Barnsley have a crisis in central midfield as they prepare to visit former captain Conor Hourihane and his high-flying Aston Villa tomorrow.

Joe Williams is set to serve the second game of his three-match suspension for being sent off at Millwall in the FA Cup while loanee Gary Gardner, who impressed against Wolves on Saturday in Williams' holding position, is ineligible against his parent club.

The Reds have also loaned out central midfielders Cameron McGeehan, Jared Bird and Alex Mowatt, selling Josh Kay. Unless he signs a player in that position today, head coach Paul Heckingbottom may have to pick a midfield from Stevie Mallan, George Moncur and Brad Potts – none of whom is a defensively-minded central midfielder.

Defender Matty Pearson has been used in that role by previous clubs, and his red card for the under 23s does not rule him out of the Villa match. Teenager Matty Wolfe has impressed in central midfield for the under 23s this season.

Heckingbottom says he has just 16 first team players available and will fill the rest of the squad with youth players. The head coach, who joked that his assistant Jamie Clapham has 'got his boots on', admitted having both Williams and Gardner out was a 'big blow.'

In Text Promo Image

He said: "I have been really pleased with Gary, stepping into the role that Joe has done ever so well in. Our other midfielders have different qualities to those two. I would love to sign a player in that position but we have missed out on one who would have been good and there is no one on the radar at the moment.

"Gary and Joe are both loan players so, if we can't get anyone else in this window, it will be a priority in the summer. This is an opportunity for a lot of our players. A lot of the academy players will be on the bench, if not starting."

The Reds have won just one of their last 12 Championship matches and are 19th in the table, three points above the relegation zone.But they are unbeaten in their last four league matches including a New Year's Day win at Sunderland then a goalless draw at home to leaders Wolves.

Villa are currently fourth, five points off the automatic promotion places and four clear of the sides outside the play-offs. They ended a five-match winless run in December with three victories alongside clean sheets in their last three league games.

Villa have an excellent record against Barnsley, winning 14 of the 18 meetings including a 3-0 success at Oakwell on Sky on September 16 earlier this season.

But the Reds have won on their last two visits to Villa Park with Ashley Ward netting the Premiership winner in 1998 then a Tom Bradshaw brace inspiring a 3-1 success on Valentine's Day last year.

About the home loss this season, Heckingbottom said: "They gave us a going over in terms of scoreline but not the performance. They have quality in the squad, they are very strong without the ball and they have goals in their team. It's going to be tough.

"It would be a big achievement to get something down there considering how well they are doing and how many players we have out."The atmosphere will be different to last time we went down there because they are doing well. Villa Park is one of the best places you can play. We're looking forward to it."

Only top two Wolves and Derby County have conceded fewer goals this season than Steve Bruce's side, with their defence being marshalled by former England captain John Terry.

Villa's 2-1 loss at home to Sheffield Wednesday in November is their only defeat in the league at Villa Park this season, with seven home wins and five draws. Their last home league game brought a 5-0 thrashing of fellow promotion-chasers Bristol City.

Villa have paid around £80million in transfer fees since they were relegated from the Premier League in 2016. They have spent more than £10million each on strikers Scott Hogan, a former Reds trialist who has netted in the last two after none in 18, injured Jonathan Kodjia, who has one in eight, and Ross McCormack who is on loan in Australia.

Their star performers this season have all been midfielders such as 12-goal winger Albert Adomah, Robert Snodgrass who has three in three and five in total, and Tottenham Hotspur loanee Josh Onomah who has four. Hourihane has six goals this season but only one in his last 17. The 26-year-old Republic of Ireland international played 135 games for the Reds who he joined from Plymouth in 2014 before leading them to promotion in 2016 then moving to Villa a year ago next week.

Right-back James Bree also moved from Oakwell to Villa in January last year but has struggled to stay in the team. The 20-year-old Oakwell academy graduate's only action for Villa since September was a start in the 3-1 home FA Cup loss to League One Peterborough United earlier this month.