MONDAY VERDICT: Wanderers 1 Barnsley 0.
THE Work in Progress signs are back out at the Reebok, as Dougie Freedman dropped a king-sized hint at his vision for the future.
Ever since he walked through the doors at Wanderers, the Scot has preached that possession is the name of the game – now, it seems, that edict has gone out to every position on the pitch, from Adam Bogdan onwards.
It took a while for Whites fans to warm to his first style makeover but this slender victory over Barnsley hinted at another tactical tweak that could also take some getting used to.
Wanderers’ brand of football was patient and deliberate, played from back to front in a way we haven’t seen before.
For every slick move that paid off, there were a handful that broke down. But encouragingly, whereas there had been grumbles of discontent in the past as the side felt their way in a new system, on Saturday there was nothing but support.
Jermaine Beckford’s goal goes down in the record books as the difference-maker but he was more guilty than most that the margin of victory was not greater.
It was a familiar tale of missed chances, seen on so many occasions this season. In the end, Chris O’Grady’s missed penalty six minutes from time was all that stood between this experimental performance being branded a qualified success and another exasperating home draw.
Freedman’s plan was to invite Barnsley in and then use the pace of Beckford, Rob Hall or flying full-back Alan Hutton to hit them on the break. Success on that front was patchy but with four games remaining, the manager has time on his side to try something new.
Mid-table obscurity has become a foreign concept for Wanderers fans in the last decade or so. Whether it be fighting for a play-off position, to stave off relegation or, sigh, snatch a European place, the feeling of having little to play for in the last month of the season is a strange one indeed.
Freedman might as well test out everything he has got. And in making six changes to the side that had beaten Doncaster in midweek, he did just that.
Some changes worked – Liam Trotter played in a deep-lying midfield role, for example, which coaxed his best display since arriving at the club from Millwall.
Trotter has come in for specialist treatment from the terrace boo-boys in the last few weeks but here, it seems he may have found his niche.
Tucking in front of, and sometimes into, the back four, Trotter and Jay Spearing were asked to collect the ball from deep into Wanderers territory and get play moving forward.
Spearing looked particularly impressive in the thick of the action and in a game that began with an impeccably observed silence for the Hillsborough Disaster’s 25th anniversary, it was fitting that someone with Anfield still so close to his heart should steal the show.
Tim Ream and Matt Mills were reunited in central defence – both looking comfortable and seeing more of the ball than normal, while Hutton was another plus point down the right.
Further forward it was a different matter. Andre Moritz flat failed to impress in his first start in a month, while Beckford’s ring-rustiness was also unfortunate.
Both Rob Hall and Chung-Yong Lee fliteted in and out of the game, making you wonder how comfortable it could have been had Freedman unleashed his full arsenal on the Tykes.
Alex Baptiste also suffered on the left side of defence against Barnsley’s only real ray of hope, bright young Liverpool loanee Ryan McLaughlin.
Wanderers’ 1-0 lead had looked a slender one as McLaughlin headed wide unmarked midway through the second half. But when Baptiste brought the winger down with six minutes remaining – conceding his third penalty in as many starts – the defender looked as if he wanted the ground to swallow him whole.
It’s a case of whatever works best for Bogdan from the spot at the moment.
Whether he can truly lay claim to distracting O’Grady enough into placing his shot on to the woodwork is debatable but his bizarre pre-penalty routine worked on Ishmael Miller and on Jordi Gomez, so we can give him the benefit of doubt.
Interestingly, Scott Carson attempted similar diversion in the FA Cup semi-final shoot-out later that day for Wigan but was beaten with each of Arsenal’s four penalties, so it is clearly not for everyone.
The first half had been sterile until stoppage time when a fine 50-yard ball from Mills found the Barnsley defence napping and Beckford ghosted in to take the ball past Luke Steele and tap into the empty net.
Things brightened up in the second half. Wanderers were still on message and for a moment the gameplan started to pay off handsomely as a pre-planned routine from Bogdan’s goal-kick ended with Chung-Yong forcing Steele into a decent save.
Moments later, Beckford raced on to a great ball from Hall, saw his first shot saved and his second from an acute angle drift agonisingly wide of the empty net.
You can’t help but wonder whether a pre-injury Beckford would have needed two bites at the cherry?
Moments later, the same striker produced a weak volley from Hall’s cross that emphasised the point.
Barnsley started to feel their way back into the game and at that point, Wanderers needed to change tack.
McLaughlin headed inches wide from Jennings’ cross and referee Adcock turned down a good penalty appeal when Trotter appeared to trip O’Grady.
Freedman relented, bringing on Neil Danns and Lukas Jutkiewicz, but Baptiste’s late mistake for the penalty nearly set up a precious point for the Yorkshiremen.
O’Grady’s effort cannoned off the angle of post and bar, much to the misery of the small band of Barnsley fans behind Bogdan’s goal.
Freedman immediately changed his mind on bringing Medo Kamara into the game – calling instead on Zat Knight and hauling off the guilty party Baptiste.
That was enough to guarantee a third successive win and hammer a nail into Barnsley’s relegation coffin; like Yeovil, the Tykes’ pluck doesn’t seem to be enough to keep them in this division next season.
Wanderers’ new path should become clearer in the next few weeks.
But when things kick-off again in August, fans will only want to be heading in one direction.