IT’s no wonder Keith Hill is optimistic about the future at Oakwell – on the evidence of this excellent performance he has every reason to be, with the Reds having overwhelmed the Hornets.
But by Hill’s own admission it’s still a “work in progress” as he and assistant boss David Flitcroft continue to try to stamp their “own identity” on Barnsley Football Club.
Another lapse in concentration meant half an hour of relentless pressure was wasted as the visitors somehow took the lead against the run of play.
Thankfully Andy Gray was on hand to make sure Hill’s charges finished with a point, the minimum they deserved for a free-flowing attacking home display which merited much more.
But as Hill is quickly discovering, the Championship is an unforgiving league and mistakes are usually punished, as they were on Saturday when Marvin Sordell was given an age to poke home from close-range for the visitors 37th minute opener.
“It’s a great education for me so far, but I know what I want and I’m encouraged performance-wise by what I’ve got at least out of the last two performances,” reflected Hill.
“We had to be patient, it was a case of doing the same thing. It could have gone against us and the crowd could have gone against us, but they didn’t and I was really impressed with the crowd staying with us when we went 1-0 down. Too often they go against you.”
Of course not all supporters are buying into Hill’s blueprint for Championship survival and long-term success, but the confident Lancastrian is happy to take his critics head on.
In the 17th minute, with the Reds clearly on top, one Barnsley fan still found time to taunt Hill from behind his dugout. Maybe he wished he hadn’t as the manager quickly gave him a piece of his own mind and, when Gray bagged a 58th-minute equalizer, Hill turned turned to him and had a few more words, this time with the fan standing and applauding the goal.
It was an interesting sideshow, but just a shame the Reds couldn’t grab a deserved equalizer for their first home win of the season.
“There was no banter,” replied Hill, asked in his post-match press conference about his run-in with the spectator.
“I’m a fighter, I’m not here to make friends with everybody, I’m here to do business. I’ll come out fighting to protect my own identity and my own opportunity to make a success of my time at Barnsley. And I will, there’s no question about that.
“But people who go against me will find out that I am a fighter. I’m not a silent witness; if people want to take me on then I’ve got no problem with that.”
Defeats to Middlesbrough and Southampton brought early criticism from some supporters, with a Carling Cup home defeat to Morecambe having not helped matters.
However, the Reds are now unbeaten in their last four matches and playing with plenty of confidence.
“Maybe they [the supporters] had an over-reaction to losing to Middlesbrough and Southampton, which dented my confidence and probably the confidence of the players,” admitted Hill.
“We’re getting that back in performance, but, as always, we need end results. I don’t think we’ll be too far away if we keep performing like that.”
Hill wasn’t helped by the late withdrawl of Danny Haynes who, having picked up a hamstring injury in the pre-match warm-up, was replaced by loan teenager Cameron Park.
The 19-year-old Middlesbrough winger impressed on his debut, as did Jimmy McNulty having moved inside one from left-back to centre-back.
And there was special praise from Hill afterwards for Jay McEveley, made available for loan in the week, but given a starting berth at left-back with the manager forced to re-shuffle his pack, due to defender Rob Edwards and winger Matt Done missing out with hamstring injuries.
After just 57 seconds the excellent David Perkins rifled a sweet left-foot shot against the base of the right upright. The ball rebounded back against the head of Hornets goalkeeper Scott Loach and, amazingly, away to safety. It was a sign of things to come as the Reds continued to create chance, but a combination of bad luck and poor finishing let them down.
Gray poked wide of the near post from a Bobby Hassell pass after midfielder Jonathan Hogg had first just wide moments earlier for Sean Dyche’s visitors.
Perkins pinched the ball in midfielder and Jacob Butterfield, given the honour of being captain for the first time, shot just wide of the left post.
Mark Yeates blazed over at the other end, while Manchester United loan midfielder Danny Drinkwater narrowly missed the target with a powerful right-foot strike and then Butterfield should have scored, only to fire over from a Gray pass.
Drinkwater found O’Brien with a pinpoint crossfield pass, the winger whipped in a delicious ball from the right, but Butterfield fired over in a great position.
It was another chance which went begging and the Reds were meant to pay when they failed to deal with a corner and there was Sordell, the England Under-21 striker, to poke home for his third goal in four games.
Yeates curled a free-kick over the bar with the Reds shell-shocked after their early dominance, but McEveley forced a save out of Loach just before the break and on the stroke of half time Perkins was unlucky with a left-foot shot which was deflected over. It was breathtaking stuff.
Just 96 seconds had gone of the second half when Butterfield had a shot saved and then O’Brien set up the skipper who curled a right foot shot wide of the right post.
The pressure was excellent from the Reds and they got their reward when O’Brien picked out the advancing Gray and the striker headed down into the ground and reeled away in celebration as it bounced into the roof of the net much to the despair of Loach.
It was only what the hosts deserved.
Luke Steele was called into action for the first time on the hour mark and easily dealt with a Sordell shot, before Perkins tested Loach with a low left-foot shot and then O’Brien and Bobby Hassell combined to set up the latter who, after a dizzying run, shot over with his less favoured left foot.
Butterfield had a shot charged down and sub Ricardo Vaz Te nearly caught Loach.
Craig Forsyth shot straight at Steele, but it was the Reds who had the best chances in the final couple of minutes when, first, McNulty headed over from close range and McEveley did the same in injury time.
I was pleased, but there’s a tinge of disappointment because we didn’t make hay while the sun shines. A lapse in concentration which was avoidable gave them their goal.