The morning-after verdict: Barnsley 0 Wanderers 1
WANDERERS fans have no need to remind Dougie Freedman that signing Neil Danns or Kevin McNaughton is a matter of pressing urgency this January.
While the manager is playing it cool on both fronts, he will know only too well that his two loanees have made themselves invaluable since arriving in October.
Both played their part in a hard-fought but hardly inspiring Boxing Day win at Oakwell – precisely the kind of result the Whites are going to need more often if they are going to be anything other than also-rans this season.
Danns scored a spectacular fourth goal of the season 64 minutes into his farewell appearance while McNaughton certainly played his part in keeping an all-too-rare clean sheet.
Facing the task of travelling to high-flying Leicester City in a couple of days’ time is a daunting enough thought but for Freedman, the idea of filling those considerable gaps in his side with what he has already got in his squad must be a serious concern.
The Wanderers boss had dug in his heels amidst criticism of the weekend’s home draw with Charlton. keeping faith with the same formation but adding the extra mobility of Mark Davies, who came in for his first start for the club since February.
Barnsley looked as traditional as you’d like with plenty of width offered by Bobby Hassell and David Perkins, and bags of presence in the middle thanks to the burly pairing of Jason Scotland and Chris O’Grady.
And given the evidence of the first half alone, you would have had to say the Yorkshiremen’s more straightforward football was more effective.
Certainly Andy Lonergan was by far the busier of the two keepers as Wanderers struggled to dominate in midfield, leaving lone front man Joe Mason a virtual spectator.
The Tykes were up for giving manager Danny Wilson a welcome home present in his second spell in charge and centre back Peter Ramage was a continual threat at set pieces.
The former Newcastle man was twice denied by Lonergan who also got a helping hand from Alex Baptiste on the line to clear Jim O’Brien’s follow up shot.
Lonergan continued to keep Barnsley at bay, diving full length to push away a long-range effort from O’Brien and also reacting smartly to block a snapshot from O’Grady.
In an attacking sense, Wanderers’ better early football was instigated by Chris Eagles, but the only time home keeper Luke Steele showed any sign of worry in the opening 44 minutes was when a poor back-pass from his own team-mate, Stephen Dawson, nearly presented a chance for Mason.
Just before the break, the travelling band of 1,800 fans had their attentions diverted from a never-ending stream of songs about past players by Tim Ream’s header. Darren Pratley then seized on the loose ball and tried to force it over the line only to find Perkins in his way.
It was a momentary distraction and while the home fans were encouraged by what they had seen in the first 45 minutes, there was an undertone of jeers among the cheers coming from the away stand behind Lonergan’s goal. It had simply not been good enough.
Credit, then, to Freedman for changing the system at the break and pushing Pratley much further forward. It was as if a tap had been turned on.
Steele had to be smart off his line to save at Pratley’s feet before making a world-class save from Zat Knight’s header at point blank range.
The goal was coming – and wouldn’t you know it would be one of the departing loanees who supplied it?
With Barnsley pinned back, Wanderers picked up the tempo of their passing game and worked space for Danns to curl a delightful right-footed shot into the top corner.
Wanderers’ fans responded almost instantly with a chant of “Freedman, Freedman sign him up” – but whether they get their wish, as they did with Jay Spearing earlier this season, remains to be seen.
Danns nearly turned from hero to zero as moments after opening the scoring he sent Scott Wiseman crashing in the box, only for referee Andy Haines to wave away the home side’s appeals.
Perhaps fuelled by injustice, the Tykes did rally impressively after the goal.
McNaughton – another loanee heading back to his parent club this week – produced a superbly timed tackle on Jason Scotland as he wound up to shoot with 10 minutes to go.
Likewise, Knight bailed his side out with a couple of good defensive headers late on as Barnsley tried desperately to find a way back in.
It proved a fruitless task and so the memory of a poor first 45 minutes was eclipsed by a livelier second half for the Wanderers fans disappearing back into the night still singing for Freedman to bring Danns back for good – joined, in applause at least, by those in the Whites section of the directors’ box.
For Freedman, the fact his side have struggled to start games well for the last few weeks must be an issue, especially facing a side with the pedigree of Nigel Pearson’s Foxes next up.
Likewise the lack of a real threat up front – with Mason continuing to look at odds with the role he is being asked to play.
But for now perhaps we should reflect on three hard-earned points that give Wanderers at least a fighting chance of being mid-table by the start of the new year proper.