Barnsley joy, but it's only half-time ... Reds 3 Walsall 0
Barnsley caretaker boss Paul Heckingbottom tried his best to temper any premature celebrations after his side fired themselves into pole position ahead of Thursday's Sky Bet League One play-off semi-final second leg against Walsall.
The brilliant Reds secured a thoroughly-deserved 3-0 win against the stunned Saddlers in Saturday’s opening salvo. But, as Heckingbottom was keen to point out, they have not booked a dream swift return to Wembley Stadium yet.
What would be an incredible elevation to the Championship edged that bit closer, but the Reds are still 90 minutes away from the final.
It truly has been an amazing rise from the third tier’s basement to the brink of the Championship, but Heckingbottom will keep his feet firmly on the ground this week.
He said: “We’re over the moon. It is only half-time, of course, but we would always have taken 3-0 up at this stage.
“We’ve certainly put ourselves in a good position, but we’ve not got what we’re after yet so, on Thursday, we’ll go into the second leg with the same mindset, the same approach and focus, and the same determination.
“The most pleasing thing was that the players turned in that type of performance for the fans.
“We sent them home happy, and the players soaked that up.
“We certainly know what we’re fighting for, but we won’t settle for just winning here.
“We’ll be trying to win again on Thursday.”
The Reds have already visited the national stadium this season, beating Oxford United to lift the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Even two hours ahead of kick-off on Saturday the streets and the car-parks around Oakwell were buzzing.
The sun was shining and everything seemed set fair for a potentially rip-roaring first leg.
Two in-form teams were set to go head to head.
Heckingbottom kept faith with the starting 11 from six days earlier, when his lads battered League One champions Wigan on their own patch. The only change on the bench saw youngster Jack Cowgill take the place of experienced defender Lewin Nyatanga - perhaps an indication that the former Derby man could be on his way out of Oakwell.
Heckingbottom’s opposite number, Jon Whitney, also stuck with the same team that had enjoyed an even better result the previous Sunday when the Saddlers closed their regular campaign with a thumping 5-0 victory at Port Vale.
It turned into a dramatic first period, with the Reds finally grabbing the lead they had deserved only seconds before the half-time whistle.
Sam Winnall burst menacingly down the right flank before crossing low for Adam Hammill whose effort from 10 yards took a big deflection into the net to send the home support wild.
The hosts had created the bulk of the first-half opportunities and had been robbed of a goal in the 23rd minute.
Hammill crossed in sweetly for Lloyd Isgrove, who flicked home from close range. However, celebrations were cut short by the sight of an assistant referee’s flag.
Replays later confirmed that Isgrove had, in fact, been comfortably in an onside position when the cross was floated over.
Undeterred, the Reds kept plugging away and right-back Josh Scowen was denied by a decent stop from Saddlers goalkeeper Neil Etheridge.
At the other end, Walsall could easily have opened the scoring in the 40th minute when dangerman Tom Bradshaw side-footed an effort wide from barely six yards after he had been expertly teed up by Romaine Sawyers.
The tie swung firmly in the Reds’ favour in the early stages of the second half.
Just three minutes after the restart, Isgrove went on a barnstorming half-the-field run before drilling in a super shot which Etheridge saved superbly.
Talisman Winnall made the ultimate impact as he bagged two breathtaking individual strikes inside the space of two minutes.
In the 54th minute he saw the Walsall defence split in front of him before lashing home - via a slight deflection - from 20 yards.
Oakwell rejoiced wildly again and those celebrations had barely died down by the time the third goal went in.
It was Winnall again, this time notching his 24th goal of a super campaign as he left Paul Downing for dead before slotting past Etheridge from an acute angle.
The Reds were in dreamland, and there could have been more goals.
Ashley Fletcher saw a volley saved by Etheridge, while Winnall headed wide.
Walsall’s best responses came from Anthony Forde, who dragged a shot wide from 12 yards, while sub Sam Mantom fired a shot woefully over the top after latching on to James O’Connor’s cross.
Heckingbottom added: “The thing about the play-offs is that they’re set up as the best way to get promoted, but that’s only because of the tension.
“The tenser and more exciting it is, the bigger the joy at the end.
“We know what we’ll be fighting for come Thursday night now.
“Thankfully Sam Winnall has hit goalscoring form again, similar to how he was in January, and when he scores we generally win games.”
Saddlers interim boss Whitney was fuming with his team’s performance.
He questioned the application of some of his players and demanded a huge response in the second leg.
He said: “We owe the fans a performance on Thursday now.
“It wasn’t good enough and we’ve been smacked in the teeth by Barnsley.
“We’ve got to show pride, at the very least, if we’re to get anywhere near dragging ourselves back into contention.”
BARNSLEY (4-4-2): Davies 7; Scowen 6, Mawson 8, Roberts 7, G Williams 7; Isgrove 9 (Chapman 84), Brownhill 7, Hourihane 8, Hammill 8; Fletcher 8 (White 77), Winnall 9 (Toney 67, 6). Subs not used: Townsend, Cowgill, McCourt, Tuton.
WALSALL (4-1-4-1): Etheridge 5; Demetriou 5, O’Connor 7, Downing 6, Henry 7; Chambers 7; Lalkovic 5 (Cook 84), Morris 5 (Mantom 59, 5), Sawyers 7, Forde 7; Bradshaw 5 (Hiwula 71). Subs not used: MacGillivray, Taylor, Preston, Osbourne.
Goals: Demetriou og 45, Winnall 54, 55.
REFeree: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).