Barnsley boss Lee Johnson clearly believes his team are set fair to make a concerted Sky Bet League One play-off push after they came within six minutes of spoiling Bristol City’s post-Wembley party.
he hosts’ fans were in carnival mode as they welcomed back their City heroes for the first time since the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success against Walsall six days previously.
With the Robins already sitting on a comfortably 10-point lead at the top of the division too, Barnsley’s players could have been forgiven for feeling a little like lambs to the slaughter.
However, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The Reds fell behind to an early Marlon Pack penalty, but later responded quite superbly with goals either side of half-time from Jabo Ibehre and Josh Scowen firing them into a deserved lead they were only forced to relinquish thanks to Joe Bryan’s late, predatory leveller.
Johnson’s men slipped just outside the play-off positions on goal difference courtesy of Bryan’s goal, but the manager spoke confidently after guiding his team to a ninth match without defeat.
Johnson is looking forward to giving the Oakwell faithful plenty to shout about between now and the end of the season.
The Reds boss said: “We can really kick on in the last eight games now.
“It’s about everyone maintaining that desire to give the fans a run for their money.
“The players were really disappointed after the game, and that’s good, because we have come from nowhere to get to our current position.
“We’ve come off the rails, and now we’re going to give it a right go.
“I don’t want fear and I don’t want mediocrity from this team.
“We were mediocre in the first half an hour in this game. Some players played within themselves, instead of having that mindset to think ‘I want to be the best player on the pitch’.
“You can’t always be the best player on the pitch, but you have to go out with that intention.
“I certainly reminded the players of that at half-time. There were a few individuals that I felt needed that, and not necessarily in a negative way, but some needed telling that they weren’t the best players out there so go and do something about it.
“Some players do need to dig deep to find that belief, but I’m confident that they will, and we’ll need it because we’ve got some massive games coming up.”
Johnson, making an emotional return to a club he played for with such distinction, made six alterations to his starting line-up, despite an impressive second half effort against fellow high-fliers Preston seven days earlier.
There was a change between the sticks due to Adam Davies’s injury, with loan stopper and England under-20 international Joe Wildsmith getting the nod just days after linking up with the Reds.
Elsewhere, George Smith and Ben Pearson returned from injuries, while Jean-Yves M’voto and Josh Scowen were back in favour.
Big Jabo Ibehre was handed his first start up front alongside Sam Winnall after he had impressed in scoring as a substitute against North End.
Ashton Gate was buzzing on the back of the Robins’ Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success at Wembley, and unsurprisingly manager Steve Cotterill named an unchanged starting XI.
Amidst a raucous atmosphere, it was a clumsy challenge that handed the hosts’ fans a chance to climb off their seats in just the 13th minute when M’voto chopped down Kieran Agard in the box and referee Mark Brown pointed straight to the spot.
Pack stepped up confidently and breezed his spot-kick past Wildsmith, and the Robins’ faithful were baying for blood.
They didn’t get it, though, as the gutsy Reds showed once again that they are now a force to be reckoned with in the third tier under Johnson’s guidance.
They deservedly levelled matters a minute before the break, with Ibehre slotting home clinically from 12 yards after he neatly controlled Martin Cranie’s through-ball.
Just eight minutes after the restart the Reds fired themselves into a shock lead thanks to another well-taken goal.
This time Scowen went on to round goalkeeper Frank Fielding and fire home after latching on to a smart pass from Ibehre.
The hosts upped the tempo significantly in the latter stages and Wildsmith saved superbly from Agard and Aaron Wilbraham, before the Reds were denied that precious maximum points haul in the 84th minute.
Derrick Williams had already seen a goal-bound effort superbly beaten away by Wildsmith, before the follow-up was poked home by Bryan from close range.
Bristol City (3-5-1-1): Fielding 8; Ayling 7, Flint 6, Williams 7; Little 5 (Emmanuel-Thomas 59, 6), K Smith 8, Pack 6, Freeman 7, Bryan 7; Wilbraham 8; Agard 5 (Elliott 77, 6).
Subs not used: Richards, Wagstaff, Saville, Cunningham, Tavernier.
Barnsley (4-4-2): Wildsmith 8; Cranie 8, M’voto 7, Nyatanga 7, Smith 7; Scowen 8, Pearson 7, Hourihane 7, Stewart 6 (Bailey 89, 5); Ibehre 9, Winnall 7 (Waring 90, 5).
Subs not used: Walton, Berry, Hemmings, Jennings, Williams.
Booked: Ibehre (74).
Referee: Mark Brown (East Yorkshire)