Lee Johnson’s managerial reign at Barnsley got off to a dream start with a hard-earned single goal victory at in-form Gillingham.
The conditions were rough and the opposition tough thanks to an impressive unbeaten run of eight games, but the battling Reds produced a stirring instant response to Johnson’s appointment by securing a deserved third straight victory.
It’s quite incredible to think that just two weeks earlier there had been so much doom and negativity around the club following the 5-1 hammering at relegation-haunted Crawley in the first game after Danny Wilson’s sacking.
Since then the gutsy Reds have ground out impressive victories against Crewe and then at Scunthorpe, and now they’ve got new boss Johnson off to a flying start thanks to George Waring’s predatory second-half strike at the Priestfield Stadium.
Johnson unsurprisingly wore a wide smile when asked to reflect on a hugely satisfactory first game in charge of the Reds following his high-profile switch from League One rivals Oldham in midweek.
The 33-year-old said: “Of course I’m delighted. It’s my first game, we’ve won and kept a clean sheet, so it’s been a perfect day really.
“The players showed great spirit throughout, because conditions were difficult. It was blowing a gale and we had to come here to take on a side who were really in form.
“We had a job to do and we’ve done it.
“Across the field the players worked their socks off. We knew we were going to be in for a tough game, but we had a lot of rats in there if you like, stealing the ball and breaking Gillingham’s play up.
“It’s been a good day all round. We’ve jumped up a few places in the table and all of a suddent things are looking rosy. Let’s not get too excited, though.
“There’s still a lot of games to come this season, but the great thing to come out of this win was the spirit the players showed. If you haven’t got that you’re not going to win any games.
“I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen so far since I joined the club.
“Maybe the intensity in training needs to go up a notch, but that is a good thing because it means our good players will become even better.
“I’m a big believer in training the way you play, but they did recover well for this game.
“Don’t forget we’d played with 10 men for over half-an-hour in midweek and won, so it’s about judging it right again for the Coventry game this midweek.”
There was praise for goalkeeper Adam Davies too, who has now kept three clean sheets on the spin during a particularly pleasing win for him as he continues to impress in place of the injured Ross Turnbull.
Johnson added: “Adam’s looked really good again. I was at Tuesday’s game at Scunthorpe and he was excellent. He was probably even better here.
“He looks comfortable, his kicking was good and he made a couple of good saves.
“Goalkeepers do have to be spiritual leaders from the back sometimes, and he was in this game.”
Johnson’s first starting XI featured a couple of changes following the excellent midweek victory at Scunthorpe.
One was enforced, with Mason Holgate stepping back into the back four as Jean-Yves M’voto was suspended following his red card at Glanford Park, while Milan Lalkovic got the nod across the midfield in place of James Bailey, who dropped to the bench.
Gills boss Edinburgh made just the solitary alteration in the wake of a 2-2 stalemate at Yeovil, with Jermaine McGlashan slotting back into the midfield at Dan Galbraith’s expense.
It was an even first half in horrendous blustery conditions. Both sides struggled to create clear-cut chances, but the Reds back four looked solid.
One of those defenders - Lewin Nyatanga - produced a superb last-ditch tackle to thwart the on-rushing Cody McDonald early in the game.
At the other end Josh Scowen was looking particularly lively, and he twisted and turned before driving a shot narrowly wide.
Davies’s first neat stop came when he palmed away a super strike from midfielder Bradley Dack, though the Reds almost responded by taking the lead shortly before the interval.
John O’Sullivan neatly played in Scowen, only for the hard-working midfielder to somehow scoop a shot over the top from inside the box.
The visitors struck the match-winning goal 11 minutes after the restart.
And it was giant loan striker Waring who registered his second Barnsley goal since joining the club temporarily from Stoke City at the turn of the year.
It was fellow loanee Ben Pearson who did the hard work, forcing goalkeeper Stuart Nelson to parry his well-struck shot.
Waring was alive to the loose ball and rammed home the rebound clinically.
Conor Hourihane went closest to adding a second goal for Barnsley, but the visitors were mostly indebted to Davies for securing the three points.
He made super saves from John Marquis and McGlashan late on as the Reds went on to secure an eye-catching victory.
Gills boss Justin Edinburgh was angered by the goal that ultimately divided the two sides.
He said: “If we weren’t going to win the game, we certainly didn’t want to lose it through a mistake or a lack of concentration.
“In the end that was the reason we lost the game.”
Gillingham (4-4-2): Nelson 6; Hoyte 7 (Galbraith 81, 5), Egan 5, Ehmer 7, Garmston 6 (Martin 57, 5); McGlashan 6, Hessenthaler 7 (Norris 66, 6), Loft 5, Dack 8; Marquis 6, McDonald 7.
Subs not used: Legge, G Morris, A Morris, Romeo.
Booked: Loft (16).
Barnsley (4-4-1-1): Davies 8; Holgate 6, Nyatanga 7, Cranie 8, Smith 6; Scowen 7, Pearson 6, Hourihane 5, O’Sullivan 8 (Bailey 87, 5); Waring 8 (Oates 90, 5), Lalkovic 6.
Subs not used: Dibble, Berry, Hemmings, Williams, Lita.
Booked: Pearson (45).