So much for the theory that form is the prerequisite for promotion via the play-offs. Swansea arrived at Oakwell on their worst run of the season. They had six defeats in 11, Barnsley 13 wins in 19. And so, with a perverse illogicality, the Welsh club have positioned themselves to end their three-year exile in the Football League. Arguably Barnsley’s biggest game since the 2000 Championship play-off final ended in anticlimax, courtesy of André Ayew.
“We have been here before,” said the Swansea manager, Steve Cooper, whose side won their semi-final first leg last year but still did not reach Wembley. “We have got nothing to lose and the pressure is still on Swansea,” said Barnsley’s Valérien Ismaël.
But Ayew’s 17th, and perhaps most important, goal of the season gives Swansea a lead and may have been an unwanted reminder to Barnsley that money talks. They have been the division’s improbable outsiders, going far further than their budget suggests they should with the aid of full-throttle football.
Barnsley’s transfer record is sufficiently old that it was set in a different millennium. They do not have the luxury of £18m forwards – perhaps Swansea would not, were Ayew’s wages less prohibitive to potential purchasers – and he produced the game’s outstanding moment of quality.
It came when, after a fast, frenetic and yet somehow uneventful start, Swansea finally managed to slow the game down with a spell of possession. Kyle Naughton fed the ball forward, Ayew jinked inside two defenders and curled a shot past Brad Collins.
“He came back from an offside position,” said Ismaël. Cooper was more concerned with the finish. “André came up with a bit of magic,” he said. “The goal is the obvious thing to talk about, but he runs as much as anyone to help out.”
Jamal Lowe later almost added a second in similar style but the other pivotal contributions came from a homegrown prospect and a loanee. Ben Cabango and Marc Guehi, the 20-year-olds at the heart of the Swansea defence, stood tall to ensure Barnsley’s unrelenting pressure and Daryl Dike’s physicality produced relatively few chances.
“It was not a typical Swansea game but that is fine,” Cooper said after Barnsley dictated the tone. The soundtrack to their only promotion to the Premier League in 1996-97 was: “It’s just like watching Brazil.” If, in their determination to get the ball forward at the earliest possible opportunity and refusal to pass sideways, this was more like watching John Beck’s Cambridge, it was nonetheless a crowd-pleasing ploy. Barnsley’s uncomplicated approach drew roars of approval.
No wonder. When Oakwell last hosted a crowd, 436 days earlier, Barnsley were bottom of the Championship. When Ismaël took over in October, they were 21st. His reign had brought 75 points before the Barnsley supporters could give the architect of the surprise surge an ovation. “An incredible feeling,” he said.
Ismaël almost changed the game with his half-time substitution. A catalytic cameo from Carlton Morris culminated in an improvised backheeled flick that rebounded off the bar in injury time. Morris began the season on loan in League One with MK Dons and with lowly origins and lofty ambitions, he personifies Barnsley. Morris meant Freddie Woodman had to excel. The goalkeeper, on loan from Newcastle and Gareth Southgate’s godson , made a terrific double save from Morris and the lively Callum Brittain.
“The performance in the second half give us a good feeling for the second leg,” Ismaël said after Woodman also had to twice dash from his box to make vital interventions, at some risk to himself, but the main damage done was to Cooper’s coat, which was redecorated by a bucket of paint.