John Fleck walked into Oakwell’s media suite, flashed a resigned smile and then accompanied every answer to a question with a thousand yard stare.
The Sheffield United midfielder, like Chris Wilder before him, resembled someone who had just won the lottery only to lose their ticket on the way to collect. It betrayed both the size of the opportunity the visitors had missed and, even before both Millwall and Middlesbrough triumphed later in the day, the potential consequences.
“The manager had a ‘go’ at us at half-time,” Fleck said, after a defeat which saw United slip four points behind the play-off positions with five matches left. “We responded in the right way and then went and shot ourselves in the foot.
“That seems to be the story of the last few games and, to be honest, I’m not sure why. We’ve just got to pick ourselves up and keep on fighting.”
While Fleck and Wilder were consumed by a nauseating sense of deja-vu, Jose Morais sported a smile wider than the River Dearne as he celebrated his first home win since being appointed Barnsley manager in February.
The hosts, whose miserable record inside this stadium has contributed to their plight towards the foot of the table, remain deep in relegation trouble. But their performance against a team contesting a place in the Premier League suggested they are still together enough to put some behind the scenes differences aside and focus on battling for survival.
If there was one game where Barnsley, who saw substitute Tom Bradshaw snatch a late winner after Oliver McBurnie had cancelled-out goals from Fleck and Leon Clarke, were ever going to rouse themselves it was a South Yorkshire derby against one of their greatest rivals.
The big test now if whether Morais’ team can produce similarly combative displays throughout the remainder of the campaign.
“Every game is a cup final for us now,” Gary Gardner, the scorer of Barnsley’s memorable opener, said. “It’s 90 minutes for a reason, you have to go right until the very end. We’re all buzzing and we’ve put a shift in right the way through, from start to finish.
“The fans have been with us all season and it was nice for them to enjoy that. I thought we showed great character out there to come back.”
the key difference
Wilder spoke about the difference between “very good” and “excellent” teams after Bradshaw’s header from a Kieffer Moore cross had seen Barnsley drag themselves back from the brink. Stressing the importance of being more clinical in both boxes, United’s manager was frustrated by his side’s failure to be anything but.
McBurnie’s effort, gift-wrapped by some questionable defending following Adam Hammill’s cross, was wholly preventable.
Likewise the header which saw Barnsley snatch all three points.
However, when Wilder sifts through the wreckage of this result, he will take heart from the fact United showed the heart and desire to overcome a pitiful start and gather the type of momentum which should have seen them go on to prevail.
Small details, rather than systemic issues, were the cause of their downfall; combined with an inability to score the third goal which, given Barnsley’s psychological confusion at the time, would have surely crushed their spirit.
“I think, basically, it starts from the first-half of the game,” Fleck, insisting the seeds of United’s downfall had been sown before the break, said.
“We didn’t turn-up to begin with and that’s the biggest disappointment really.”
“I’m not sure why to be honest,” he added, in response to a question about United’s profligacy. “I feel as if we had the chances, especially second-half. But we’ve not converted them and I don’t know why. It’s not just the strikers, it’s the whole team.”
probably not quite right
Although it was no surprise when Barnsley took the lead, Gardner powering home beyond Simon Moore after George Moncur had earlier struck the woodwork, Fleck’s analysis was not entirely correct. The key period of the contest came, not when United stumbled rather than shot out of the traps, but following his own equaliser.
With Clarke claiming his 17th of the season soon after, profiting from the Scot’s delightful defence splitting pass, United had Morais’ men on the rack.
Their inability to kill off Barnsley, who looked absolutely bemused by this dramatic turn of events, proved costly when McBurnie prodded home on the rebound before Bradshaw sparked delirious scenes in the home sections of the ground.
“The gaffer has worked with some of the best players in the world,” Gardner, referring to former Chelsea assistant Morais, said.
“He’s given us a different style and I believe he’s the man to keep us up. It’s nice to get a result which, I think, we deserved.”
Gardner, on-loan from Aston Villa, might not be prolific but he certainly boasts a sense of occasion. The midfielder’s goal was his first since scoring for his parent club during their derby against Birmingham City 18 months ago.
Barnsley were faster, sharper and more switched on during the opening period until, after Wilder had sprinted down the touchline to greet his players in the dressing room, first Fleck and then Clarke pounced.
But a furious finale saw Barnsley move to within two points of safety while United, despite remaining in ninth, lost ground on sixth-placed Middlesbrough, who visit Bramall Lane tomorrow night.
“Getting the goal was nice,” Fleck said.
“Truthfully, though, it doesn’t mean much now. We got back in front, didn’t kill them off, and then gave away two silly goals. We’ve still got the belief, mind, to get there.”