchline, United have stunk out Oakwell more than the infamous open-air toilets behind the West Stand that were finally demolished a month or so ago.
No wonder many of the 4,500-strong travelling army of fans who made the short trip down the M1 on Saturday lunchtime will have done so in anxious mood.
They need not have worried, as head coach Thomas Christiansen’s side produced a performance so far removed from those insipid efforts against Barnsley under his predecessors that it was tempting to wonder if this was the same Leeds United.
With defensive midfield duo Eunan O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips harassing and hassling their Barnsley counterparts from the opening seconds, the platform was laid for the flair players in the Elland Road squad to come to the fore.
Be it the capitulations in back-to-back seasons under Simon Grayson that saw nine goals conceded or the afternoon when Neil Warnock faced chants of ‘time to go’ from the irate travelling fans when making his way down the touchline, United have stunk Oakwell out more than the infamous open-air toilets behind the West Stand that were finally demolished a month or so ago.Richard Sutcliffe
It was an invitation Samuel Saiz, Ezgjan Alioski and Pablo Hernandez accepted with glee, the attacking midfield trio cutting the home defence open time and time again.
Saiz and Alioski also added the finishing touches to two flowing moves to earn three fully-deserved points to banish the memories of those previous horror shows at Oakwell.
“We have not had a good record here,” said Christiansen, at the end of a week that brought six points from a testing trio of fixtures that also included a home clash with Middlesbrough and a trip to leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“So, it was important to get the result. Our performance was good and I believe the team is back. A win and a clean sheet, taking three points from good opponents is always good and that is now something we can take into our next game against Aston Villa.
“I would have been happy with six points (from nine this week). We faced two very difficult games against teams who could be in the Premier League and then a derby, a difficult one at a place where we had two wins in the last 20 years. It was important to take a good result.”
United’s victory was effectively sealed during a first half in which United’s play was as dazzling as the low sun behind the Pontefract Road End that caused goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald such discomfort during the opening quarter.
The German, recalled to the side by Christiansen in place of Andy Lonergan, spent those opening 20 or so minutes shielding his eyes in an attempt to follow the action in front of him.
Eventually, one United fan dashed to the front of the stand and offered Wiedwald his cap. The summer signing from Werder Bremen accepted, showing his gratitude later by not only handing the designer cap back to the supporter, but also his team shirt.
In truth, Wiedwald could probably have got away without the loaned headgear due to Barnsley never once threatening his goal during a one-sided first half. Instead, all the meaningful action took place at the other end as United opened up a decisive two-goal advantage.
The breakthrough came in the 23rd minute, an incisive pass by Alioski finding Saiz midway inside the Reds’ half. Such had been the quality on the ball that Joe Williams, who struggled to keep track of Saiz all afternoon, had been taken completely out of the game.
Saiz, the game’s outstanding player, quickly darted forward before drilling a low shot that Adam Davies, sticking to the goalkeepers’ guidebook, attempted to push away from danger with both hands. In doing so, however, he missed the ball completely and Leeds were ahead.
Davies may have been culpable for the opener, but there was little he could do about the visitors’ second on the stroke of half-time. The same, though, cannot be said about Harvey Barnes.
Having been booked early on for squaring up to Luke Ayling following what was a blatant dive by the full-back, the talented Leicester City loanee had tested the patience of referee Andrew Madley with a series of fouls that included rugby tackling Kalvin Phillips to the floor.
A warning that one more indiscretion would bring a second yellow card explains why Barnes pulled out of a tackle on Ayling. It proved a crucial error, as the ball was worked to Alioski and he curled an exquisite shot beyond Davies and into the corner of the net.
Home manager Paul Heckingbottom’s response was to withdraw Barnes at the break and switch to a two-man attack. It did little good, Barnsley instead needing the introduction of Ryan Hedges 14 minutes from time to finally raise the hosts from their stupor.
Even then, though, Leeds stood firm as, first, Gaetano Berardi and then Liam Cooper repelled two particularly dangerous crosses from the substitute to ensure Leeds left their supposed bogey ground with three points that Heckingbottom admitted were fully deserved.
“There aren’t many games this season when I have said we were second best, but we were against Leeds,” he said. “We didn’t perform and their technical players did.”