League One Play-Offs: Walsall 1 Barnsley 3 (agg 1-6) - Wembley beckons for Reds again
Super Barnsley are off to Wembley again!
Barely seven weeks since they graced the home of English football as they won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in such dramatic style, Paul Heckingbottom’s Reds will return for the Sky Bet League One play-off final on Sunday week.
That’s because the Reds strolled to a 3-1 win at Walsall, completing a supremely competent 6-1 aggregate victory against a side who finished the regular season in third place, 10 points ahead their dominant opponents.
At Wembley they will more than likely meet Millwall - who lead 3-1 going into their home second leg against Bradford tonight - but there will be no fear - why should there be after what has been a quite incredible and utterly memorable second half of the 2015-16 season.
Rock bottom of League One at the end of November, Barnsley have produced a Herculean effort since, first under Lee Johnson and more recently under the guidance of popular local lad Heckingbottom.
What will be, will be next Sunday, but whatever happens, this campaign has already been one which will live long in any Reds’ fan’s memory.
Heckingbottom had once again stuck with an unchanged starting XI ahead of the game, while the Saddlers’ interim boss Jon Whitney - so scathing of his team after the Oakwell defeat - made three changes to his side.
He drafted in Andy Taylor, Sam Mantom and Jordy Hiwula in place of ex-Red Milan Lalkovic, Anthony Forde and Kieron Morris.
The alterations didn’t work for the hosts during what turned out to be a miserable first half for them.
The rampant Reds surged further clear in the tie, thanks to an 18th-minute goal from wing ace Adam Hammill.
The hugely popular Scouser pounced to beat a poor attempt at an offside trap, slotting home from Conor Hourihane’s in-swinging cross.
In truth, the Reds ought to have been three or four goal clear by the interval.
Defender Alfie Mawson headed against the outside of a post from barely three yards out, while Sam Winnall and Ashley Fletcher both planted headers straight at grateful Saddlers’ ‘keeper Neil Etheridge.
There was only token resistance from Walsall in the opening 45 minutes.
Their best chance by far came in the 32nd minute.
Romaine Sawyers swung over a sweet cross for Tom Bradshaw, but the home striker looked on agonisingly as Adam Davies stretched to produce a brilliant diving save.
The theme continued into the second period, with the visitors maintaining complete control of the game.
Loan star Fletcher saw an early strike blocked, before then crashing an effort over the top barely a minute later.
Paul Downing was almost forced into an own-goal as Barnsley continued to press - the visitors really were in cruise control.
That was until just past the hour mark when Walsall finally rallied again, with skipper Adam Chambers firing in a low shot which Davies saved well.
The respite didn’t last long, as Barnsley went two up in the 66th minute. This time Fletcher slotted home from close range after meeting a poorly-defended cross from Hammill, and it was ‘game over’.
Sub Ivan Toney went close in the latter stages, but the Reds had done more than enough over the two legs and a swifter-than-expected return to the Championship remains very much the goal.
Sub Jordan Cook’s 85th-minute strike for Walsall was scant consolation for them, but even then Barnsley weren’t finished.
Josh Brownhill made it 3-1 with a minute to go and so it’s ‘next stop Wembley’.
Walsall: Etheridge, Demetriou, O’Connor, Downing, Henry, Sawyers, Chambers, Mantom, Taylor (Cook, 63), Hiwula (Lalkovic, 71), Bradshaw (Forde, 83).
Subs not used: MacGillivray, Preston, Morris, Kinsella.
Yellow cards: Downing (45).
Red cards: None.
Barnsley: Davies, Scowen, Roberts, Mawson, G Williams, Isgrove, Brownhill, Hourihane, Hammill (Chapman, 74), Winnall (Toney, 70), Fletcher (McCourt, 70).
Subs not used: Townsend, Nyatanga, Tuton, White.
Yellow cards: Hammill (12).
Red cards: None.
Referee: Darren Deadman (Cambridgeshire).
Star man: Adam Hammill.