Being a Barnsley player from Wigan was ‘strange’ as the two towns’ football clubs battled each other for survival on and off the pitch this summer, but Romal Palmer is thrilled that the Reds emerged victorious. 

The 21-year-old central midfielder, who played a part in Barnsley’s dramatic survival before his season was ended by injury, grew up in the Greater Manchester town but has been at Oakwell for five years after leaving Manchester City. The Reds finished above Wigan Athletic in the Championship, due to the Latics’ 12-point deduction for going into administration which they appealed unsuccessfully last week – meaning the Oakwell club remain in the second tier. 

Palmer told the Chronicle: “It was a bit strange because Wigan is my hometown. I sympathise with the Wigan staff and players but I am a Barnsley footballer so I was more just grateful that we stayed up. I have some friends from primary school who are Wigan fans. It’s sad to see what has happened to them but my focus is on Barnsley. 

“As soon as the lads won at Brentford, I knew we would stay up. We had performed well and got the results we needed.  “We knew the rest would take care of itself.”

Palmer, who had suffered with persistent injury problems and was sent on loan to non-league Darlington in the 2018/19 campaign, had not played an EFL match before the 2019/20 season was suspended due to the coronavirus crisis in March.  The closest he had come was being on the bench for the defeat at Bristol City in January.  But, after impressing head coach Gerhard Struber in training during the lockdown, he was given his professional debut from the start in the 1-0 win at Queens Park Rangers on June 20.  

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He said: “We were in the meeting room on the day of the game and I looked at the board and saw my name. I was just thinking: ‘wow.’  I couldn’t believe it. I thought I would be a lot more nervous but I was mainly just excited.  I said to the manager that I didn’t expect it and he told me I had earned it from my performances in training. It was a great experience and the result made it even better.

“I was just trying to do my job. I know I did it right but I also think I can bring a lot more to the team in the future. It was the best debut I could have asked for, except that the fans weren’t there.  The Romal from a few years ago would have been focused on: ‘what if it doesn’t go well?’ But I have matured as a man and I was just thinking about the positives and I knew I could start my whole career off if I played well.”

Palmer also started the home games against Millwall and Blackburn Rovers, in which he picked up the knee injury that ended his season.  So he watched on from afar as Barnsley, after a four-game winless run following his injury, netted injury-time winners against both Nottingham Forest and Brentford in the final week to get out of the relegation zone for the first time in 311 days. 

He said: “Watching at home, you can’t do much. You are just hoping and praying. I fully believed in them so I wasn’t stressing too much but I was a bit nervous watching. I have never seen anything like the Brentford game. I was thinking ‘oh no’ but Clarke Oduor popped up and everything went off.  I think we fully deserved it.”

The Reds are due to begin pre-season training today and start their competitive games next month. Palmer will have to wait but believes he will be fit for the start of the season.  

“The injury was obviously quite frustrating, given that I have had previous injuries.  It’s not a recurrence of an old injury, which is good, it was just something that can happen in football. I know I can recover from injuries mentally and physically, I’ve done it before. I will be back better and stronger.

“It’s healing pretty well, I am taking each day as it comes. It could be another two weeks, maybe more or maybe less. My aim since it happened has been to be back for the start of the new season and I think I can do that. I want to make an impression in training before the season starts like I did last time. It’s annoying that I can’t be involved straight away.”

When he is fit again, Palmer will face competition for a place in central midfield. Experienced duo Alex Mowatt and Marcel Ritzmaier finished the season in that position while Palmer’s fellow youngsters Matty Wolfe, Callum Styles and Oduor all see themselves as central midfielders. 

“You need that bit of competition and drive. Knowing we are all similar ages, is even better, The quality that some of these players possess is unreal. Barnsley are doing really well with bringing through young players. We are all good friends. There is no bitterness between us. You get little groups with the youngsters then the more senior players, but we all merge as a squad.”