Barnsley have not played a game for 90 days since their 2-0 home loss to Cardiff City on March 7 which left them bottom of the Championship and seven points adrift of safety with nine games left. The Reds have been back in training for two weeks, employing social distancing measures before beginning full contact training on Wednesday. They have been tested twice a week and, as of earlier this week, no Oakwell player or staff member had tested positive for Covid-19 but ten players or staff at eight other Championship clubs did last weekend then there were nine positive tests from six clubs in the midweek round.
Should Barnsley travel as planned to Queens Park Rangers on June 20, which was announced this week as the scheduled restart date, it will be after a 105-day break from football. Struber says the season is due to finish on July 18, meaning his side will play nine matches in four weeks with matches every weekend and midweek. To help teams through that schedule, matchday squads will be 20 instead of 18 while five substitutes instead of three is being discussed.
“This is a very difficult schedule,” head coach Struber told the Chronicle.
“It is a big challenge to play the games in this time. I hope that the EFL listens to what the managers need and we have more discussions from bottom up, not top down. We need a longer duration for the season, maybe until the end of July. If we play from June 20 to July 18, this time is too short. We have no injuries now but I am worried about muscle injuries with this schedule.”
He added: “After the nine final games, there is no problem to play the play-offs in August. If the EFL tells us to play in this short time (until July 18), I must do it, but it is a big challenge and I have a responsibility to my players that they are still fit at the end of the nine games and that some players do not have bad issues. I think the EFL will give us a better solution in the next days.”
Struber is less concerned about getting his players ready for the first game in a fortnight. He said: “Of course it is a problem for every club. Two and a half weeks of full training is a big challenge, but we will play the nine games and I am happy that we will come back to football. It won’t be easy but we can do it. The players are ready. We are not thinking anything bad, we are very positive and this is important for us. I am very optimistic that we can prepare the boys before our first game. A week more of course would be better but right now the fact is what we have been told to start on June 20 so we are looking at that date.”
The chief executive of QPR – Barnsley’s next scheduled opponents – has said they are ‘appalled’ by and ‘vehemently opposed to’ the June 20 restart. Struber shrugged off suggestions that that attitude could give his side a mental edge, saying: “The chief executive is not on the field. The most important thing for us is focus and concentration in our game, not what the opponents think or say or do. We have a big motivation in our style and, in the next two weeks, we will prepare the boys in the right direction. Then it will be very difficult to play against Barnsley and we will fight to stay in the league.”
Whereas some players, such as Charlton’s Lyle Taylor, are reluctant to play in the nine games and risk injury scuppering a move for next season, Struber says Barnsley’s players are all focused on finishing the campaign and achieving what would be a remarkable escape from relegation.
He said: “It is a big motivation to come back in football and to show the people that we believe in us and that we can stay in the league. When I see the eyes of my boys in training, I have a good feeling. They are ready to fight. I am very hopeful that we can stay in the league. It is a big challenge but I think we have a big chance. Everyone is fit and ready. It is an advantage for us that everyone has made a good job in the lockdown. We are all ready to come back and fight for our big goal.
“I speak with every single player about the situation and their motivation. The feedback from the players is that we will go until the last game 100 per cent. We have no discussion like Charlton or other clubs. We stay together. When you think before the nine games about what is after the nine games, you have a problem. We don’t lose energy with other topics.”
Barnsley are due to play a training game on the main Oakwell pitch tomorrow. Struber said: “It is my job to make sure that we have a feeling for the atmosphere of playing in a stadium behind closed doors. It is a completely new one for the players. It will give us a better preparation for the first opponent.”
The Reds are also hoping to play some friendly games. Struber said: “When it is allowed to play a friendly game, we do it. We are in an exchange with teams in the near from Barnsley and, when the EFL tell us we can play, we do it. It is important to play a game before we start but only if every club has the chance to play. “The biggest problem is if other clubs play a friendly game and Barnsley play no friendly game.”
Asked what plans Barnsley had for hotels and travel to games, Struber told the Chronicle: “We are waiting for advice from the EFL. I prefer, when we go away, that we have the chance to go in a hotel. We need a good preparation when we have a long drive to somewhere like London. I will wait to see what the EFL tells us and we will do what the EFL needs from us.” Barnsley’s remaining games are: Queens Park Rangers A; Millwall H; Blackburn Rovers H; Stoke City A; Luton Town A; Wigan Athletic H; Leeds United A; Nottingham Forest H; Brentford A.