BARNSLEY’s commendable unbeaten bubble finally burst - and in spectacular fashion at Ashton Gate.
After nine games without defeat and six straight wins, set-pieces were the Reds downfall as they leaked five goals away to the Championship basement side.
But goals from all three of the Reds substitutes made sure this was an end-to-end thriller as David Flitcroft’s dropped one place in the table and the Robins moved off the bottom.
It was a tough afternoon for the 549 travelling Barnsley fans to endure, but as a neutral this had everything. It was just a shame that the Reds couldn’t strike first because it might have been a different story.
And it might have been a much happier afternoon for Flitcroft and his side as the club looked to register their first league double over the Robins for 56 years.
Host keeper Tom Heaton pulled off two fine saves early in the contest, the first of which came before Jon Stead had bagged the first goal of his brace.
Stead’s second six minutes after the break effectively killed off the contest, although there was time for five more goals in an enthralling contest.
“It’s a case of trust now with these boys,” stressed Flitcroft. “Forgiveness for me is one of the greatest human qualities you can have.
“They’ve got to forgive themselves. We’ve got to wipe ourselves down, dust ourselves off and have a week together to reflect.
“Certainly Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday will be reflection time. We’ll get on the training ground and try and put it right for a really important game against Bolton (on Saturday).”
A good section of the Reds players and coaching staff flew to Malaga yesterday, their reward for beating MK Dons and reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals.
“It’s a strategic working holiday,” added Flitcroft. “We know what we’re doing when we get over there, we’ve got a plan. We’re planning the Bolton game and getting the players on some decent surfaces and a change from coming to the ground every day.
“It will give the lads some time off their feet and time for plenty of recovery. It’s quality time over there to spend with each other.
“Most of the squad are going and the staff, but because it was arranged so quickly after our cup exploits there are a couple of the guys who are choosing to take that time with their families.
“I fully understand that. I want them to have time with their families because we’ve been relentless since I took over. It’s almost been seven days a week and, for the staff, it’s been eight days a week.
“We just need to re-group, re-focus and try to compile what’s gone right for us and what’s gone wrong. I’m sure we’ll get that and by the end of next week I’m sure we’ll have the answers.”
Flitcroft handed Manchester United loan recruit Ryan Tunnicliffe his debut in front of a three-man central defensive partnership, with forward Kelvin Etuhu still missing with a broken nose.
But the Reds struggled early on even with Tom Kennedy and Rory Delap deployed as cover in the wing-back positions of Flitcroft’s preferred 3-5-2 formation.
Stead headed over after only four minutes, before Tunnicliffe forced Heaton, another product of the Old Trafford production line, to parry his stinging drive.
Stead had a penalty appeal turned down after a robust challenge from centre-back Stephen Foster, making his 500th league appearance.
The striker then had two more chances, one saved by keeper Luke Steele at his near post, and the second blocked by Foster just in the nick of time.
Heaton thwarted Stoke City loan Delap with a stunning fingertip save following a brilliant run from Marlon Harewood, but then Stead put the hosts ahead.
Paul Anderson whipped in a delightful corner and Stead nodded home under very little pressure. It was a poor goal to concede, one of many on a disappointing day on their travels for the previously resurgent Reds.
Martin Cranie came within a whisker of equalising but his header from Jim O’Brien’s corner was saved superbly by Heaton.
Chris Dagnall rifled wide of the right upright with a powerful 30-yard strike which nearly caught Heaton off guard, while Harewood shot straight at the keeper soon after.
The Reds were on top but they were undone once again when Brendan Maloney’s right-wing cross evaded the defence and, after no-one took the responsibility to clear the danger, stand-in skipper Liam Fontaine pounced to fire home at the back post.
Steele kept the Reds in the contest with a smart save from Maloney three minutes before the break, but it wasn’t long after the resumption when Stead struck for his second of the afternoon to put the Robins well on their way to a fourth successive home win.
Liam Kelly should have made it 4-0 but he side-footed wide of the right post two minutes later.
Jimmy McNulty nearly scored a comical own goal, looping the ball over Steele’s net, before it was 4-0 when defender Lewin Nyatanga scored with a close-range header from Marvin Elliot’s cross.
Substitute Chris O’Grady scored his first Barnsley goal a minute later, then Cranie wasted a glorious chance to reduce the deficit to 4-2 when he blasted over inside the box.
Sub Tomasz Cywka forced a good save from Heaton, only for Steele to deny Steven Davies with his legs in a frantic few minutes.
Davies did score, though, when he headed home Stephen Pearson’s corner.
Cywka netted in the 82nd minute and then Jason Scotland bagged his fourth goal in five substitute appearances to make sure all of Barnsley’s substitutes got on the scoresheet.