The veteran manager was appointed as Neil Harris’ successor last week, but it looked like their miserable run in the Championship would continue as they went two goals down.
But McCarthy’s men, tepid until that point, suddenly came to life with a Sheyi Ojo strike and a header from former Barnsley man Keiffer Moore earning a point.
Story of the match
The appointment of McCarthy suggested that Cardiff were a looking for a change in results but not in style, and it was evident from the outset that, under him, they would continue to play long. Combined with Barnsley’s urgency to play forward under Valerien Ismael, it made for a very attritional game.
There was early controversy when the hosts had the ball in the net after eight minutes. Goalkeeper Alex Smithies was unable to claim a ball and it ricocheted off the head of defender Aden Flint, making a first appearance since his recall from Sheffield Wednesday, and into the net. However, referee Andy Woolmer gave Cardiff a very generous reprieve in ruling that the Smithies had been fouled.
Barnsley continued to push with intent though, and took a 20th-minute lead. The move was constructed in a manner befitting the whole match; a firm volleyed cross from Dominik Frieser which was met by a bullet header from Danish defender Andersen.
They were the only side playing with real purpose and continued to dominate, with Woodrow testing Smithies with a half-volley from distance. Barnsley’s top scorer also lifted a fantastic opportunity over the bar, shortly after Junior Hoilett had headed well over from a Will Vaulks cross in Cardiff’s best chance of the half.
Other than that they had offered very little, and it looked like the contest might be over when Barnsley doubled their advantage seven minutes after the break. Alex Mowatt put a free kick into the box and Woodrow got ahead of teenage defender Joel Bagan to scramble a header past Smithies at the near post.
But within five minutes, Cardiff had a lifeline out of the blue. Substitute Josh Murphy drilled the ball into the penalty area following a cleared corner, and Liverpool loanee Ojo stuck out a leg to divert it beyond Collins.
Suddenly they were a team transformed, Moore having a header denied and Vaulks volleying wide before their new-found drive and determination brought an equaliser. Joe Ralls delivered a corner over a packed goalmouth to former Barnsley striker Moore, who headed into the ground and into the net at the far post.
Both teams threw everything at each other in a gripping and increasingly heated finale, with Barnsley’s Styles coming closest to producing a winner when he smashed over the bar in added time.
Cardiff lessons for McCarthy
McCarthy said that he wanted the chance to see his team in action before making any transfer decisions, and he will no doubt have learned plenty about his side over the course of these 90 minutes at Oakwell, the place where his own playing career began.
There was little doubt the tactical approach would be much the same as under predecessor Harris, but to make their pragmatic approach work you need players willing to scrap for everything. That is why the nature of their comeback should please the new boss, displaying just the kind of spirit, attitude and drive needed when their backs were against the wall.
The fact they were in that position at all was down to a lack of quality and cohesion in the side that still marks them as being a long way from play-off contention. Once he can get to work on the training ground with his squad and figure out his favoured options, McCarthy will be confident of injecting more purpose into their play.
In defence he would have expected better, especially having conceded from a throw and a set piece. Flint didn’t impress on his return and, alongside him, Curtis Nelson will be nervous about his prospects under the new boss.
McCarthy showed that he wasn’t shy to make big decisions based on his judgements after a couple of days’ training, particularly in dropping Harry Wilson, and he will likewise be prepared to act on what he saw here when they host Millwall this weekend.
Reds rue decisions and mistakes
Barnsley could rightly feel aggrieved about a couple of big decisions from the referee which, had they gone the other way, would surely have seen them bag their first Championship win of 2021.
First they saw a goal ruled out in the opening stages for a foul on goalkeeper Smithies, even though Woodrow had been pushed into him by Flint before the defender inadvertently put it in. Then, in the second half, Cardiff’s fightback was launched from a corner which, according to Ismael, Woolmer admitted to him should not have been awarded.
However, the French boss admitted that his side’s own mistakes had been costly too, particularly for the second goal as Moore was left untracked at the back post from a set piece to snatch two points away from his former side.
After three goalless defeats to start the year, Barnsley rediscovered their clinical edge to prove there should be no long-term concern in that regard. But once again they proved unable to hold things together at the other end, making it a 14th league match without a clean sheet and a first draw of Ismael’s entire tenure.
Man of the match: Alex Mowatt (Barnsley)
In a rough old game, Barnsley's skipper provided many of the classier touches, with Ralls performing a similar function for Cardiff.