For a game falling in between Halloween and Bonfire Night the visit of Barnsley to the KC Stadium provided few fireworks but, thankfully, few scares. Sone Aluko provided the real treat for the Tigers who ground out the three points against Keith Hill’s stubborn side. It wasn’t pretty and the second half in particular featured little of the free-flowing attacking football that City have displayed this season but the win is the only thing that matters. Top sides find a way to win when they aren’t playing well. On this evidence, we must be bloody brilliant!
Steve Bruce picked the same team that picked up an excellent win on the telly at Bristol City last week. The only change was to the named substitutes with Big Faye replacing the departed Liam Cooper. It meant sticking with the 3-5-2 system but against a team playing only one striker, who was on the wing, the system was pretty much irrelevant.
Tigers: 3-5-2 [G] Amos [D] Chester, McShane, Bruce [M] Elmohamady, Rosenior, Quinn, Evans Koren [F] Aluko, Simpson
I like Barnsley. Keith Hill has just about the smallest budget in the division. They only had three players for whom they’d paid a fee and two of those were small fees paid over four years ago. Hill has to work with free transfers and academy graduates. He’s working like most League Two managers but somehow makes Barnsley competitive in the Championship. He gives opportunities to players in the lower divisions to make the step up and he’s put together a tidy football team. Lads like Golbourne (Exeter), Done (Hereford), Dawson (Orient), Perkins (Colchester) and ex-Tiger Scott Wiseman (Rochdale) are all justifying the managers faith in them.
Barnsley’s system was negative, with midfielder Kelvin Etuhu the lone striker, but not cynical or desperate in the way Ipswich were in the last home game. They couldn’t live with the Tigers in the first half. Sone Aluko in particular started brightly and it looked like an early goal might lead to a handsome home win. After a couple of bright moments including Aluko latching on to Elmohamady’s deflected pass and opting to cut inside into traffic instead of shooting right footed, the early goal came on 15 minutes. Rosenior won a corner on the left that was cleared to Evans who won a second corner on our right. He took it quickly to Aluko whose cross was headed poorly by Cranie back to Aluko on the touchline. He stepped inside and hit a shot from a tight angle that Steele got a hand to but couldn’t keep out and it flew into the far corner [1-0].
The Tigers were always in control after that and Barnsley offered no threat at all. There was something missing though and we didn’t turn the superiority into chances. Barnsley’s defending at times was panic stricken but they somehow got away with it. A poor early backpass had just enough pace on it to reach Steele before Simpson nicked it and a later backpass, played blind from the edge of the area, actually went through Simpson’s legs. Corry Evans has had a poor season by his standards but he was back to his best today and broke up most of Barnsley’s attacking moves. When Chester intercepted a pass, found Quinn who passed to Elmo, Evans turned up on the right, Elmo played him in and his cross eventually found Koren whose shot deflected wide. Another break saw Chester find Koren on the right with a beautiful pass. Koren cut across the pitch and from just outside the ‘D’ curled a left foot shot towards the bottom corner that Steele saved brilliantly.
The game was incident free so not a lot for the officials to get involved in but they still managed to make a mess of it. Jay Simpson chased a through ball with a defender in close proximity and the goalkeeper approaching. As the three came together, the defender gave Simpson a nudge, Simpson touched the ball past the ‘keeper and then they collided. The ‘keeper stayed down and the referee somehow came to the conclusion that it was a foul against Simpson. It was a pretty 50/50 collision so I wouldn’t claim a City penalty but as Simpson was the one who got the ball there was absolutely no way he was the offender. With the Tigers fans already up in arms the ref then produced a yellow card for the City striker. Quite possibly the stupidest decision I’ve seen all season. Mr. Heywood, you sir are a muppet. Just before the break, Koren leapt well at the near post to meet Aluko’s corner but Steele pushed the ball out and it was scrambled away. The ref then signalled the end of a pretty comfortable half. The only disappointment was that City hadn’t stretched the lead.
