Doug O'Kane looks at the key issues facing Barnsley in the final days of the transfer window.
KEEPING KEY PLAYERS BEYOND MONDAY SUCH AS SKIPPER MOWATT
THE NEXT three days could be crucial not just for the outcome of this Barnsley season, but the ongoing relationship between the club’s owners and both their staff and the Reds fans.
If the powers that be at Oakwell decide to cash in on captain and star midfielder Alex Mowatt, for around £1-2million or slightly more to stop him leaving for nothing in the summer, then they will open themselves up to justified fan fury and potentially a significant slide down the league table.
Should Valerien Ismael’s captain be sold, it could sew the seeds of discontent experienced by his predecessors Paul Heckingbottom, Daniel Stendel and Gerhard Struber – who all left after seeing their best players leave – and demoralise a fanbase who are sick of watching good teams be weakened just as they are competing high up in the Championship.
But it is futile discussing too much the repercussions of something that has not yet happened and may never happen – with chief executive Dane Murphy insisting it makes no sense to sell players this window and Ismael saying that both he and Mowatt want the captain to stay until the summer.
Ismael clearly let Matty James leave the club earlier in the window at least partially because he believed he would keep Mowatt, his most consistent performer who is also his joint-second top-scorer.
The most likely scenario with Mowatt is that he stays beyond this transfer window but runs down his contract until the summer to see what options are there for him.
He will be 26 next month and heading into the peak years of his career so will know his next move and contract could be a definitive one for his life.
Mowatt arrived at the club when the previous team to gain promotion and briefly flirt with the Championship’s top ten was being dismantled for far less than it was worth because the club was slow in offering them contracts.
This time the majority of the star players are tied down to long-term deals, but they just have not been able to agree one with Mowatt.
Like many players before him, Mowatt may have the opportunity to substantially increase his wages by leaving Oakwell.
It would be hard to bedrudge him doing that in the summer after years of good service to the club for whom he is set to become the first outfielder to play 150 games since Adam Hammill.
His recent excellent displays show there is no decrease in his commitment to the club on the pitch.
Some will say Barnsley should break their wage structure to keep him but that might risk other players demanding more and would also put strain on the business in very difficult financial times.
That may seem perverse when the Reds are owned by extremely wealthy people who are buying up other clubs around Europe, but they have always said, from the first press conference three years ago last month, that they will not ‘go crazy’ when it comes to splashing cash.
If Barnsley offer Mowatt the best deal they can within their budget, and he leaves for more elsewhere in the summer, there is not much more the club could have done.
Top-scorer Cauley Woodrow and wonderkid Callum Styles are also of interest to other clubs.
They are both contracted until 2023 and Barnsley know their worth will increase if – as expected – they complete excellent seasons as, respectively, one of the top-scorers and assisters in the division, and one of the most exciting 20-year-old talents outside the Premier League.
The Reds are understood to owe a substantial sell-on clause to Fulham for Woodrow, while Styles has a host of top flight clubs considering moves for him in the future.
The Reds would be foolish to accept anything less than £5million for either, with significant sell-on clauses and future payments.
Many fans would say that is too cheap, but it could be the kind of offer that tempts Barnsley who, like all clubs, are low on cash.
Balanced against that is the idea that future transfer windows are likely to be far more lucrative for selling clubs with the potential of fans returning to stadiums next season and new instalments of TV payments which make the top of English football the wealthiest on the planet.
It would be a huge shame if the Reds lost any of their star players when they are in the top half of the Championship and the last 16 of the FA Cup.
BEEFING STRIKEFORCE UP, ADDING WING-BACK DEPTH
Barnsley’s squad, assuming they do not sell key players or suffer any major injuries, is deep enough and good enough to compete for a place in the top half of the Championship. They have shown that already this season.
But, if they do manage to bring in another player or players in the final few days of the window, that might just give them a crucial extra edge in the second half of the season.
The Reds were impressively swift in the first week of the window, bringing in the striker and centre-back they had targeted in the form of Carlton Morris and Liam Kitching.
Recently their attention has been on signing a new forward.
They currently have five players – Morris, Cauley Woodrow, Conor Chaplin, Dominik Frieser and Victor Adeboyejo – competing for a place in the front three.
Patrick Schmidt and George Miller are also in the squad but, judging by their lack of opportunities, not completely trusted by Ismael to be first team players in the Championship.
Only Woodrow has more than two Reds goals this season of the above players.
If they could sign one more forward, preferably with power and express pace to add a different dimension and direct running to replace the loaned-out Luke Thomas, then they will have a strikers’ department which provides Ismael with depth in numbers and different attributes as the Reds enter another gruelling period of games.
Ismael has previously said he is not interested in signing another central midfielder, with Herbie Kane and Romal Palmer competing for a place alongside Alex Mowatt after being backed to replace Matty James whose loan from Leicester City was not extended by the head coach.
Callum Styles could also move into the middle from left wing-back and Toby Sibbick is another option there.
The next month or so should show whether the James decision was correct.
Wing-back is another position in which the Reds are trying to strengthen.
Styles and Callum Brittain have arguably been their best players this season, but the former may occasionally be needed in central midfield and the only obvious back-ups are Clarke Oduor, who has struggled for gametime under Ismael, and Jordan Williams, who has been plagued by injuries.
Sibbick could also play there but both he, Styles and Oduor all prefer to play elsewhere and the arrival of an out-and-out wing-back, even if not guaranteed a start this season, could add important extra depth.
CONTINUING EXODUS OF PLAYERS NOT IN ISMAEL’S PLANS
There has been a trimming of the fringes of the Barnsley squad during this transfer window, which could continue.
Patrick Schmidt and George Miller may be loaned out, especially if the Reds manage to bring in a striker.
The abundance of senior centre-backs means a loan for Jasper Moon, 20, to gain experience makes sense but the injuries to others could prevent that.
Isaac Christie-Davies is set to be loaned out to an overseas club, in Europe, in the coming days.
Mike Bahre’s sad demise from promotion-winner and club captain then outcast finally ended when his contract was cancelled on Friday.
The German midfielder has excellent ability but struggled to turn it into consistency or end product, with even his mentor Daniel Stendel not playing him regularly before Gerhard Struber phased him out.
The first four players to leave Oakwell in this window were all natural wingers – Jordan Green, Elliot Simoes, Dan Bramall and Luke Thomas. Wingers are redundant in Ismael’s 3-4-3 with attacking wing-backs patrolling the flanks and a front three comprised of strikers.
RETURN TO WINNING WAYS IN MORE FAVOURABLE RUN
Barnsley’s first three league games of this year were the hardest start possible to 2021 with clashes against the current top three.
They played well for the majority of those three games, but lost them, then were excellent in the FA Cup win over Norwich on Saturday, before surrendering a 2-0 lead against Cardiff amid controversial refereeing.
After 26 games last season, the Reds were second bottom with 21 points.
This time they have 14 more points and are 11 places higher.
Cardiff was the start of a run of games until March in which Barnsley mainly play clubs in mid-table or the relegation fight.
They have a realistic chance to challenge or surpass the 58 points Paul Heckingbottom’s 14th-placed side amassed in 2016/17 which would make them the highest-placed Reds team since 2000 and the club’s descent from regular promotion challengers into yoyo club between the second and third tiers.