League One Play-Off Final Analysis: Barnsley 3 Millwall 1 - By Heck, what a season for the Reds
IT truly has been a spectacular story as Barnsley secured their dream promotion back to the Sky Bet Championship with another memorable Wembley victory.
Goals from Ashley Fletcher, Adam Hammill - with another worldy - and Lloyd Igrove saw off Millwall at the home of English football to complete a fairytale elevation.
The doom and gloom had firmly set in at Oakwell in early December, with the Reds sitting bottom of League One.
They had been knocked out of the FA Cup at minnows Altrincham, and manager Lee Johnson was under fierce pressure.
Johnson did rescue the situation somewhat before he left for Bristol City, and since then, under STILL caretaker boss Paul Heckingbottom, the potentially now £6million turnaround has been little short of miraculous.
Local hero Heckingbottom has since guided the Reds up the table, to Wembley victory in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, and now, back to the second tier.
As stated earlier - what a story indeed.
As expected, with an injury-free squad to choose from, Heckingbottom named an unchanged team once again.
The Reds’ caretaker boss had clearly seen more than enough in the dominant two-legged semi-final victory against Walsall, so he kept faith once again.
Lions boss Neil Harris also stuck with the same XI which did the business against Bradford in the semi-finals.
However, that was the plan until centre-back Byron Webster was ruled out after picking up an injury in the warm-up.
He was replaced by sub Tony Craig, with Jamie Philpot stepping up to bench duties.
The sun was shining brightly for kick-off, and it was Millwall who threatened first inside a minute when Mark Beevers headed a Chris Taylor free-kick narrowly wide.
However, only 91 seconds had passed when the Reds fired themselves into a dream lead.
Sam Winnall flicked a neat header superbly into the path of loanee hit-man Ashley Fletcher, and the young Manchester United starlet steadied before crashing a low, angled shot past Lions’ ‘keeper Jordan Archer.
The Barnsley hordes rejoiced wildly, before they were almost on their feet again two minutes later.
This time Hammill was played in, only to fire horribly wide from just inside the box.
The early strike was clearly a huge blow for Millwall and they offered little resistance initially.
Again the Reds went close in the 13th minute. Fletcher sprung the unsuccessful offside trap as he met a long through-ball from centre-back Marc Roberts, but as he took a little too long in possession before finally opting to pull the trigger, his effort from a tight angle was smothered by a relieved Archer.
It was the Yorkshiremen who were well on top on the early stages, and they grabbed the second goal their dominance had deserved after 19 minutes.
And what a wonder strike it was.
Hammill did the business - just as he had done in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final success barely six weeks earlier - when he drove forward menacingly before curling home an absolute screamer, into the top corner, from 25 yards.
The Reds really were in dreamland, and their supporting masses celebrated again as though they had already achieved their much-cherished promotion.
Again Millwall struggled to rally, with a disappointing header from the normally dependable Steve Morison summing up their dire opening 25 minutes.
Millwall simply couldn’t get going, but they hauled themselves right back into contention in the 34th minute when a Shane Ferguson corner-kick wasn’t cleared, allowing Beevers - a one-time target of ex-Reds boss Mark Robins - to wriggle past Roberts on the six-yard line before crashing the ball into the roof of the net.
Where was this incredible game to go next?
The latest goal put a surefire spring into Millwall’s step - and that of their boisterous fans - while the Barnsley battlers suddenly looked a little weary.
The Reds stuck at their task, however, and with Millwall seeing left-back Joe Martin limp off injured shortly before half-time, Harris’s men were also clearly feeling the strain.
The Reds hung on to their 2-1 lead into the interval - it really had been a breath-taking opening 45 minutes.
Both sets of players appeared leggy in the opening minutes of the second period, and now it was surely a question of who had enough heart and energy left in the tank to drag themselves over the line.
Winnall rose well to meet a decent cross from the tireless Lloyd Isgrove, but he couldn’t direct a header sufficiently.
Hammill skipped easily past Carlos Edwards, only for the Lions’ defender to respond swiftly and divert a shot wide for a corner-kick.
There was then a scare at the other end when danger-man Lee Gregory only just failed to meet a through-ball from Nadjim Abdou.
Back came Barnsley with Hammill side-footing a shot straight at a grateful Archer, though again the Lions responded with Ben Thompson being thwarted by a point-blank stop from Adam Davies.
The Reds grabbed their by now much-craved third goal in the 73rd minute.
And this time it was tiny Isgrove who sent the Reds faithful back into raptures.
Incredibly it was a header from the small man, who planted home Conor Hourihane’s corner to register what was a brilliant and most timely of first Barnsley goals .
It should have been 4-1 in the 81st minute when Winnall uncharacteristically blazed a shot over the top from eight yards. while ‘keeper Davies then produced a magical point-blank stop to keep out Chris Taylor’s crisp strike.
Winnall again went close to a fourth in the dying embers of a dramatic game, but it mattered - Barnsley pocketed their promotion and must now gear up for another tilt at the Championship from August.
Barnsley: Davies, Scowen, Roberts, Mawson, G Williams, Isgrove (Watkins, 84), Brownhill, Hourihane, Hammill, Winnall, Fletcher (Toney, 81).
Subs not used: Townsend, Chapman, Nyatanga, McCourt, White.
Yellow cards: Williams (28), Roberts (63).
Red cards: None.
Millwall: Archer, Edwards (Williams, 82), Craig, Beevers, Martin (O’Brien, 43); Taylor, Abdou, Thompson (Onyedinma, 74), Ferguson; Gregory, Morison.
Subs not used: Forde, Philpot, Upson, Nelson.
Yellow cards: None.
Red cards: None.
Referee: Stuart Attwell (Nuneaton).
Star man: Lloyd Isgrove