The second half started as the first had ended with the excellent Tigers midfield pressing the ball high up the pitch and making opportunities. Jay Simpson was the first beneficiary, receiving in their half and running towards the area. He stumbled through a challenge and with a good shooting opportunity presenting itself, sliced the ball into the crowd. At the other end Stephen Dawson shot high and wide too, that was Barnsley’s first shot. Quinn then freed Koren on the left, he laid off to Rosenior whose low cross arrowed towards Simpson with his back to goal. He should have controlled with his left foot and then either laid off to Aluko or tried to turn and shoot. Instead he tried an overhead kick and made a prat of himself. He’s having a great season but he just needs to do things simply at times and we’ll get more reward from his efforts. Robert Koren then won the ball in midfield, didn’t quite know which option to pick as he approached the area and eventually laid off to Rosenior who curled a shot into Row W.
The momentum started to shift after that and Barnsley enjoyed the bigger share of possession. They were rarely dangerous as the Tigers defended well but they controlled the ball and took our creative players out of the game. Alex Bruce took a hefty knock and limped around for five minutes while Barnsley were on top which was worrying. In the meantime Tomasz Cywka shot just wide which was as close as the visitors came all afternoon. Eventually Bruce was subbed for Dawson with Rosenior switching to right back and the system moving to an orthodox 4-4-2. Daws took a while to settle and I had flashbacks to Burnley at home last season. Barnsley were gifted the ball in midfield, Dawson dived in on Dagnall but didn’t win the ball, Dagnall flicked the ball past McShane and headed into the area were Corry Evans came across to make a superb and crucial tackle. Another Barnsley sub Toni Silva then jinked his way through our defence before Evans made another challenge. A lightening Tigers break saw Elmohamady race away on the right, get held up, before digging out a cross for Simpson who’d got himself in front of the defender. Simpson met the ball on the volley but Steele saved well at close range.
Steve Bruce reacted to their dominance by swapping Aluko for McKenna to shore up the midfield. I’d have left Aluko on to counter and taken Simpson off. By this point though, everyone had accepted that we weren’t playing well and were happy just to escape with three points. Although the last few minutes were nervy because 1-0 is a slender lead, the defence never allowed any real heart in mouth situation. McLean replaced Simpson to little effect and the added time ran out quickly. The Tigers are up to joint 4th in the Championship, 3 points off the top spot and the jittery run of a few weeks ago has been banished with 4 wins from 5 games. I thought the crowd at the KC were excellent today. They didn’t get on the players backs when things weren’t going well. It was great support and it probably really helped.
Corry Evans was the man of the match today. He was excellent. He gave us bags of energy in midfield, read their attacks well, won the ball back and distributed well. He worked box to box too. He was ably assisted by Stephen Quinn who continues to impress and Robert Koren who had his most influential game at home for a while. The defensive unit was solid but Paul McShane in particular deserves credit for his performances. He’s hardly put a foot wrong since he came back into the team.
I didn’t think I’d like Steve Bruce. I always found him a bit of a sore loser when he was managing in the Premier League, always whining on Match of the Day. He’s been a breath of fresh air though. He gives open, honest interviews after the game, he gives credit where it’s due and he doesn’t hide from mistakes of the players and himself. He sees the game in the way we see it. There’s no bull. I like what he’s doing here. Trying to decide which of his summer signings has had the most impact so far is near impossible. Aluko and Quinn have been brilliant. Elmohamady and Alex Bruce have also been terrific. He’s done a fine job of melding his new players with the ones we had here already. I think I’m most impressed by the way he’s given players who hadn’t done well under previous regimes a new lease of life. Simpson and McShane now look un-droppable. That’s some achievement. He also doesn’t play favourites. He’s made it clear that he’s a big fan of Olofinjana but Evans has got into the team, played well and Bruce hasn’t gone back to “his guy” just because he can. He rewards players who play well. That’s the way it should be.
This wasn’t a vintage performance but it was a crucial three points. We’ve chucked away enough points against lesser opposition in the last few years to know that nothing is a given. Sometimes you have to grind it out and move on. So onwards and hopefully upwards. And good luck to Keith Hill and Barnsley. I hope he keeps them up again.