Perhaps form is not a prerequisite for securing promotion via the play-offs. Swansea finished the season with six defeats in 11 games and Barnsley with 13 wins in 19, but the advantage lies with 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 home and away in the Championship and Steve Cooper’s team completed a hat-trick.
Much had changed in the 436 days since Barnsley last hosted their fans. Then they were bottom of the division. They were 21st when they appointed Valérian Ismaël in October and still 16th in December but the architect of this season’s renaissance had procured 75 points before Oakwell contained a crowd. The ovation he was afforded was belated but deserved. Barnsley were buoyed as they entered arguably their biggest game since the 2000 Championship play-off final.
Barnsley’s brand of full-throttle football entails getting the ball forward at the first possible opportunity and, if Swansea’s preference is for something more controlled, Ismaël’s side set the tone for a fast and frenetic encounter. If Barnsley can be exhausting to watch, let alone play against, their strenuous efforts did not produce a flurry of chances immediately. Romal Palmer shot over from the edge of the box but Swansea’s back four were, nevertheless, overworked.
The combative Daryl Dike provided a huge presence in attack with the youngster displaying an old-fashioned fondness for colliding with centre-backs. But Swansea finished the regular season with the best defensive record outside the top two and the youthful pair of Ben Cabango and Marc Guehi stood up to the challenge.
Swansea’s front three had been on the margins of the game until their top scorer produced the first moment of quality. Cooper’s side finally managed to slow the game down with a spell of possession, then Kyle Naughton fed the ball forward and Ayew jinked inside two defenders and curled a shot past Brad Collins. Barnsley do not have the luxury of £18m forwards but if Ayew’s wages have been too sizeable for Swansea to offload him, he may be repaying them. This was his 17th goal of the season and the most important to date.
Barnsley responded with their first effort on target, though Michal Helik’s header was tame, and a half-time change. It almost reaped a reward as Carlton Morris, the player introduced, drew the first part of a double save from Freddie Woodman. The second stop was the more impressive, the goalkeeper on loan from Newcastle denying Callum Brittain from the rebound.
Suddenly busy, Woodman then had to parry Cauley Woodrow’s free-kick as Barnsley again began the second half with verve. The catalytic 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 side with lowly origins but lofty ambitions.
Swansea were penned back, their midfield trio forever seeking to support their centre-backs. On a rare occasion when they ventured forward, the former Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane’s corner was cleared, the home side countered and Dike, with a misplaced pass, squandered the chance to make them pay.
Jamal Lowe, who scored in both league games against Barnsley, almost doubled Swansea’s lead with a curler that threatened to provide a mirror image of Ayew’s goal. Barnsley, though, were unrelenting with Woodman twice required to leave his area and make vital interventions, each at some risk to himself. And yet, as Swansea maintained their clean sheet, last season’s beaten semi-finalists are positioned to go one better.