In the game that provides a path to the Premier League, how appropriate a moment of Premier League class should prove decisive.
For all the romance around Barnsley’s story and their unexpected rise to the cusp of the Promised Land, their toil and endeavour was undone by the class and killer instinct of Andre Ayew, a man with a raft of top flight experience. How it showed.
With 39 minutes on the clock and this fixture turning into a war of attrition, Ayew turned two red shirted pursuers inside out and scored a goal that has taken Swansea a step closer to Wembley. Given their outstanding record against Barnsley, it is odds-on they will finish the job.
Andre Ayew scored the only goal of the game as Swansea beat Barnsley in the first-leg
The Ghanaian celebrates after his brilliant solo effort with Matt Grimes on Monday evening
The Swansea forward celebrates with team-mate Jamal Lowe five minutes before half-time
Barnsley fans returned but look on with agony on a frustrating Monday evening at Oakwell
Barnsley have not beaten Swansea in any competition since the 2006 League One play-off final and, much to the angst of their manager Valerian Ismael, they never threatened to end that sequence and the bounce in the step of his opposite number, Steve Cooper, at the end spoke volumes.
‘There was not loads of chances,’ said Cooper, who is a level-headed soul.
‘But Andre knows the way and in those areas, he is a real handful and he proved it again. He’s a brilliant lad first and foremost, a really good player. During the last two years, he’s given 100 per cent to what we are trying to do.’
The last time a crowd was present at Oakwell – on March 7, 2020 – Barnsley were beaten 2-0 at home by Cardiff and the hosts dropped to the bottom of the Championship. The road they have followed in the time since has been lonely and made this reunion emotional.
An early goal would have lit a fuse but Swansea were too canny to be drawn into a scuffle or leave their chins exposed. Barnsley, a physical group who don’t hesitate to pump balls long, tried to overpower the visitors but they held firm.
Barnsley were limited to a couple of tame efforts at goal in the first period – a wayward shot from Romal Palmer on the edge of the area, a header from Michael Helik that was comfortably gathered by Freddie Woodman – and Swansea always carried that extra edge in class.
Ayew’s dipping strike continued Swansea’s stranglehold in 90 minute games with Barnsley
Swansea managed to keep the hosts out in the second-half to hold the advantage in the semi
So it proved just before the interval. Swansea had pushed Barnsley back and when the ball arrived at Kyle Naughton’s feet, the right-back clipped a super ball into a channel for Ayew, who had peeled away from Helik.
Ayew only had one thing on his mind and, on the right side of the area, he adjusted his feet and whipped a beautiful left foot shot into the far corner.
He’s scored in bigger arenas than this but this – number 17 of the campaign – was the biggest goal he has scored in some time.
There was consternation on the Barnsley bench and remonstrations over whether Ayew had strayed offside to collect the pass but, without VAR, the protests were futile. Swansea had got what they wanted and visibly began to grow.
‘The goal is frustrating,’ Ismael grumbled. ‘It looked a clear offside position, and to lose the game like that is very frustrating.’
His team did not sulk, though, and they emerged from the interval re-energised. Callum Brittain really ought to have put them level in the 49th minute but Woodman, en route to his 21st clean sheet of the campaign, smothered his shot from six yards.
Barnsley’s Carlton Morris strikes at goal on a tough evening for Valerien Ismael’s hosts
Ismael screams with anger and will have to revitalise his team ahead of Saturday’s second-leg
It was a gilt-edged opportunity, coming after substitute Carlton Morris had been foiled, but it had the effect of rousing Barnsley’s players and fans.
Suddenly red shirts began swarming forward and Woodman was needed again shortly after, blocking Cauley Woodrow’s free-kick.
But Barnsley could not keep the tempo up and while they hit the bar in injury time, with an impudent flick from Morris, it was difficult to say they warranted a draw.
Swansea, after all, would have been out of sight had Jamal Lowe kept his poise when bustling through late on.
‘We have nothing to lose,’ Ismael said, pointedly. ‘The pressure is still on Swansea.’