Football: Ward teaches Barnsley the one-nil knack

The Premierships so-called fall guys have developed a strategy for survival, says Guy Hodgson
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THERE appeared to be one certainty in the fickle game of chance that is the Premiership: clubs will rise or fall but Barnsley were beyond redemption. They would go back to the First Division as surely as Paul Gascoigne would make headlines.

So much for the consensus. Barnsley might still go down, but they are far from the hapless coconuts being shied at by everyone else. If they beat Southampton at home today they could even move out of the relegation places to the extreme embarrassment of the so-called "big" clubs of Tottenham Hotspur and Everton. It is a price the nation could bear.

Barnsley have become the country's darlings, giant killers going out on a twice weekly basis as opposed to the long gaps of the FA Cup. They were billed as such when the season began and wins over Liverpool and Manchester United since have added charm and hope and to the saga. They are undefeated at Oakwell since November and are now third from bottom, two points away from the safety positions with a game in hand.

"We've achieved a knack of hanging on to one-goal leads," Ashley Ward, a pounds 1.5m transfer from Derby this season, said. "That's been the secret. We're never going to bury teams, it was always a case of trying to nick games 1-0 or 2-1."

Ward has been true to that strategy, securing 12 points with four goals in 1-0 victories and he believes Barnsley have a psychological advantage over others in the intensive scare ward. "We're at the stage where teams feel the nerves and that could work in our favour," he said. "Some teams are only just realising they have to battle to survive, while we've been ready for that scenario since August. To others it's a bit of a shock.

"People will look at our goals against column and think we've been leaking them all season, but it's a while since we got a battering. We're a lot tighter at the back now and there's a genuine belief that we can stay up. That's been there for a while."

Everton have been making that assumption most of the season, but their dash for comfort at the turn of the year has been arrested by a run of four draws and two defeats in their last six matches. They have not been helped by the suspension of their attacking outlet, Duncan Ferguson, who completes his ban today against Blackburn Rovers.

Not that the visitors to Goodison are exactly brimming with confidence after shipping 13 goals in their last four Premiership matches. For what was the flintiest of defences, this has come as a shock as their manager, Roy Hodgson, concedes. "I don't think we're defending badly corporately, but individuals are making isolated mistakes," he said. "Every team suffers slumps, but it's important we get out of it quickly."

Which is something that will have crossed the minds of the Tottenham players, if they can spare the time from squabbling with the management. Jurgen Klinsmann, the rebel with a clause, will play against Liverpool, but not because of anything in his contract. With Les Ferdinand two weeks away from recovering from a knee injury and Chris Armstrong still being nursed back, it is logical that the German will be wondering whether David Ginola is in the right position from a place on the field rather than the bench.

Anxiety has stalked Spurs all season. "I wake up every morning and go training," Ramon Vega, their central defender, said, "just thinking about relegation. It's the biggest thing in my life now."

Liverpool, meanwhile, have an obsessive need to find their true personality. It is hard to reconcile the team who are challenging for a Champions' League place with the one who have lost to Aston Villa, Southampton and Middlesbrough in recent weeks. However, Roy Evans players' give the impression they can beat Juventus one week and lose to Doncaster the next. White Hart Lane will hope it is one their bad days.

Liverpool and Blackburn will have a keen interest in what happens at Old Trafford, but then so will Chelsea who travel to West Ham with second place in their sights even if Manchester United's coat-tails are too far in the distance. Wednesday's 6-2 win against Crystal Palace elevated them to fourth, only three points behind second-placed Arsenal.

They have three routes to qualify for Europe, which is two more than Derby and Leeds who are on the fringes of the Uefa Cup places and will have a better idea who will finish higher after they meet at Pride Park.

They are sixth and seventh respectively with the same number of points and there was the same hair's breadth between when they met at Elland Road earlier in the season. Then Leeds were 3-0 down after 20 minutes before staging the comeback of the season to win 4-3.

Given the way Leeds played against Blackburn on Wednesday - awful to awesome with half-time as the junction - a similar result is conceivable.