For Barnsley to be going into a derby against Sheffield Wednesday with the chance to consolidate a place in the Championship’s top six and push the Owls towards League One is the stuff of fantasy for most Reds fans.
But that is the scenario as the lowly Hillsborough club visit Oakwell tomorrow from 3pm.
The Reds, with nine games to play, are fifth in the table, unbeaten in 12 – with nine wins in their last ten – and well on course to better the average points total required to make the play-offs over the last decade of 72, with the totals varying from 68 to 79.
They have more than twice as many points as Wednesday who are second-bottom, nine points from safety. The Owls – who were deducted six points at the start of the season for breaching financial fair play rules – were on a seven-game losing run before a 1-1 draw at home to another Yorkshire neighbour in Huddersfield Town on Wednesday evening.
For Barnsley, it will be a second game in four days against one of the bottom two after their victory at Wycombe on Wednesday.
Valerien Ismael’s record in 19 games against sides below the top nine is incredible, with 16 wins, two draws – against Nottingham Forest and Derby – and one defeat at Blackburn giving them 50 points from a possible 57.
They will look to continue that tomorrow and complete another double, having won twice over Birmingham, QPR and Wycombe.
The cliche is that ‘form goes out the window in a derby’ and it is certainly not guaranteed that the Reds will win tomorrow’s South Yorkshire clash. But they will rarely have a better chance of completing a double over their bitter rivals, and securing a derby win which would take them an important step closer to a play-off place and leave them on a huge high going into the international break.
In their 12th game in 37 days, the Reds need to find one more huge effort before a two-week rest in the international break.
Dom Howson, who covers the Owls home and away, said: “This is a monumental fixture for Wednesday. They stopped the rot with a draw against Huddersfield but they badly need a win.
“The gap is not insurmountable but they are running out of time. The odds are firmly stacked against them and Darren Moore knows that.
“They will go in as big underdogs on Saturday for the first time in a long time in this derby.
“Wednesday are capable of turning the formbook upside down and they have played better against the top teams. But I don’t think many Wednesdayites think they will win this game.”
The Owls have had four managers this season, three of them former Barnsley defenders and the other Tony Pulis who was in charge for a 2-1 home loss to the Reds in December.
Darren Moore, who played 76 games for the Reds between 2008 and 2010 including their last home win over Wednesday, left a League One promotion challenge with Doncaster Rovers to take over the Owls at the start of this month.
His first game was a home derby loss to fellow strugglers Rotherham United followed by a 3-0 defeat at Reading, in which the Owls were handed a seventh red card of the season.
They then lost 2-1 at home to leaders Norwich City before the midweek draw.
Moore took over from caretaker Neil Thompson – a Barnsley hero from the 1997 promotion team – who, after winning six of his first nine games in charge in all competitions, had lost four in a row.
Thompson had replaced veteran manager Pulis who was sacked at the end of 2020 after a ten-game stint which brought just one win, having replaced another ex-Red in Garry Monk who was sacked in November with the Owls second-last.
Wednesday have not collected a point this season from a losing position, but have thrown away 25 when leading.
The Owls are the division’s second lowest scorers with 25 goals in 36 games.
Their away form, since a shock win at Bournemouth last month, has seen them lose five successive games on the road. After winning two of their first three away league games of the season, they have lost 12 of 15 away from home.
Only Wycombe have fewer away points in the Championship this season while only Luton have netted fewer goals than Wednesday’s 11 in 18 away matches.
With Keiren Westwood, Sam Hutchinson, Tom Lees, Barry Bannan, Liam Palmer and Adam Reach, they have the long-serving remnants of the side that almost reached the Premier League five years ago.
But they are now heading towards the twilight of their careers and struggling to repeat their form of old.
Barnsley collected their first win over Wednesday in 12 attempts across 11 years when they won 2-1 at Hillsborough on December 12.
Despite Josh Windass scoring in the fourth minute after an error by goalkeeper Jack Walton, Cauley Woodrow levelled following another goalkeeping mistake by ex-Red Joe Wildsmith then Dominik Frieser netted a 37th-minute winner at the end of an excellent team move.
The Reds now have the chance to complete their first double over the Owls since the 2008/09 season. In the home game that campaign, a Barnsley side including Moore won 2-1 which is the Reds’ only victory at Oakwell over the Owls in 11 attempts since 2001, with seven draws and three defeats.
Before that, there was a 3-0 victory in 2001 with Chris Morgan’s opener followed by Mike Sheron’s brace, a 2000 meeting in which Bruce Dyer got the only goal, and a 1998 Premier League 2-1 success thanks to Ashley Ward and Jan Aage Fjortoft.
Wednesday’s last four trips to their near neighbours have all brought 1-1 draws.
The last two have seen both goals scored in the first 25 minutes with Wednesday taking the lead before equalisers by Oli McBurnie in 2018 and Woodrow last year.
Before that, Angus MacDonald netted an injury-time leveller after ex-Red Sam Winnall had scored and celebrated by running almost the length of the East Stand. There will not be the usual cauldron atmosphere for these fixtures at Oakwell tomorrow but it is a vital match for both clubs for different reasons.
MICHAL HELIK V JORDAN RHODES
Former Barnsley academy player Rhodes has four goals in 26 league appearances this season, only eight of which have been starts.
He started against former clubs Norwich and Huddersfield this week, scoring on Saturday.
Rhodes is expected to be joined up front by Josh Windass who has netted in his last two meetings with Barnsley.
Whoever starts up front will take on Helik who has been imperious in recent weeks, while he and Mads Andersen are in the top ten in the Championship for clearances, interceptions and winning aerial duels.
Helik will jet off after this game for international duty with Poland and should be a threat at both ends as he has six goals this season – and Andersen has five assists.
DARYL DIKE V JULIAN BORNER
Wednesday have a centre-back crisis going into this match. With Chey Dunkley and Dominic Iorfa already injured, and Joost Van Aken just making his way back, Sam Hutchinson – who had been filling in in the back three – limped off on Wednesday evening.
German Borner is set to play in the centre of a back three with veteran Tom Lees and youngster Osaze Urhoghide either side of him.
They will be wary of Dike who revelled in the physical battle at Wycombe on Wednesday, scoring twice to continue his magnificent start to life at Barnsley.
Cauley Woodrow will look to make it three goals in as many games against the Owls while Carlton Morris is likely to be a threat from the bench again.
CALLUM STYLES V KADEEM HARRIS
Harris had a 2015 loan spell at Oakwell when Styles was still at school. They are now set to battle for supremacy on the same flank as Harris has been used by Moore as a right wing-back. Harris is yet to score this season while Styles has netted five times.