YOU could almost pity Leicester, a club who know all about survival against the odds. To be cast finally as the executioners was almost too painful for them to bear after their manager, Martin O'Neill, had applauded Barnsley as "the most popular side in the Premiership".
But Leicester stopped short of handing Danny Wilson's team a lifeline at Filbert Street, when a goal by the Greek midfielder Theo Zagorakis, 12 minutes into the second half, robbed the shoestring Yorkshire club of their last lingering hope of survival.
O'Neill's sentimental words have already been endorsed many times over after a season in which the Yorkshire club has brought charm and romance to a league in which the power of wealth dominates. At the final whistle, supporters of both teams joined in deafening applause as Barnsley's players fought in vain to contain their tears. But the reception was of small consolation. Barnsley cannot now escape the bottom three and next Sunday's final match, at home to Manchester United, which until recently appeared destined to be of monumental significance to both camps, seems likely now to be an occasion merely for shared disappointments.
"Maybe there was not too much left in the tank at the end but the way they have battled in the second half of the season has been a credit to themselves and to me," Wilson said. "The first half of the season was a very steep learning curve for us and we could never really get away from the bottom three.
"The players are absolutely gutted but we cannot feel sorry for ourselves. We have enjoyed the ride, if you like, and we improved as we went along. Now we will be looking to come back again next season."
The football had not matched the emotion of the occasion. Barnsley knew they had to win but Leicester, too, seemed tense after convincing themselves that three points would keep the door to Europe ajar. The consequence was a game of high anxiety and tentativeness and little real excitement.
Tony Cottee wasted Leicester's best opening of the first half. At the other end, a volley launched by Jan Aage Fjortoft made Kasey Keller stretch to save. Otherwise, there were seldom signs that the contest could rise above the ordinary. The whole afternoon had a slightly surreal atmosphere about it. Before kick-off, the Leicester fans had been so generous in applauding Barnsley you could not imagine their players having the heart to send them down.
But when the opportunity did arise, sentiment did not obstruct professional duty. Steve Guppy, left unmarked on the left, drilled in a low cross, David Watson dived to intercept but fumbled and Zagorakis followed in to put Leicester ahead - leaving the Yorkshire side 33 minutes in which to score twice. But they could never seriously trouble Keller and a red card for the substitute, Jovo Bosancic, booked twice in the space of 13 minutes, added insult to injury.