Slater Barnes' late goal all but secures NCE play-offs spot for Wakefield AFC

After two impressive home victories in his first two games, new Wakefield manager Junior Roberti faced the fresh challenge of an away match in the Toolstation NCE Division One.
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Specifically, the Falcons – second at the start of the day – made the short trip to face seventh placed Wombwell Town, knowing a victory could go a long way in all but securing a play-off finish. That win was acheved by a 3-2 margin secured in a dramatic finish, writes Austin Ainsworth.

As if the two sides’ positions at the north end of the league table was not enough to add extra spice to the game, there was sure to be a healthy dose of needle given the contingent of ex-Wakefield AFC personnel in Wombwell’s squad.

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In truth, if the two sides’ squads were anonymously shown to a Wakefield AFC fan two years ago, they would have been more likely to pick Wombwell’s as their own; ex players Rhys Plater, Danny Youel, Josh Lindley and Cory Woodward all in the starting line-up as well as Henry Kendrick on the bench.

Slater Barnes netted a late winner for Wakefield AFC at Wombwell. Picture: Steve Biltcliffe PhotographySlater Barnes netted a late winner for Wakefield AFC at Wombwell. Picture: Steve Biltcliffe Photography
Slater Barnes netted a late winner for Wakefield AFC at Wombwell. Picture: Steve Biltcliffe Photography

Unsurprisingly Wakefield, after recent eye-catching performances and results, were unchanged in both their line-up and fluid 3-4-3 formation. With that in mind, their start to the game was also akin to recent performances; fast, fluid and free-flowing.

Winger Oliver Rodriguez was at the heart of it too, displaying many fine touches and glimpses of his speed and skill, before opening the scoring in just the ninth minute having already forced a fine, stretching save from the goalkeeper moments before with a piece of brilliant, individual play.

The goal was a work of art as wing-back Callum Charlton received the ball in his own box and cleared it with a precise pass up to Sebastian Losa. The latter bamboozled all of Wombwell’s backline with a deft flick on to striker Ben Gelder, who turned and played Rodriguez in down the left with a neat reverse pass. Rodriguez, still with much to do, dribbled inside and then dinked a lovely shot over the Wombwell keeper for his 12th goal of the season.

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The impressive start from Rodriguez and his side came in spite of a difficult, heavy pitch that deteriorated even further throughout the match. That may have contributed to a downturn in Wakefield’s performance as the game wore on, but perhaps not as much as the unfortunate injury to Rodriguez in the 23rd minute that forced his removal.

Wakefield just were not the same after his departure and with the game becoming more and more ragged, it suited Wombwell’s direct, physical style. The home side could have equalised with their best chance five minutes from the end of the half, when goalkeeper George Bristol came rushing out to a long ball and was caught in no-man’s land on the edge of his box. Fortunately for Wakefield, with Bristol having forced the sticker wide, captain Jack Durkin was on hand to clear the shot off the line with a fine recovery run.

Although the one goal advantage was probably fair to Wakefield given their start to the match, Wombwell were sent in at half-time even more dejected when winger Barnes doubled the away side’s lead just before the interval.

The goal came as a Wakefield corner was cleared back out to Jaydan Sandhu, who nonchalantly juggled the ball with several kick-ups before drilling a volleyed cross back into the box. Gelder, probably Wakefield’s best player in the half after Rodriguez, received the ball and assisted his second goal of the game as he laid the ball off perfectly to Barnes, who drilled his shot through a forest of legs into the corner.

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Although Wakefield had managed to increase their advantage at the end of the half, Wombwell appeared to have started to raise their own game. That pattern continued throughout a poor second half from the Falcons, who were unable to get hold of the ball with any real consistency and appeared to struggle to match Wombwell’s intensity.

Wombwell saw plenty of chances to pull a goal back but were denied by either profligate finishing or the expertise of Bristol in goal.

The away side could only live dangerously for so long, though, and the hosts reduced the deficit just before the hour mark through ex-winger Plater. He was on hand to tap-in at the back post after pressure saw a shot-cum-cross deflected towards him in the box.

That should have served as a wake-up call for Wakefield to warn them that the points were far from secure, however they continued to struggle to wrest any momentum back from Wombwell and the home side bagged a deserved equaliser with just over 15 minutes to play.

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The goal was route-one stuff as a long throw-in was delivered right down Wakefield’s throat; Rikki Paylor on hand with a towering header to silence the numerous contingent of Wakefield fans.

Wakefield were hanging on and the stats - not always to be trusted - on this occasion told the story of their struggle; 52% possession their lowest share in any league game where they have kept 11 players on the pitch and their total passes completed of 126 not just their second lowest total, but the first time they have been out-passed by their opposition in any league game.

Were it not for the exploits of Bristol, his best save coming with minutes remaining when he denied an almost certain goal with a point-blank save after a Wombwell player raced clear on goal, things could have been much worse for the away side.

That, despite their struggles, Wakefield held on and themselves started to again fashion chances on goal late-on spoke volumes for their own character; both Barnes and substitute Lewis Stephens denied almost certain winners close to the end.

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Winning ugly and winning when not playing well is an important trait and one not regularly seen from Wakefield previously. But, in added time of added time, Barnes broke Wombwell hearts to steal all three points at the death.

As they had been for much of the half, Wakefield were sat deep defending a Wombwell attack when the counter was sprung through a pass out to Sandhu in midfield. He found Barnes wide left with a searching, diagonal pass into space.

Barnes’ touch was excellent, with the winger accelerating inside and away from his marker, before coolly finishing past the goalkeeper to win the game; the goal his 13th in 14 games and also a scarcely believable 27th assist for Sandhu this season.

The fans and players alike went wild, the jubilance of a dramatic, late win heightened by the knowledge that Wakefield have now all but secured their position in the play-offs, as Horbury Town’s loss on Saturday means they now cannot finish above them.

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Mathematically, Wombwell are the only side able to displace Wakefield, but they would need to win all seven of their remaining games and hope Wakefield fail to win again.

In reality one more win should do it for Wakefield who, on paper, with the other sides’ games in hand taken in to account, now appear to be vying for fourth or fifth with Retford United – perhaps a little disappointing given Wakefield still sit second and have occupied the top two spots for a number of weeks.

However, all of the top five have difficult run ins; with Parkgate scheduled to face all of their play-off rivals apart from Wakefield in a hectic run of fixtures, while the others all have at least two fixtures against those in the hunt for the play-offs.

As such, the mission for Wakefield is to collect the maximum of nine points from their remaining games and see how high that can take them, in the hope of a second or third placed finish bringing a home fixture in the play-offs. The first of those remaining three games comes at home to Louth Town; kick-off 3pm on Saturday.

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