Football: Barnsley not yet ready to accept the inevitable

Barnsley 1 Crystal Palace 0
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The Independent Online
Barnsley 1 Crystal Palace 0

It was an experiment in "if we wish hard enough" on an impressive scale. When Barnsley scored their supporters broke into: "Stand up if you're staying up" and like a primitive tribe going through a rituals to stave off natural disaster the home fans rose to their feet.

Of course Crystal Palace are above such things and they could stay rooted to their seats with a haughty disregard. They did what? They risked altitude sickness by shooting up as fast as their limbs could get them there.

It was impressive crowd choreography but sadly the gestures will probably be as futile as they were religiously observed. What goes up into the Premiership these days usually goes down and this season appears to be following to type even more rigorously than usual.

The three clubs who rose from the First Division last May are in the bottom four while Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough and Sunderland, the elite's condemned men at the end of last season, are handily placed for promotion. With Manchester United seemingly running away with the title, the last two years could turn out to be nothing more than a loud and expensive exercise in returning to the status quo.

If this suggests the top division is becoming an exclusive club of 12 clubs with the others travelling on escalators in and out of the First Division, the statistics would bear it out.

Since the Premiership was formed with the express intention of letting the rich get richer, nine of the 14 promoted teams have gone down within three seasons, six staying for just one year. Some clubs like Forest, Bolton, Sunderland and Middlesbrough have become serial yo-yos, sampling the extremes of football satisfaction on a 12-monthly basis.

Only Blackburn, Newcastle and West Ham have stood the test of time to become established members of the aristocracy and even they have had their scares. It requires buckets of money to defy gravity these days and that might not be enough as Middlesbrough proved last season.

At Oakwell there were two of the promoted species. Barnsley seem to fall into the cannon fodder category, a team that rises above the parapet to be shot at by the big teams. They may survive this season but would even their most confident supporter bet his house on their still being in the Premiershp by the millenium? Palace are a different breed, oscillating between the top two divisions.

You could tell the clubs come from different backgrounds by the reaction of the managers. Danny Wilson still has the new boy enthusiasm, all rosy cheeked and excited by Barnsley's first ever season in the elite. "People will be asking `are they going to lie down', well we're not. We quite like it in this division."

Steve Coppell, careworn as only a former Manchester City manager can be, had a weary, seen-it-all-before air. "Every game is vital," he said. "It was obvious the implications of either side losing and I'd be mightily heartened if the season ended now." After two months of near fruitless endeavour in the League, fourth from bottom and safety is the goal. So much for the dreams of August.

Coppell could be forgiven because there was little in this match to encourage optimism. It was a fine game, full of goal-mouth spills and close shaves but quality? It said everything that an overweight Swede who has barely kicked a ball for two years looked the one player capable of rising above the humdrum.

Tomas Brolin was partly responsible for Barnsley's goal and was wheezing after 10 minutes. When he could get his match-unfit limbs into the right positions, however, he oozed ability. "There's no escaping the fact he's a very good player," Coppell said. "Two years ago he cost pounds 4.5m and we got him for nowt so we're not complaining."

Brolin hit the bar with a header and also bundled the ball into the net from an offside position after Bruce Dyer struck a post and in many ways he embodied his team's day. He nearly gave a masterful performance; Palace nearly got an encouraging result.

The fact they did not was down to the one commodity Barnsley have an abundance of, spirit. They may not be good enough but they fight like tigers to prove they are, seemingly oblivious to heavy artillery that has pounded 57 goals past them - six at West Ham only eight days earlier. In many ways Darren Sheridan had a dreadful game, yet it was him who was flinging his body into places only brave men go to block Palace at the end.

Such endeavour deserves reward and with Clint Marcelle squandering two chances in the closing minutes, Barnsley got it thanks to Ashley Ward's 26th minute goal. Brolin lost the ball in midfield, Neil Redfearn swept it to the left and Ward's first touch took him beyond Andy Linighan and his second flicked it over Kevin Miller into the roof of the net.

Palace could not win a raffle at home and Barnsley's goal meant they had to approach the match like they were at Selhurst Park. They should have got a point but if the opposition had some swift strikers instead of the sure but slow Ward and Jan Aage Fjortoft the margin of victory would have been greater. The sooner they get their 11 injured players on the field again the better.

"It was a trememdous performance given the result we suffered last week," Wilson enthused. "Every time we've been beaten we've responded well and at the end of the day if we get beaten 6-0 once every four games and win the other three I'll be quite happy. It's kept us within touching distance. A massive result."

It was and Barnsley, with wins over Bolton, Palace and Coventry, have a good record against their fellow strugglers. The problems come when they meet those with loftier aspirations than survival. They will go down fighting but unless they defy recent history their destiny is relegation sooner or later.

Like his supporters, Wilson is on a wish too far.

Goals: Ward (25) 1-0.

Barnsley (4-3-1-2): Watson; Eaden, Markstedt, Morgan, Barnard; Tinkler,Sheridan, Redfearn; Marcelle; Ward, Fjortoft (Liddell, 88). Substitutes not used: Hendrie, T Bullock (gk), Bosancic, Krizan.

Crystal Palace (3-4-1-2): Miller; Linighan (Ginty, 83), Edworthy, Hreidarsson; Smith, Roberts, Fullarton, Gordon; Brolin; Dyer, Bent. Substitutes not used: Quinn, Thomson, Boxall, Nash (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Barnsley: Eaden, Morgan, Barnard. Palace: Edworthy, Hreidarsson, Fullarton, Roberts.

Man of the match: Morgan.

Attendance: 17,819.