Barnsley boss Lee Johnson saluted his improving young squad after they held their nerve to win a penalty shoot-out at Wigan in the Northern area semi-final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
The Reds, who finally appear to be getting it together again after a wretched couple of months, triumphed 4-2 in the shoot-out at the home of the 2013 FA Cup winners and are now just a two-legged Northern final away from a dream return to Wembley Stadium in the spring.
Barnsley eventually progressed to a double-header against either Fleetwood or Morecambe - those two meet tomorrow night - but Johnson was slightly fearful after Will Grigg’s 82nd-minute strike earned Wigan a 2-2 draw, a normal-time result they hadn’t really deserved.
He needn’t have feared the worst, though, as ex-Reds David Perkins and Craig Davies failed from the penalty spot.
“Overall, on the balance of play, I thought we deserved to win the game,” said Johnson.
“I thought we hustled well and were a real threat.
“It becomes a bit of a lottery when it goes to penalties, but then you’re looking for your players to dig in.
“They showed that spirit here, and it turned into a great day for us.
“Everybody will be buzzing now, the final will get the town talking, so hopefully the players can deliver when those games do come around.”
Johnson had complete faith in his spot-kick heroes - Conor Hourihane, Ivan Toney, Sam Winnall and Alfie Mawson.
The boss added: “I was okay really, because I knew we had good penalty-takers.
“We’ve won a shoot-out before with this group, at Scunthorpe, and I see in training that they all strike a clean ball.
“We had worked on penalties on Friday to try and crank up the pressure on the players a little bit, and in the end this young group have come through another tough mental challenge.
“We need to focus on the league again now, though. We can’t think about Wembley yet, at all.
“We’ve got some important league games coming up, including at Colchester next, and I’ll be expecting a similar performance in that game.
“If we can put that kind of effort in, there’s nothing to stop us winning that game.
“These last two weeks, people have been much happier and chirpy, so it’s onwards and upwards, I suppose.
“That team is definitely strong enough to go on a run, and that’s what I’m excited about.”
It may have been a welcome respite from the rigours and worries of the League One campaign, but Johnson made only a single changeto his starting line-up in the wake of the drawn clash against Sheffield United seven days earlier.
That alteration came across the middle, with Toney stepping in to replace fellow loanee Lloyd Isgrove, who was dropped to the bench.
The Reds were terrific in the first period at the DW Stadium, though they didn’t grab the goal their dominance had warranted until three minutes before the interval.
It was Adam Hammill who broke the deadlock, twisting neatly past Jack Hendry before drilling home low into far corner past keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Earlier the Reds had gone close through Marley Watkins, while Hammill brought a fine stop out of Jaaskelainen.
In first-half stoppage time, Watkins fired in a super shot which deflected off Perkins before hitting the side-netting.
There was a hectic start to the second period, with both sides scoring in the opening eight minutes.
An unfortunate own goal handed Wigan a scarcely-deserved equaliser.
Half-time sub Yanic Wildschut whipped in a low cross which Lewin Nyatanga could only force past Davies as he was tracking back to try and tackle Grigg.
However, the gutsy Reds soon fired themselves back into the lead, with the returning Toney repaying his manager’s faith by heading home a rebound after Hourihane’s fierce shot was only parried by Jaaskelainen.
The visitors had a spring in their step and Hammill twice went close to extending the lead, while Watkins went on a mazy run before shooting straight at Jaaskelainen.
Just when it was starting to look like the Reds were set to hang on for a victory in regulation time, Wigan struck, with Grigg tucking home at the near post after meeting Davies’s low cross.
And so it was straight to penalties to decide the outcome, with irony turning out to be a major feature as Barnsley old boys Davies and Perkins were the villains in fluffing their lines in the shoot-out.
Hourihane, Toney, Winnall and skipper Mawson coolly slotted home their spot-kicks to send the travelling Yorkshire army into raptures.
Now they can dream about a possible date at Wembley Stadium.
WIGAN (5-3-2): Jaaskelainen 6; Kellett 5, Pearce 7, Barnett 7, Hendry 4, James 4 (Wildschut 46, 6); Power 8, Perkins 7, Jacobs 5 (Flores 61, 5); Grigg 7, Revell 5 (Davies 61, 5). Subs not used: O’Donnell, Junior.
BARNSLEY (4-4-1-1): Davies 7; Wabara 8, Mawson 7, Nyatanga 6, White 7; Toney 7, Pearson 7 (Bree 90), Hourihane 8, Hammill 8; Watkins 7; Winnall 7. Subs not used: Townsend, Williams, Jackson, Isgrove.
REF: Keith Hill (Hertfordshire).