Character the key in Reds-Blades derby tussle

Blades boss Nigel Adkins   walks to the dressing room on the final whistle after seeing Barnsley'slate equaliser. Pic Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Blades boss Nigel Adkins walks to the dressing room on the final whistle after seeing Barnsley'slate equaliser. Pic Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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Long campaigns, they say, can hinge on small moments.

Only time will tell how important Conor Hourihane’s late, late equaliser for Barnsley on Saturday will be. Make no mistake, though, it felt huge at the time.

There were positives from the derby for Barnsley manager Lee Johnson. 'Picture Dean Atkins

There were positives from the derby for Barnsley manager Lee Johnson. 'Picture Dean Atkins

Huge for the Reds fans who, for much of this absorbing derby contest against local rivals Sheffield United, were staring down the barrel of the club’s tenth league loss in 11 games.

Huge for Nigel Adkins and his battling Blades, who had led since Chris Basham’s early header but were denied a first league win in over a month.

And huge for Reds boss Lee Johnson, who saw his young Barnsley babes hit the bar, the post and miss a penalty when George Long denied Hourihane.

Johnson’s joy was tempered slightly by news of Crewe’s victory at Oldham, which sent Barnsley bottom of League One.

But, ahead of Saturday’s JPT clash with Wigan, his side here displayed the sort of never-say-die attitude which suggests that demotion to League Two may not be a foregone conclusion after all.

“I think it could be a big point,” Johnson said afterwards.

“I came in the dressing room and it was nice to hear from the players. They’re starting to mature a bit now... a lot of the stuff they were saying was positive and they were talking about going on a good run.”

Just over 12 miles and 10 places in the table separated these two teams before kick-off at Oakwell. But for much of what followed, the difference was clear; experience. United, deploying the ever-willing Billy Sharp as lone frontman, relied much on the guile and graft of midfield trio Chris Basham, Paul Coutts and the excellent Dean Hammond, while wingmen Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Matt Done, both former Reds, put in industrious shifts on the flanks.

After the midweek horror show at home to Shrewsbury, Adkins was keen to elicit a reaction from his side and Sharp’s committed challenge on Reece Wabara, just seconds after kick-off, suggested it would be forthcoming.

Indeed, United battled and scrapped away throughout but added invention to their industry with Done and the returning John Brayford both going close to opening the scoring.

Lloyd Isgrove’s inexplicable miss at the other end - somehow tapping wide after Long had failed to hold a shot - raised the biggest cheer so far from the travelling Blades, but they were on their feet again when Basham rose highest to head Bob Harris’ inviting corner past Adam Davies.

The resulting red flare lit in the away end saw the red mist literally descend upon an autumnal Oakwell, but Barnsley kept their composure with Manchester United loanee Ben Pearson, shaggy-haired and still only 20 years old, keeping them ticking over.

Pretty as it is, though, there was a degree of penetration lacking in their play and one wonders what Johnson would do for a player with the experience of Basham or Hammond, who had his best game for United so far since arriving in South Yorkshire.

United almost profited from another Harris set-piece when Adam Hammill needlessly barged over Basham near the corner flag; Sharp almost profited from Lewin Nyatanga’s naivety in the opposite quadrant in the second half.

And when Wabara attempted to break down the right, Pearson failed to get his head up and, instead, settled for a short pass.

It was Kipling who once said that keeping your head, when others around you are losing theirs, makes you a man. Long, still a relative boy at 22, certainly kept his when he denied Hourihane with an excellent save down low to his right after Neill Collins had tripped Hammill.

Johnson threw on Ryan Williams and Ivan Toney to inject some fresh impetus in his side but it was perhaps Hammill’s free-kick attempt late on which summed up their troubles.

Barnsley’s fans were buoyed by six minutes added on and won a free-kick in a promising position on the left. But Hammill, the oldest member of Johnson’s starting eleven aged 27, elected for a speculative shot at goal which sailed well over Long’s goal.

United breathed a collective sigh of relief but the onslaught wasn’t over, and Hourihane had the last word with a stunning effort deep into injury time. In a game neither side could afford to lose, it was a result which did either side no favours in the league.

But Adkins got the response he demanded; Johnson learned his young side - with an average age of 23 on Saturday - can scrap a bit, too.

As Kipling almost said, they may become men yet.