Never has a draw felt so divine for Swansea City. It was not pretty but in the end it was enough to cement their spot in the Championship play-off final. Matt Grimes’s classy first-half strike was a beauty but they also had to show a beastly side to tame a brave Barnsley.
Cauley Woodrow’s equaliser gave the visitors hope but Swansea held on to triumph and reach Wembley. There was a deafening eruption of elation and relief from every crevice at the final whistle but for their manager, Steve Cooper, it is straight back to work.
“As soon as I get home later the laptop will be on and I’ll be looking at the opposition,” said Cooper, whose side will play Brentford, who they lost to in the play-off semi-finals last season, in the final next Saturday. “We’ve had two tough games against them. We know them well, they know us well and we’ll get ready for it. It will be a very different game. Of course I’m proud. This club has been on a unique journey and this is another chapter. But it’s not finished because we’ve got the last bit to do.”
There was a hint of symmetry about Grimes’s goal. Not only was it almost identical to the one that paved the way to Wembley and ultimately promotion for Swansea 10 years ago – when Leon Britton’s bewitching strike opened the scoring, also in front of the North Stand, against Nottingham Forest – but it also arrived in the 39th minute, as André Ayew’s left-foot strike did in the first leg. This time Grimes easily negotiated Callum Brittain on the edge of the box, chopping inside before sending a wonderful finish into the far pocket of the net.
The Swansea substitute Korey Smith spurned a golden chance to seal victory on the night – and on aggregate – but lost his footing as he raced through on goal one-on-one with the Barnsley goalkeeper, Brad Collins. As the clock ticked down into the first of five added minutes of second-half stoppage time, a Swansea free-kick on halfway was greeted with rapturous applause.
Until Grimes’s majestic strike six minutes before the interval, it was a stodgy contest. The ball spent much of the first half in the air as a giant game of head tennis ensued but Swansea’s 20-year-old defenders Ben Cabango and Marc Guéhi again coped admirably with Barnsley’s aerial bombardment. Unsurprisingly, Valérien Ismaël played his party trick at half-time and made a double change to try to increase the intensity, which Swansea tried to disrupt at every attempt. The Barnsley head coach introduced the fresh legs of Jordan Williams and Daryl Dike, a surprise omission, but the United States striker did not get much change out of Swansea’s centre-back pairing. Cabango, in particular, was superb in keeping Dike quiet.
Williams’s freshness was there for all to see when Barnsley surged forward on the counterattack with 19 minutes left to play. He gallivanted forward 50 yards, breezing past two Swansea players before squaring for Woodrow, whose crisp first-time finish found the corner. Barnsley had had their moments – a sprawling block from the Swansea defender Jake Bidwell prevented Williams from converting Callum Styles’s cross three minutes earlier – and now they had an equaliser to ensure a nervy climax. The giant frame of Ismaël bounced on the touchline in delight, clenching his fist and roaring at his young Barnsley team to go again. So they did, with Collins going up for a free-kick deep into stoppage time, but in the end their extraordinary season ended here.
Ismaël, who has been linked with Crystal Palace, was typically magnanimous in defeat but non-committal over his future. His work in transforming Barnsley and taking them from the relegation zone to the brink of the Premier League has inevitably won admirers.
“It is maybe the first and last time that we can play a play-off without any pressure,” Ismaël said. “We did our job, we wanted to stay in the game all the way, we stayed alive and we can be proud of our performance. It is time to reflect and to go on holiday.”