ON A night when it seemed that this intriguing League One fixture would end in either Sunderland closing the gap on the automatic promotion places, or that Barnsley would extend their advantage over third spot, the biggest winners were elsewhere.

While second-placed Barnsley and the Black Cats, sitting four points and a place below them, battled away in bitter cold temperatures, swirling wind and driving rain at a packed and vocal Oakwell, two other clubs benefitted the most from a hard-earned draw between two of the best in League One.

In truth Barnsley, who controlled the first half, should have been ahead at the break but weren’t, and then a much-improved Sunderland after the restart could easily have nicked a winner themselves in the second half.

The fact neither materialised, and Jack Ross’ side survived a late flurry of attacks, meant a goalless draw has left them both as close to a return to the Championship as they were at the start of the night – and lengthy unbeaten runs dating back to before Christmas were maintained.

But in failing to leave South Yorkshire with the victory to claw closer to Daniel Stendel’s team, the door opened a little wider for fourth-placed Portsmouth, winners at Walsall – to edge themselves closer to the battle too.

From leaders Luton’s perspective, they capitalised by extending their lead at the top to five points after winning at Bradford. How Sunderland, nine points shy, would love to be in the Hatters’ position with ten games remaining.

You would have thought something would have to give when two of the divisions best teams, boasting unbeaten records dating back to December, went head-to-head.

Barnsley, unbeaten in 16 in the league and having won 11 of those, went with the tried and tested, sticking with the same team that defeated Accrington, while Sunderland, without a loss in 17 in all competitions, made four changes to that which limped to a draw at Wycombe.

The loss of skipper George Honeyman, suspended for three games after that touchline brawl at Adams Park, Duncan Watmore and Tom Flanagan (both to injury), were blows but Sunderland still had the experience and talent that made them capable of winning at Oakwell.

Adam Matthews, Lynden Gooch, Jack Baldwin and Max Power were those introduced, while the influence of Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter in the middle was going to be an interesting factor in the middle.

In the absence of Honeyman, Cattermole was handed the captaincy and after both sets of fans turned up the noise to greet the first whistle, it didn’t take long for the two men in the middle to slow things down. Barnsley had none of that.

Still, when Cattermole was swarmed by red shirts near the touchline and lost possession, Leadbitter steamed into a strong but fair challenge to let Cauley Woodrow know exactly what sort of night was in store.

The frenetic start never really relented. Sunderland took time to settle, but Barnsley looked more dangerous whenever they got near to the penalty area, while the visitors had plenty of set-pieces for Leadbitter to send into the danger area, even if nothing materialised from them.

The best chance of the opening half an hour was created by Barnsley. Winger Mamadou Thiam looked like scoring by making the most of a poor headed back pass from Luke O’Nien.

Thiam’s beautiful control got him free of Baldwin and when the space opened up for him on the edge of the area, in a central position, his powerful drive had to be turned over in style by goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin.

Before that Thiam had already rolled a weaker effort into the arms of McLaughlin, while Baldwin had made an exceptional last-ditch tackle on Woodrow when he shaped to shoot from 12 yards.

It was at that point Sunderland started to do more themselves. Their best chance of that period was from distance when Power, playing behind striker Will Grigg, turned his man and struck a 20-yard effort from a wide angle that was turned behind by goalkeeper Adam Davies.

That was one of four corners in quick succession, plus a couple of free-kicks, that Leadbitter curled into the danger zone, but the tightest defence in League One stood firm to clear its lines time and again.

That laid the foundations for Barnsley to grow in confidence in the final third and they will still wonder how they had not managed to edge ahead before half-time.

Sunderland did defend effectively, most of the time, but a few dangerous balls across the face of McLaughlin’s goal only needed a touch from a red shirt to open the scoring; that touch evaded them.

When they did create an opening to shoot, Thiam curled an effort against the bar after turning James Dunne, and moments before the break attack-minded full-back Dimitri Cavare tested McLaughlin from distance. It remained level until the interval.

Sunderland couldn’t have soaked up as much pressure in the second half and got away with it again, and they looked far more adventurous as soon as things restarted.

While Thiam and Green’s attacking intent was clear to see on a regular basis, Sunderland got forward more regularly and found space to try a few more things. In fact, Power should have put them ahead on the hour.

When Baldwin carried out from the back, he rolled a precise pass in behind the defence for the midfielder to run on to. Under pressure, when it looked easier to round the goalkeeper, he opted to shoot first and he missed the target. That roused the Wearside contingent.

There was then a moment, with Barnsley rattled, when Gooch sprung to life down the left. After beating his man, he got to the byline and his low delivery to the near post was turned narrowly wide by Cattermole when everyone thought it was a corner.

The more minutes that ticked by the more end to end the game became, particularly after the home crowd thought they had finally delivered the breakthrough when Woodrow headed in a cross from the left. Offside was the correct call.

In the end there was to be no breakthrough. Sunderland, for the first time this season, had failed to find the net. It could have been worse, and yet the race for the top two remains tight.