A rare Jonathan Hogg goal settled an error strewn, and consequently entertaining, derby encounter against a spirited and hard working Barnsley side who fell on the wrong side of the fine margins which seem to accompany most games in the Championship.
In difficult, unseasonal weather – swirling wind and squally, heavy showers intermittently interrupted by bright sunshine – Town faced a very different challenge to those presented by the leviathan beasts of the previous two games.
David Wagner had identified the Reds’ togetherness as their principal strength before the game and as this virtue is fundamental to his own philosophies, the South Yorkshire opponents were never going to be treated lightly; their remarkable campaign to achieve promotion is testament to a club who look to be a completely different proposition to the one which finally succumbed to the drop a couple of seasons ago.
Town’s own progress under Wagner – including, crucially, shedding their debilitating inferiority complex – has been clear for all to see but supporters of a certain experience can be forgiven for believing that expectations will soon be thwarted, particularly in a fixture more obviously favourable than the first 3.
A tentative opening period featuring a new defensive midfield partnership of Whitehead and Mooy with Hogg rested, lacked urgency as players got to grips with the blustery conditions but Town slowly established control.
With Mooy pulling the strings, even if his performance was less assured and fluid than in previous games, Town probed down both flanks and a nervous looking Barnsley back line were finding it difficult to quell the threats.
A sliced attempted clearance fell nicely to the unmarked Kachunga but he could only direct a slightly mishit volley straight at a relieved Davies.
Barnsley’s forays forward were rare at this stage, but a trademark jinxing run by Hammill saw him being challenged in the box only for the ball to squirt in to Ryan Kent’s path. The Liverpool loanee fired over under pressure.
After 25 minutes of increasing dominance, Town found a goal from an unlikely source as the excellent Lowe advanced with menace towards the area, interchanged passes with Kachunga and curled an unstoppable shot past Davies. The German left back took 2 games to find his feet, including the disappointment at Shrewsbury, but has now shown poise and class in all 3 games since and looks like a real find.
Town’s control probably deserved more than one goal but the visitors defended resolutely after the goal and towards the end of the half, their opponents’ propensity for giving away free kicks and throw ins in dangerous areas started to cause concern amongst the home support. Having largely subdued the skills of Hammill and Kent, the greatest danger to Town’s goal was the aerial threat posed by Barnsley and needless free kicks offered the visitors both respite and an increased chance to get back in the game.
While most of the gifts were wasted, Barnsley’s young and talismanic manager clearly noted the nervousness that accompanied dead ball assaults and replaced the ineffective Bradshaw with the raw but potent Stefan Payne – a battering ram of a forward astutely picked up from Dover Athletic.
For now, though, Town could be reasonably pleased with their first half efforts and a deserved if slender lead. While the pairing of Whitehead and Mooy had been unconvincing – the former is too much like the latter and the Australian didn’t quite emulate his previous performances even though he was still influential – the home team had been relatively comfortable and better than the visitors in all areas.
Perhaps complacency played its part, but within 2 minutes of the second half, and for the next 15 to 20, Town were not only pegged back but a resurgent Barnsley could and should have turned the game on its head.
The equaliser came from yet another long throw from the left. Town’s defenders weren’t helped by a rogue whistle blown in the crowd but, in truth, Ward’s attempt to claim the high ball was a long way from being accomplished and Mawson easily out jumped both Hudson and Schindler to level.
Shaken by their damagingly slow start to the second period, Town became increasingly sloppy and a reinvigorated Barnsley began to cause them more difficulties. Payne’s power and presence created different problems for the home defence and all the control of the first half faded along with Mooy who was replaced by Hogg within 10 minutes of the restart; possibly precipitated by an excellent Barnsley move which ripped through Town’s defences only for Kent to waste a very good opportunity with a weak shot easily saved by Ward.
Both keepers were called in to action in quick succession as, first, Wells met an excellent Lowe cross only to see his header clawed away by Davies while at the other end, the lively Kent had a long range effort turned round the post by Ward.
With the introduction of Hogg, Town regained some of their composure in a match which was now much more even. Continuing his excellent form, Hogg added energy and forward momentum and with Wells and Kachunga finding more space, half chances started to arrive again.
The biggest turning point – the very edge of the fine margin mentioned earlier – came when Whitehead casually misplaced a pass to Schindler which was latched upon by Payne. With the German beaten and, wisely, choosing not to take foul action, the big forward curled his attempt round the advancing Ward but agonisingly on to the post.
With just 10 minutes to go, Town would have found it hard to recover from the blow but, to their credit, they regrouped well and pressured the visitors hard as the final whistle loomed.
The winner came as a result of the hard work and persistence of both Hogg and Kerchunga. The midfield man found substitute Bunn with a piercing forward pass and it was then laid back to Kerchunga who battled past his marker before finding the surging Hogg in the area. Hogg’s finish belied his paltry goal scoring record as he planted it in to the top corner with aplomb.
As the stadium erupted, minus the poor souls who insist on leaving early, it began to dawn that the late strike had taken Town to the top of the Championship. While it is very early to take a great deal of notice of the table, it is sure a prettier sight looking down rather than up.
It was difficult not to feel sympathy for a hard working, genuine Barnsley side but, as both clubs know only too well, this is the cruellest of divisions and not taking advantage of the moments in which you are favoured is often fatal.
For Town, the overall performance, while too laboured at times and blighted by a very poor 20 minutes in the second half, probably just deserved the 3 points, though few would have complained had they been shared.
As with all games so far, there were lessons to be learned. In this one, the Whitehead/Mooy combination looked imbalanced with the two too similar in role and positioning; even though his gaffe occurred while in tandem with him, Whitehead was more effective alongside Hogg and the same has applied to Mooy in previous games.
On the plus side, Kachunga worked hard and long and improves all the time, Lowe has quickly acquired assurance and looks classy and, yet again, Wagner makes game changing substitutions with Hogg being the fourth sub to grab a winner in as many games (though he took his time about it!).
The home form had to improve from last year’s abysmal record, so it is so far, so good, though we still look more compact and effective on away soil. Wolves will present a very different and potent threat next week – but there are many reasons to remain cautiously optimistic with our squad depth and momentum.
Top of the bloody league (come on, Ipswich!)
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