Barnsley’s journey and Millwall’s Plan B needs


Paul Heckingbottom –

It has been an incredible four months for Barnsley and Paul Heckingbottom. When the 38-year-old took over his hometown team as caretaker boss, they had been on a good run, but were 12th in League One and had never won at Wembley in their 129-year history. 22 games later, they are now a Championship club and have won under the arch twice, after a 3-1 victory over Millwall.

Lions boss Neil Harris, like his opposite number, had been an influential player at the club he now manages, which has perhaps lent the former striker more support than his predecessors. It has been a season of promotion chasing at the Den, but it has also been a year of cultural restoration. Millwall fans now see their team play with passion, commitment and a sense of identity, qualities lacking under Steve Lomas and Ian Holloway.

For much of Sunday’s game, composure and cohesion were the qualities missing, the team not helped by Byron Webster’s enforced match-day omission. After Ashley Fletcher wriggled through a sluggish defence to slot their opponents in front on two minutes, they took a while to recover. Barnsley overran the Lions in midfield, Conor Hourihane pulling the strings with the new-found discipline he has acquired this term. Hecky’s men pressed energetically, recyced the ball quickly and sustained pressure, which led to their second goal on 19 minutes. Adam Hammill was not closed down and the former Wolves man was given time to pick out a sumptuous curling shot that flew into the far corner.

Millwall awakened in the latter stages of the half. Shane Ferguson looked lively on the left but their main threat came from set pieces and lengthy deliveries into the box, which caused nervy moments for Alfie Mawson and Marc Roberts. Mark Beevers, once a Barnsley season ticket holder, got a goal back for ‘Wall in a period of pressure.

The interval came at perhaps the right time for Barnsley, who regained a degree of control in the second half and got to the high balls better. Their young side shrewdly managed the contest, which assumed a suitably restrained feel, rather than the end-to-end style seen in the first half. Lee Gregory was anonymous while Steve Morison cut a frustrated figure, the two front men now starved of support and service.

Millwall’s rigid 4-4-2 system has advantages, but the fact that they lost nine of the 10 games in which they were behind at half-time suggests they need a Plan B, to allow more movement in central areas. Nadjim Abdou is a useful midfielder to have when defending a lead, but his bullish work rate is less effective when the team is trying to break another down through fluency and ability on the ball.

They ultimately ran out of steam and Lloyd Isgrove, a forward known for boundless energy rather than aerial prowess, nodded in Barnsley’s third goal to end Millwall’s promotion hopes. The task for Neil Harris is now to add midfield creativity and develop systems that allow for adaptability, whilst retaining the core values of aggression and hard work that have stimulated this impressive season.

On the other hand, Barnsley go into the Championship in fine spirit. They have gone from being bottom of the table and losing at non-league Altrincham in November, to winning a promotion double at Wembley in title-winning form – it’s a good time to be a Tyke.

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