DAVE Flitcroft was thrown into the Reds’ limelight for a real baptism of fire against Championship leaders Southampton.
Handed the boss’s job for a day after Keith Hill was taken ill with a mystery bug late on Friday night, Flitcroft was forced to take the reins at the St Mary’s Stadium.
However, despite their best efforts, the Reds came out second best.
Adam Lallana bagged his ninth and 10th goals of the season to hand the hosts a routine victory, one which leaves them three points clear at the top ahead of second-placed West Ham.
“If Southampton continue to play like they did against us I have no doubt that they will go up again this season,” reflected Flitcroft.
“Some of their play was outstanding and, to be honest, it overwhelmed us at times.
“We had our moments and young Danny Rose hit the woodwork with a really good header, but Southampton are a top side with plenty of top players.”
Following the midweek reverse at Middlesbrough, Flitcroft opted to make a couple of changes to the Reds’ starting line-up, both came in offensive positions as West Ham loan striker Frank Nouble started on his second spell at Oakwell.
Attacking midfielder David Cotterill returned to the starting XI, playing just behind lone striker and leading scorer Craig Davies, while the unlucky pairing of Chris Dagnall and veteran Andy Gray dropped out.
There was a further reshuffle required by Flitcroft just minutes prior to kick-off as Scott Golbourne limped gingerly away from the warm-up. Jay McEveley was asked to step up from the bench to start, with Dagnall joining the four remaining substitutes.
Hot-shot Rickie Lambert again featured for Southampton, with him clearly the danger man after bagging his 25th goal of the season during the midweek draw against Ipswich Town.
However, despite the clear and present danger posed by Lambert and co, the Reds gave a really encouraging account of themselves in the half hour or so before the Saints opened the scoring.
Cotterill looked lively early on and tried valiantly to combine well with Davies, while in the middle of the park Stephen Dawson knocked the ball around comfortably.
Davies tested keeper Kelvin Davis early on, but Nigel Adkins’ confidence-fuelled side – who went on to stretch their lead over West Ham and Reading at the top of the table – soon got into their stride.
Lambert saw a shot parried by Reds keeper Luke Steele, but as Tadanari Lee charged in for the rebound he could fire a shot disappointingly over the top.
Brazilian Guly Do Prado forced defender Jim McNulty into a brave block, before Barnsley did break out and Nouble tried a shot which deflected off Daniel Fox and fizzed behind for a corner.
Defender and Saints skipper Jose Fonte then headed Fox’s inswinging free-kick narrowly wide from eight yards out.
The Reds were repelling the threats thrown at them reasonably well, but eventually succumbed nine minutes before the break as Lallana crashed home the first goal of his brace.
Lambert headed Dean Hammond’s free-kick back into Lallana’s path, and he made no mistake as he beat Steele convincingly from close range.
From then on any confidence the Reds did possess seemed to drain out of the players, and minutes after the restart Morgan Schneiderlin forced Steele into another fine stop from his 25-yard piledriver.
The lead was doubled in the 54th minute. This time Lallana swept home his tenth goal of the season after the tricky Lee had skipped past McNulty and crossed in low from the left.
From then on it looked more of a case of how many it was going to be for Southampton, but credit to the Reds, they didn’t crumble and came close to a goal themselves in the closing stages.
The woodwork got in the way of a first senior goal for 18-year-old subRose.
The Barnsley-born youngster rose brilliantly to meet Done’s inswinging free-kick, but his glancing header rebounded off the base of a post.
It at least provided the 400-plus travelling army with something to cheer as the Reds provided something of a grandstand finish.
Nouble fired narrowly over the top from 25 yards, then the unlucky Davies - who grafted tirelessly throughout the 90 minutes up front on his own - went close with a well-struck free-kick and later a shot which was deflected just wide.