Covid-hit Rotherham United suffered a South Yorkshire derby day defeat at the hands of in-form Barnsley, but it was not for the want of trying, following a determined second-half display.
The Millers, who were missing a host of key players, lacked their usual intensity for the first half of the chilly AESSEAL New York Stadium affair, and Valerien Ismael’s side looked to be coasting to victory, thanks to early goals from Cauley Woodrow and Alex Mowatt.
However, Rotherham showed their fighting spirit, by firstly grabbing a lifeline through sub Michael Smith, just before the hour mark, before coming close to a share of the spoils on a number of occasions.
The Millers returned to Sky Bet Championship action, following the postponement of recent games against Derby County and Middlesbrough.
However, boss Paul Warne’s selection options were still extremely limited, due to COVID-19 related withdrawals and five long-term injury absentees. The Millers went into the game with just six out of the allotted nine substitutes.
Despite the pre-game disruption, the Millers almost made the perfect start in the early minutes when Richard Wood’s ball over the top paved the way for Kyle Vassell, to shrug off the attentions of Michal Helik, to advance into the box before striking goalwards with his favoured left-foot, and Jack Walton was forced to parry the ball away from goal, at his near post.
The Barnsley ‘keeper was called into action, from the resultant corner, before a timely whistle released the pressure on the visitors before the Tykes broke the deadlock on eight minutes – with their first foray of note.
Skipper Mowatt spotted a gap in the Rotherham rearguard, by playing an inch-perfect through ball which bisected the home centre-halves, and Woodrow took advantage to dart into the box, before calmly wrong-footing Viktor Johansson with a composed finish to find the far corner of the net.
Barnsley were causing problems with a fast, energetic style, while they were not shy in playing the percentages, and they gave the Millers a mountain to climb, by doubling their advantage on the quarter hour.
There looked little danger for the hosts until Ben Wiles was swamped, in the visitors’ half, and Barnsley launched a lightning quick counter-attack, when Woodrow turned creator by sweeping the ball to the far side where Callum Styles strode purposely on the left-flank, before pulling the ball back into the path of Mowatt, who took aim with a low strike, which curled away from the attentions of Johansson, before nestling into the bottom corner of the home goal.
Warne’s side were lacking their usual energy and tempo until Vassell showed good perseverance to force the ball into the feet of Freddie Ladapo, who took a deft touch to take the ball away from Helik, before firing low towards goal, but Walton saved at the second attempt.
Just past the half hour, Wiles blazed over the bar with his weaker left-foot, before Styles and Woodrow combined to great effect, at the other end, as the former darted into the box before forcing Johansson into a smart, reflex save – although any goal would have been ruled out for offside.
The Millers finished the half the stronger and Wiles’ dangerous cross was turned behind by Callum Brittain before the Rawmarsh-born youngster dribbled an effort harmlessly wide of the target, in the aftermath of the corner routine.
Half-time- Rotherham United 0 Barnsley 2
Sub Smith was introduced at the interval and he almost made an immediate impact from the bench when Dan Barlaser’s lovely ball was taken in his stride by the Rotherham frontman, who worked a yard of space on Mads Andersen, before trying his luck from a tight angle, but Walton was well-stationed to divert the ball to safety.
The Millers were showing more intent in the second period and Michael Sollbauer was deservedly booked for hauling down Vassell in full flow, and from the resultant free-kick, Barlaser fired towards goal forcing Mowatt to bravely head clear, from near his own goal.
However, the Rotherham threat was not over. Barlaser planted a dangerous corner under the nose of Walton, and Smith showed his aerial prowess, by rising majestically before heading into the heart of the Tykes net, from just underneath the crossbar.
There was now a skip in the Millers step, and they came within a whisker of turning the game on its head, just minutes later, when Rotherham switched the play successfully and Ladapo was left one-on-one with Brittain, and he evaded his challenge, to drill a low effort which whistled across the face of the Barnsley goal.
Despite a much-improved display from the Millers, Barnsley squandered a gilt-edge chance to restore their two-goal lead when Woodrow’s hopeful ball saw Victor Adeboyejo, who was fortunate to escape sanction for an earlier stamp on Johansson, got the better of a tussle with Harding, to bare down on goal, but he fluffed his lines by dragging his shot well wide, despite having just the Swedish ‘keeper to beat.
The Millers looked a transformed outfit in the second 45 and they came close to levelling matters when Smith superbly dug out a cross near the corner flag and Wiles got the ball under his spell – with exquisite composure, before clipping a delicious cross which sub George Hirst looked set to nod home, but the Leicester loanee could not get over his point-blank header, and his effort flew wide.
Moments later, Jamie Lindsay was cautioned for a late challenge on Woodrow and Wood soon joined him in the book for a challenge on the same player.
With the game in the balance, Styles fired over before Hirst failed to make contact with an overhead kick, at the other end, as Matt Olosunde volleyed straight into the grateful hands of Walton.
Rotherham huffed and puffed near the end, but Barnsley showed good game management to run down the clock, leaving Warne’s side, contemplating defeat in the most difficult of circumstances, as they slipped into the relegation zone for the first time, this season.
Full-time- Rotherham United 1 Barnsley 2
Rotherham United 1
Teams: Rotherham- Johansson, Olosunde, Harding, Ihiekwe, Wood (Clarke 81), Jozefzoon (Smith 46), Wiles, Lindsay, Barlaser, Vassell (Hirst 65), Ladapo. Unused- Blackman, Thompson, M Miller.
Barnsley- Walton, Brittain, Sollbauer, Helik, Andersen, Styles, James (Palmer 74), Mowatt (Moon 87), Frieser (Thomas 74), Adeboyejo, Woodrow. Unused- Kendrick, Oduor, Kane, Christie-Davies, G Miller, Schmidt.
Referee- S Martin