EDDIE Howe is not used to mid-table being labelled a success.
Nonetheless, after snatching three points from this most dour of contests, the Cherries manager felt his Championship rookies had achieved their objective if the season ended here and now.
Sitting comfortably in 11th place, any fears of a relegation battle expired several weeks ago. Cherries are expected to win at places like Barnsley having made such a mark on this division since stepping out against Charlton in August last year.
Progress may be baby steps these days, but expectations are sure to rise when the nights slowly start to draw in later this year and the new Championship season dawns.
Baby steps, of course, could refer to five clean sheets in six games. Cherries’ goals against tally was a huge worry just a few months ago. Howe and his back four have made themselves almost impossible to penetrate in recent weeks.
Goals are coming from elsewhere. Steve Cook here, Harry Arter twice against Doncaster. Lewis Grabban is not the only thing to worry opposition defenders now.
And in Yann Kermorgant Howe now has that ‘different option’ that was lacking early on in this campaign.
All of this has resulted in 13 points from 18 in March. Happy days indeed.
It looked like being 11 from 18 until Cook popped up in the 94th minute to bundle the ball home after Tykes keeper Luke Steele had saved Kermorgant’s initial header.
Prior to the late show, Cherries had racked up 21 shots with only eight on target. It was much the same for the home side. Eleven with three on target for Danny Wilson’s men told a sad story of finishing woes.
As the rain pounded down in South Yorkshire, most inside Oakwell simply wanted referee Scott Mathieson to blow his whistle.
Up stepped Cook. Out walked the home fans. Fists were pumped by Howe and the 280 who had made the trip through 18 miles of roadworks on the M1.
Many of those were the same hardy souls who had trekked to South London on Tuesday |night no doubt. This was poetic justice.
Barnsley started well. Chris O’Grady, yet another reminder of Cherries’ days at the foot of League Two when he tormented them while at Rochdale, headed straight at Lee Camp after Andrew Surman had been dispossessed in midfield by Jack Hunt.
Cherries should have had a penalty moments later when Hunt pulled Ryan Fraser’s shirt inside the penalty area, but Mathieson said no.
Six minutes in, Steele saved well from Fraser. O’Grady blazed over at the other end.
Dale Jennings, a shining light in what is looking to be a dark season for the Tykes, watched as his shot after a quarter-of-an-hour was deflected over Camp’s crossbar.
Five minutes later, Steele was a relieved man after he spilled Ritchie’s venomous drive and looked on as the ball trickled narrowly past the post.
The best chance of the half came on the half-hour. Surman was superbly played in by Kermorgant only to slice wide his clever chip over Steele. It was a golden opportunity.
As poor finishing became catching, Martin Woods wasted another gilt-edged chance in front of the travelling fans when he fired wide with the goal gaping after Camp had failed to hold on to Ryan McLaughlin’s cross.
Half-time. 0-0. And not a great deal to shout about.
The groans got louder at the start of the second half when Marcus Pedersen, having brilliantly given Cook the slip, shanked his right-foot effort woefully wide. Fraser’s effort at the other end was only marginally less poor.
Steele easily gathered Matt Ritchie’s effort on 52 minutes. Eunan O’Kane’s drive from distance failed to trouble the Tykes goalkeeper.
On 55 minutes, O’Grady fed Pedersen, but again the striker was found wanting when it mattered most and bludgeoned his attempt deep into the stand behind the goal.
Then, 20 minutes from time, Surman failed to atone for his earlier miss when his left-foot shot needed no intervention from Steele.
Moments later, though, the visiting supporters so nearly had something to shout about.
Ritchie picked up the ball midway inside the Tykes half before unleashing a stunning dipping left-foot drive which rattled Steele’s crossbar.
Tommy Elphick headed straight at Steele after a nice set-piece involving Ian Harte and Grabban had seen the latter tee-up the Cherries captain with a pin-point cross, while, at the other end, Harte was on hand to block Pedersen’s shot after the home side had broken quickly.
Three minutes from time, Steele saved superbly to deny Ritchie from inside the six-yard box after Kermorgant had carved an opening.
But Steele could do little deep in stoppage time when Cook forced the ball home to send the Cherries bench wild.
ECHO STAR MAN - STEVE COOK
Even before his late goal, Cook had secured the plaudits for this week.
Five clean sheets in six games tell the story of Cook and Tommy Elphick’s impenetrable partnership at the heart of Cherries’ defence.
Brave and classy on the ball, Cook is improving all the time and blossoming into a real leader alongside his captain Elphick.
With Elliott Ward returning to fitness, Howe has an abundance of quality at his disposal, but Cook is surely the first name on the manager’s team sheet.
ECHO MATCH FACTS AND MERIT MARKS
Barnsley: (4-4-2) Steele; Hunt (Cywka, h-t) Nyatanga, Ramage (M’voto, 82), Kennedy; McLaughlin, Woods (Mellis, 78), Dawson; Jennings; Pedersen, O’Grady.
Unused subs: Lawrence, Proschwitz, McCourt, Turner (g/k).
Cherries: (4-4-2) Camp 7.5; Francis 7.5, Cook 8.5*, Elphick 8, Harte 8; Ritchie 7.5, Surman 8, O’Kane 7.5, Fraser 8; Kermorgant 7.5, Grabban 7.5.
Unused subs: Ward, Smith, Arter, Pugh, Rantie, Pitman, Allsop (g/k).
Referee: Scott Mathieson (Cheshire).
Attendance: 9,392 (280 away).