Keeping your cool in the bearpit atmosphere generated in Oakwell’s first game in front of fans for 436 days was incredibly difficult but for one all-important microsecond, Andre Ayew did.
Barnsley go into their Championship play-off semi-final at Swansea City on Saturday with a 1-0 deficit.
With Carlton Morris touching a corner onto the crossbar in the third added minute, the Reds could so easily have headed to south Wales all square and their ferocious fans were not in any way fooled by the scoreline.
The appreciation they showed at full-time – partly for a magnificent, logic-defying season but also a fantatically-committed display – showed that.
You will probably not have to wait long to watch a higher-quality football match but the Championship is less about purity and perfectionism, more raw, unadulterated passion. It is what has made the last year of attending games so unsatisfactory for even us super-privileged few who have been able to.
Ultimately, though, a little stardust still counts for something, and Ayew sprinkled some half an hour into a pulsating contest.
Barnsley’s intense football deserves an intense audience. They say Jurgen Klopp plays heavy metal football but Valerien Ismael makes it look like an acoustic set by the Carpenters on beta-blockers.
They claimed there were 4,500 supporters inside Oakwell but there must have been another 20,000 or so disguised as red seats because there was no way that number of people could make so much noise for so long.
An hour before the game got underway the Ponty End and the North Stand competed over who could make the most noise. The latter is normally reserved for away fans but the only ones allowed last night were the clutch who jumped in delight in the director’s box when Ayew scored.
The first sight of a footballer nearly raised the roof, Brad Collins welcomed like he had just found a cure for coronavirus, not come out to warm up. Every name on the Barnsley teamsheet was greeted with gusto as it was read out, boos for all the Swansea players, although in the case of the returning Conor Hourihane they were more than balanced out by applause.
Rhythmic clapping made way for a huge guttural roar when the players emerged for real.
You worried how they could possibly keep it up – Ismael’s success is partly based on the re-energising qualities of substitutes, after all – but they managed. They did have a lot of catching up to do.
It has been an incredible 436 days for Barnsley, seven points adrift of Championship safety with nine matches to play when they were booed off after a 2-0 defeat to Cardiff City. Now they are once more looking they could leave this division, this time by the front door.
The only person clapping more furiously than the fans was Ismael, a one-man supporters club in the technical area. At one point he applauded referee Geoff Eltringham for overruling his linesman, then gestured angrily at the flagging flagmen.
Not that the referee was going to get any easy ride back in front of fans. He was soon sarcastically cheered for giving a Barnsley free-kick and booed down the tunnel at half-time.
In a maelstrom like that, keeping your head is easier said than done but in Ayew Swansea have invested heavily in a player of rare quality. In the 39th minute he ran down the side of Mads Anderson, opened a chink of light and curled the ball inside the far post from one of the half’s few chances.
The Reds have a class act of their own up front but Daryl Dike will never have experienced an evening like last night’s in Major League Soccer. He gave everything before making way in the 88th minute, but just could not find the killer touch.
Running towards a stars-and-stripes flag in the first half, the American was pumped up – maybe too pumped up. Eltringham took a dim view of his battle with Ben Cabango but the centre-forward avoided a yellow card for totting up fouls.
“Leave it! Leave iiiit!” Eltringham screamed in the second half as he could see Dike tempted to delay a free-kick.
Swansea proved perfectly capable of doing that themselves, Hourihane’s shoe lace coming undone at just the wrong moment when he was meant to be taking a corner. What bad luck. In the 64th minute Dike had the ball at his feet and Barnsley two men over on the left, only for the pass to be overhit. A minute later another counter-attack foundered when Cauley Woodrow drilled into a defender.
Another Dike pass to half-time substitute Morris would have been a belter had Freddie Woodman not been so quick off his line. Still Barnsley had big moments.
Woodman’s save from Morris presented the ball to Callum Brittain but with the near post a fraction ajar, his shot was saved. Morris would go closer still. Perhaps a game wiser and with the desperation more at Swansea’s back, Barnsley might just be able to strike the equilibrium they need on Saturday, perhaps not.
One thing is guaranteed, though – whatever the quality of the football, if you love everything the English game stands for, it should be well worth watching.
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