‘DRUGS DOGS patrolling,” read the electronic board halfway down Wembley Way as thousands of fans yesterday made their way to the League One play-off final in the north London sunshine.
Had anyone suggested last Christmas that Barnsley would be heading to the Championship come May, no specially trained canine would have been needed to sniff out any miscreants.
With the Reds in the relegation zone and still reeling from the club’s worst run of results in almost 60 years, surely only someone whose brain had been chemically altered could have believed such a thing to be possible.
A little over five months on and the impossible has come to pass. Next season will once again see Oakwell host the likes of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday in league combat.
Incredible stuff and a genuine ‘pinch me, I must be dreaming’ style turnaround for the South Yorkshire club.
No team has ever lost eight games in a row, as Barnsley did through those dark days of October and November, and gone on to win promotion.
Even in a season when Leicester City lifted the Premier League and minnows Burton Albion made it to the second tier, that represents some story.
Paul Heckingbottom’s men booked that return ticket to the second tier in fitting fashion yesterday, outplaying a Millwall outfit who had made light work of Bradford City in the semi-finals.
That two-legged triumph over the Bantams had been a lesson in the value of having two solid banks of four players in League One with a lively strike partnership up front to add the polish.
Barnsley, thanks to having so many players able to turn a game through an individual piece of brilliance, were always going to pose a very different threat to that of Bradford.
It proved to be a task the Lions simply were not up to, save for a spell of 10 or so minutes before half-time that saw Penistone-born Mark Beevers pull a goal back for Neil Harris’s men.
Had Barnsley conceded again during that period, the result could have been very different. As it was, the interval was reached with the Reds still ahead and with one foot planted in the second tier.
A blistering start to proceedings did all the damage, just 88 seconds having elapsed when Barnsley took the lead.
Sam Winnall’s flick-on caused the initial danger and Ashley Fletcher capitalised, initially being the beneficiary of a kind ricochet before leaving Carlos Edwards and Beevers trailing. The Manchester United loanee then beat Jordan Archer with ease.
It was a dream start for Barnsley and their afternoon got even better in the 19th minute.
‘Let ’em come’ may be Millwall’s club anthem, but right-back Byron Webster took this a little too literally, as good as inviting Hammill to run at him.
The winger, a talismanic figure in the Reds’ revival since his arrival in late November, rarely needs a second invitation.
After running 20 yards unimpeded, Hammill dropped his shoulder and quickly changed course to nip inside and beyond both Webster and Ben Thompson.
Then, from a similar position to where Mohamed Diame had fired Hull City into the Premier League the previous day at Wembley, Hammill curled an exquisite right-footed shot beyond Jordan Archer.
As good as Diame’s winner had been, this was even more impressive with the Liverpudlian wideman’s direct running and trickery having created the opening for himself.
Millwall were rocked. Like Barnsley, though, they are a club who have grown stronger as the season has gone, Harris’s men having been 11th at Christmas when the Reds were still occupying that place in the relegation zone.
This fighting spirit was evident when the Lions pulled a goal back 11 minutes before the break.
Beevers, rejected twice at Oakwell when a youngster and someone who had been at Wembley for the 2000 play-off final defeat to Ipswich Town as a fan, displayed tremendous strength to hold off Marc Roberts and fire in from close range.
Suddenly, the Lions were transformed and there was no doubt who was the more relieved of the two sides when the half-time whistle blew.
Heckingbottom, whose role as head coach is expected to be made permanent this week, clearly used the interval wisely as his side emerged much more controlled in the second half.
There was the odd worrying moment, such as when Josh Scowen – who had become a father just two days earlier – made a hash of an attempted clearance and Lee Gregory came within a whisker of latching onto the ball ahead of Adam Davies.
But, overall, Barnsley resumed control and their reward came 16 minutes from time.
Lloyd Isgrove had bemoaned his lack of a goal during nearly seven months on loan at Oakwell in The Yorkshire Post last week.
In that interview, however, the Southampton winger had revealed that his team-mates had been reassuring him that his moment would come at Wembley.
It did, Isgrove heading in Conor Hourihane’s corner from close range before being mobbed by red shirts next to the corner flag in front of the massed ranks of Millwall fans. A few coins were thrown, an unsavoury end to what had been, up to that point, an occasion to savour.
A few Millwall fans then further soured things by attempting to break through segregation in Wembley’s top tier, but this could not spoil Barnsley’s day, as was evident in the post-match celebrations to mark the club’s return to the second tier after just two years away,