STRIKERS Garry O’Connor and Danny Haynes both registered as Barnsley got back to winning ways at Oakwell last night.
It was the South Yorkshire club’s eighth win in 15 home outings and keeps them in contention for a play-off tilt.
Manager Mark Robins handed debuts to Jacob Mellis and Frank Nouble, who were signed on transfer deadline day. Both Mellis and Nouble have joined on loan until the end of the season from Chelsea and West Ham respectively.
Diego Arismendi was also recalled to stiffen up midfield at the expense of Jim O’Brien, who dropped to the substitutes bench. However, defender Steve Foster missed out for the second match in succession having failed to shake off a shin injury he sustained at Doncaster Rovers last week.
The visitors, languishing at the foot of the Championship table, gave Ian Ashbee, Nathan Ellington and Leon Clarke their full debuts.
It was the visitors who made the brighter start in the opening skirmishes, with Iain Hume, making his first return to Oakwell, playing a lovely ball over the top for Clarke to run on to but the burly striker’s fierce drive was superbly parried by Luke Steele. To compound Clarke’s woes, the assistant referee had lifted his flag for offside.
But the hosts countered and new boy Mellis almost fed Danny Haynes in the seventh minutes only for Sean St Ledger to clear the danger.
Moments later, Barnsley had a major let off when Billy Jones delivered a wonderful right foot cross which flashed across goal, narrowly missing the unmarked Clarke.
Then it was Mellis’s turn to take centre stage. The attacking midfielder forced a smart top from Andy Lonergan. Leon Cort scrambled away the rebound to deny the onrushing Haynes.
But with 22 minutes on the clock, it was the Reds who opened the scoring courtesy of Garry O’Connor. The Scotland international latched on to Haynes’ pass and his left foot drive took a wicked deflection off Cort to loop over the helpless Lonergan, who got a hand to it but couldn’t prevent O’Connor from registering his fourth league goal since arriving from Birmingham City.
They nearly doubled their advantage a minute later when Mellis fed Nouble on the left and the teenager’s cross just drifted behind O’Connor in the middle.
Hume received a rapturous reception from the Reds faithful when went over to the far side of the pitch to take a Preston corner. The diminutive striker, operating just behind Clarke and Ellington, came close to equalising in the 35th minute when his thunderous effort brought a smart stop from Steele.
Phil Brown, searching for his first win in charge since succeeding Darren Ferguson at the helm, continued to bark out orders to his side from the technical area.
The visitors had a penalty appeal turned down six minutes before the interval when Clarke appeared to be fouled by Shackell. Despite the visitors protestations, the referee waved played on.
Barnsley fought back and nearly extended their lead in the 41st minute. O’Connor’s cross from the byline caused mayhem in the visitors penalty area and it took a stunning save from Lonergan to foil Haynes.
After the restart, the contest threatened to boil over, as the referee booked three Preston players in 15 minutes.
Lilywhites captain St Ledger went into the referee’s notebook for a late tackle on Nouble, Jones was cautioned for mistimed challenge on Kieran Trippier whilst Craig Morgan was yellow carded for holding on to Haynes’ shirt.
Brown made a double substitution on the hour mark and his alterations made an immediate impression as Adam Barton’s volley tested the reflexes of Steele, who comfortably kept it out.
Barnsley struggled as an attacking force in the second period and it was no surprise Robins brought on Jim O’Brien as he looked to inject some spark into their play. His tactical switches allowed Nouble to move into the centre to partner the lively Haynes whilst Mellis went on to the left flank.
In a scrappy, cagey second half, both sides found it tough to sustain any sustained pressure in the final third.
Out of nothing, Preston could have levelled with 14 minutes remaining when Hume fed Barton on the edge of the area and the substitute’s strike was goal bound only for Hassell to block the shot with an inch perfect tackle.
Late on, O’Brien had a close range shot expertly kept out by Lonergan and Jacob Butterfield’s rasping left foot piledriver also brought the best out of the Preston shot-stopper.
In a frantic finish, Preston continued to pour forward and Steele had to punch Keith Treacy’s free-kick behind for a corner.
But in stoppage time, Haynes deservedly sealed the points when he tapped home Butterfield’s cross.