The Reds were eight points from safety on December 11 but, three weeks later on New Year’s Day, they were outside the bottom three only on goal difference. The gap is now three points after they took just two points from the last three games as the Oakwell staff are discovering that winning only one of the first 18 means that any slight later dip in form will be costly.
But Barnsley are no longer the whipping boys at the bottom of the table and have a chance to close that gap again. To do so, they must make good on Struber’s intentions to keep their star players in January and bolster the squad with some experience, then go on another good run through a series of winnable matches.
After the manic Christmas period saw them play five games in 15 days, they were looking to settle back into a rhythm of one game a week for the next month during which Struber will be able to spend some valuable time working with his players on the training pitch and introducing Marcel Ritzmaier and Kilian Ludewig. The rearrangement of the home game with Preston North End to a Tuesday complicates that but it is still a far lighter schedule.
After tomorrow’s Yorkshire derby against Huddersfield Town – who have won three of their last 11 league matches – they visit Bristol City, who have lost five of their last six and slipped out of the top ten, then welcome Preston who have won two in 11. Barnsley begin February by visiting Charlton Athletic, who have won one in 13, and hosting Birmingham City, who have won one in 12, either side of a South Yorkshire derby against Sheffield Wednesday who lost all three post-Christmas matches.
While Championship clubs’ form can fluctuate wildly, that does not look like an intimidating sequence for the Reds if they can continue their run of encouraging performances. They need to increase their recent run of good results at home while adding to their first away victory of the season at Millwall, followed by another at Crewe in the FA Cup on Sunday.
The Reds are in danger of being among four clubs cut adrift from the rest and scrapping to be the one who does not finish in the relegation zone. The others are Stoke City, Luton Town and Wigan Athletic who Barnsley are due to play in successive games in early April as they visit Stoke before the Easter Weekend sees them travel to Luton on Friday then host Wigan on Monday. That will be one of the biggest weeks in recent memory should the league table stay as it is now or similar but, with 14 league games to play in the three months before then, the landscape at the bottom of the second tier could be very different.
Stoke – who have been on very similar form to the Reds since Michael O’Neill took over just before Struber – are expected by many to move up the table due to their large squad of proven Championship stars and the ability to add to it in the transfer window. Barnsley’s main task is to draw into the scrap some of the sides who are hovering in lower mid-table, such as Birmingham, Charlton and tomorrow’s visitors Huddersfield. It is a huge game since an away win would leave the gap between the two sides at an ominous ten points but a home victory would make it only four.
Like Barnsley, Town are being handicapped by one of the worst starts to a season in their history as – having come down from the Premier League last summer and spent £11million on Isaac Mbenza who has barely played – they collected just a point from their first eight games. Although the Terriers’ form under new boss Danny Cowley since October would have them in the top half of the table, they are five points clear of the drop zone having lost a 2-1 lead in a 5-2 home defeat to Stoke on New Year’s Day. But four of the seven wins Cowley has collected came during a seven-match unbeaten run in autumn which has been followed by much more patchy form.
Steven Chicken from the Huddersfield Examiner said: “Cowley made a big impact at first and got them out of the relegation zone but, since then, it has been very up and down. They have beaten the teams you might expect them to lose to, like Nottingham Forest and Blackburn, and not beaten sides you might expect them to beat, like Wigan, Middlesbrough and Stoke. They have had really bad injury problems, with only 13 or 14 senior players available, and that caught up with them against Stoke.
“Before that game, people were starting to talk about the play-offs but now everyone is very aware that a loss at Barnsley would leave them just four points clear of the relegation zone. It’s a game that Huddersfield can’t afford to lose and it will be a big test for them. “Jonathan Hogg is suspended after collecting his tenth booking of the season – a big loss.”
The last time the two sides met, Huddersfield won 2-1 over caretaker manager Adam Murray’s visitors in October. It was a low-quality game in which the Reds let themselves down with individual mistakes such as Cameron McGeehan’s awful close-range miss at 1-0 and Dimitri Cavare jogging back when supposedly marking Christopher Schindler who opened the scoring. McGeehan has now been loaned out while Cavare and several others could join him in leaving Oakwell this month.
That loss at the John Smith’s Stadium was the 73rd meeting of the Yorkshire rivals. Huddersfield have won 32 and Barnsley 26. Town have won three of the last four meetings, with the other being a 1-1 the last time they visited Oakwell, when they were on their way to the Premier League and took the lead before Marley Watkins levelled. The Terriers lost seven successive games in Barnsley from 1988 to 2001, including the famous 7-1 defeat in 1998, but have only lost two of their last seven games there, winning three – all by a scoreline of 1-0. A Yorkshire derby victory against one of the sides they are trying to catch would be a perfect start to Oakwell action in 2020 and set the Reds up for a charge out of the relegation zone.