They hoped it would be at fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic, but it wasn’t. They dreamed it could be in the derby against Sheffield Wednesday, but it wasn’t. With every disappointment, the gap to safety, which they had worked so hard to whittle down from eight to zero points in late 2019, re-opened ominously.
The midweek loss to Birmingham City led to them falling nine points adrift and they could have gone under once and for all on the banks of the Thames on Saturday, only washing up on the familiar League One shore. But their remarkable 3-0 win at third-placed Fulham – a deserved victory which could have been by a wider margin – might just be that turning point they have hunted.
Some will say it is too little, too late, understandably reluctant to believe that an extremely inconsistent side can suddenly put together the sequence of regular wins they would need to stay up. The situation is still bleak. Saturday marked five months in the drop zone. Barnsley have won six of 33 league games this season and may need to at least double that tally in the last 13 games, often against more direct and physical opponents than Fulham who played the possession-based style the Reds enjoy facing. There are also concerns over the defence, despite the clean sheet in London, as they only have three senior centre-backs – one of whom has been dropped from the squad following a series of errors.
But a glance at the upcoming fixtures can only serve to amplify the hopeful murmurs started by Saturday’s success. In a week starting tomorrow, the Reds face three sides between 15th and 18th in the league, in the bottom four of the form table over seven games with a win between them in that time. It is now or never to begin an overdue charge to safety and surely at least six points are needed from those possible nine.
That would build on the momentum started at Craven Cottage and begin to close the gap ahead of some more difficult fixtures in March against sides with play-off ambitions. The Reds need to stay within touching distance by the first week of April when they play the other three current occupants of the bottom four.
Here are the seven games before then:
MIDDLESBROUGH, H, TOMORROW Gerhard Struber looked devastated after Barnsley’s 1-0 loss at the Riverside Stadium in his second match in charge in November. He has privately admitted that that was the moment he realised the job of keeping the Reds up was bigger than he initially thought. Victory tomorrow over a goal-shy side who have not won since New Year’s Day would keep Barnsley’s hopes alive and drag Boro well and truly into the scrap. Jonathan Woodgate’s side have often played the possession-based ‘build up from the back’ style that Fulham used to their detriment against Barnsley on Saturday.
HULL CITY, A, WEDNESDAY The Reds have not won a midweek league match in 14 attempts since a 4-0 League One success at Rochdale in August 2018. They may never have a better chance to end that run than on Wednesday against a Tigers side who have been on woeful form after losing their star wingers Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki in January and are in danger of being dragged into the relegation fight. Barnsley’s last game in Hull, a day short of two years before this meeting, was played in atrocious weather and this is likely to be the same so the Reds must show all their battling qualities in a must-win match.
READING, A, FEBRUARY 29 A third successive game against a side between 15th and 18th in the current table and on poor form. Exactly like tomorrow’s visitors Middlesbrough, Reading won four games in 11 days either side of Christmas then went on a seven-match winless run. But, unlike Boro, they got back on track with a 3-0 success at ten-man Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday. They have not won at home in six games and only Barnsley have picked up fewer points on their own turf this season than the Royals. This game is likely to be Alex Mowatt’s 100th for the Reds.
CARDIFF CITY, H, MARCH 7 Next month begins with two fixtures in which the Reds have awful records. The Bluebirds are one of the most traditionally successful visitors to Oakwell as, since 2002, they have won seven of their ten games there while losing just once. Neil Harris’ side are three points and three places outside the play-offs due to a seven-match unbeaten run since a 6-1 loss at QPR on New Year’s Day. They are exactly the type of defensive and direct team that Struber dislikes playing. They have the division’s lowest possession percentage, passing accuracy and number of passes but have won most headers.
QPR, A, MARCH 14 The fixture all Barnsley fans dread. Since a 5-0 win at Loftus Park in 1950, the Reds are winless in 25 games there, losing 22, across more than seven decades including 11 consecutive defeats. The Hoops – who are the third top-scorers in the division – ended a five-match run of four losses and a draw when they did Barnsley a favour by coming from 2-0 down to beat fourth-bottom Stoke City 4-2 on Saturday. They lost 5-3 at Oakwell in December and the 58 goals they have let in this season is the joint second highest tally in the division with the Reds. QPR are second top-scorers at home but only Barnsley have conceded more.
MILLWALL, H, MARCH 17 This game will be two years exactly from Millwall’s 2-0 win in their snowy last trip to Oakwell which was a key result in Barnsley’s 2017/18 relegation. That was followed by a 29-game unbeaten run at Oakwell and the Reds need to return to better home form to stay up. The tenth-placed Lions have recently dropped off the play-off pace but will be hoping to remain in contention for the top six and make amends for their last-minute home loss to Barnsley on December 21. The Reds will be hoping to win a home midweek league game for the first time since they beat Nottingham Forest in August 2017.
BLACKBURN ROVERS, H, MARCH 21 Barnsley were unlucky to lose 3-2 at Ewood Park in Struber’s first game in November and will be hoping for better fortune in their final game before the last international break of the season. They will then return for what could be – if they have managed to reduce the current six-point gap to safety – a crucial week, as they visit Stoke City on April 4 before the Easter weekend sees them travel to Luton Town then host Wigan Athletic. They then finish the season against Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Brentford who all look set to be in promotion contention.