Form may not be a prerequisite for securing promotion through the play-offs. Swansea finished the season with six losses in 11 games and Barnsley with 13 wins in 19, but the advantage is on the Welsh side. André Ayew’s goal means they are 180 minutes away from ending their three-year exile in the Football League. No one else had beaten Barnsley at home and away in the Championship and Steve Cooper’s team completed a hat-trick.
A lot had changed in the 436 days since Barnsley last hosted his fans. Then they were at the end of the division. They were 21 when Valérian Ismaël was named in October and still 16 in December, but the architect of this season’s revival had scored 75 points before Oakwell contained a crowd. The ovation he received was late but well deserved. Barnsley perked up as they entered possibly their biggest game since the 2000 championship play-off final.
Barnsley’s fast-paced style of football involves moving the ball forward at the earliest opportunity, and if Swansea prefer something more controlled, Ismaël’s team set the tone for a fast and frantic match. If Barnsley can be exhausting to watch, let alone play against, his strenuous efforts didn’t immediately produce a flurry of opportunities. Romal Palmer shot from the edge of the area, but Swansea’s four behind were nonetheless overworked.
The combative Daryl Dike provided a strong presence in the attack with the youngster displaying an old-fashioned fondness for colliding with centrals. But Swansea finished the regular season with the best defensive record outside of the top two and the youth couple of Ben Cabango and Marc Guehi withstood the challenge.
Swansea’s three forwards had been out of the game until their top scorer produced the first quality moment. Cooper’s team finally managed to slow down the game with a possession spell, then Kyle Naughton threw the ball forward and Ayew made a joke inside two defenders and ran a shot over Brad Collins. Barnsley can’t afford £ 18 million down payment, but if Ayew’s salary has been too high for Swansea to get rid of, he may be paying it. This was his 17th goal of the season and his most important to date.
Barnsley responded with his first effort on goal, although Michal Helik’s header was tame, and a change at halftime. He almost reaped a payoff when Carlton Morris, the featured player, got the first half of a Freddie Woodman double save. The second stop was the most impressive, the Newcastle-loaned goalkeeper denied Callum Brittain of the rebound.
Suddenly, Woodman had to stop Cauley Woodrow’s free kick as Barnsley enthusiastically started the second half again. Catalyst Morris hooked a half volley over the bar. Having started the season on loan in League One with MK Dons, he may be typical of a Barnsley team with humble origins but high ambitions.
Swansea was locked in, their trio of midfielders always looking to support their centers. On a rare occasion when they did venture forward, former Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane’s corner was cleared, the hosts fought back and Dike, with a misplaced pass, squandered the opportunity to make them pay.
Jamal Lowe, who scored in both league games against Barnsley, nearly doubled Swansea’s lead with a curling iron that threatened to provide a mirror image of Ayew’s goal. Barnsley, however, was relentless with Woodman twice forced to leave his area and perform vital interventions, each at some risk to himself. And yet, while Swansea kept a clean sheet, last season’s defeated semifinalists are positioned to go one better.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism