With the Reds fifth, and five points clear in the play-off places, Doug O’Kane looks at the remarkable position Valerien Ismael has put them in and the final eight fixtures of a potentially history-making season
WE ARE now in the calm before the storm.
A two-week hiatus for Barnsley supporters to bask in the achievements of the last few months and dream about what could happen in the next two.
We have just seen one of the club’s greatest ever sequences of results, in which they picked up almost a point per day between mid-February and mid-March.
Their nine wins from ten included five successive away victories for the first time ever at this level while travelling 1,926 miles which is the same distance as from Oakwell to Greenland.
While the 12-match unbeaten run came to an end with a disappointing 2-1 derby defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, the Reds are still fifth in the table and well on course for one of their highest points totals ever at second tier level.
They can be very proud of their efforts heading into a well-deserved two-week break – except for those on international duty – but they will know they return for potentially the most important eight games of their careers.
There is a long way to go and it will take another monumental effort, but the next nine weeks could contain moments and matches that are remembered for decades to come.
Valerien Ismael – mastermind of this most unlikely of promotion charges and instant Oakwell cult hero despite never being seen in the flesh by the vast majority of Barnsley fans – has said his team will need four wins from their remaining eight matches to finish in the top six.
That seems reasonable, as it would take Barnsley to 76 points which is four more than the average required to reach the play-offs in the last decade.
The only way they will need more than four wins is if two of the four sides immediately below them have sensational ends to the season.
Barnsley are used to nervous run-ins in which every game counts – several of this squad were involved in the 2019 promotion race in League One while the majority experienced the incredible run to safety last summer. This is a group that thrives under pressure.
Their first focus must be on the Easter games against Reading and Luton Town, the two clubs who beat them in the first two games of the season when they were a very different, goal-shy, ponderous side under the wantaway Gerhard Struber.
After that, the schedule calms down with just one midweek fixture – compared to six in a row before the international break – so they will have plenty of time to stay fresh and work on the training pitch.
It would be tempting to conclude that, if Barnsley can collect four or six points in their next two home games against teams just below them in Reading and Middlesbrough, then they will almost certainly reach the play-offs as five of the other games are against bottom half sides.
Barnsley have an outstanding record under Ismael against sides not in the nine-team promotion fight, collecting 50 points from a possible 60.
But Saturday’s defeat shows every game is a huge battle and that the table is not always a reliable predictor, especially in the frantic final weeks of a season with some teams battling for promotion or against relegation while others have nothing to play for.
Here is a look at the last eight games:
READING, HOME, APRIL 2
This 5.30pm Good Friday match pits the fifth-placed Reds against the sixth-placed Royals and could set the tone for both of their run-ins.
Reading won seven and drew one of their first eight games – including 2-0 at home to Barnsley when Michal Helik and Mads Andersen were both sent off – but their form since then has been more mid-table, with 40 points collected from 30 games compared to 57 for the Reds in that time. Victory in this game – after wins over Watford, Bournemouth and Brentford – would put to bed the theory that Barnsley struggle against their promotion rivals. The Royals are undefeated in the last seven games against Barnsley, winning four including the last two, while they have not lost at Oakwell in a league game since the opening weeks of the Reds’ 1996/97 promotion season.
LUTON TOWN, AWAY, APRIL 5
If Barnsley win this Easter Monday game in Bedfordshire, they will have collected six successive away victories for the first time in their history.
It will also be a club record for the most away wins in a second tier season, with ten. But Luton will be keen to break that run, just as they ended Barnsley’s potentially club record-equalling series of home clean sheets with a 1-0 win at Oakwell on the first day of the league season. Kenilworth Road – where Barnsley were due to play on the Easter weekend last season before coronavirus extended the campaign – is a happy hunting ground for the Reds, as they won six league visits in a row from 1994 to 2007 before drawing the last two.
This is Barnsley’s longest remaining trip of the season, to a side who are very much in mid-table with double-figure gaps to the top six and bottom three.
MIDDLESBROUGH, HOME, APRIL 10
A second successive home match against one of the teams attempting to catch Barnsley.
Boro are currently ninth, four places and eight points below the Reds so may well have to win at Oakwell to overhaul Valerien Ismael’s team in the final league table.
Neil Warnock, the Middlesbrough manager, recently said his side were unlikely to catch the Reds who he praised for their form while repeating that his 1970s spell at Oakwell was his happiest as a player.
Warnock has faced Barnsley 17 times as a manager, losing just three.
Boro – who beat Gerhard Struber’s Barnsley in a September league game weeks after losing to them in the EFL Cup – have former Reds loanees Sam Morsy and Ashley Fletcher.
COVENTRY CITY, AWAY, APRIL 18
In the last year, Barnsley have ended long waits for away wins at various clubs, triumphing twice at QPR’s Loftus Road after a 70 years of trying as well as gaining rare victories at Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Bristol City.
Coventry City is the longest wait of them all as the Reds have not beaten the Sky Blues in 25 away games since 1923, losing 18.
Those fixtures have been at Highfield Road, the Ricoh Arena, Northampton Town’s Sixfields and this time Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s where Cov are tenants before returning to the Ricoh next season.
But Mark Robins’ team are in danger of also returning to League One as they are just two places and four points clear of the bottom three.
Matty James could face his former club Barnsley.
HUDDERSFIELD TOWN, AWAY, APRIL 21
This Wednesday match is located in the middle of a week of games against sides currently in the bottom seven.
Carlos Corberan’s Terriers will hope to have increased the current seven-point gap between them and the relegation zone by the time of this fixture but will need a substantial improvement in form as they have won two of 15 games in 2021.
Only last-placed Wycombe Wanderers have conceded more goals than Huddersfield with 52 but Town have collected two thirds of their points at home.
Barnsley have lost their last three trips to the John Smith’s Stadium where they have not won in the league since 2004.
ROTHERHAM UNITED, HOME, APRIL 24
The Millers make this short trip to Oakwell during what is likely to be an exhausting end to the season.
Due to a series of postponements after Covid-19 outbreaks in their camp, they have played four games fewer than most other clubs in the division so have 12 fixtures to fit into the final five weeks.
Rotherham – currently third-bottom and three points from safety – are due to play on Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday the week before they go to Oakwell, which will be a sixth game in two weeks for the Millers.
Barnsley have not lost any of their last ten games against United since 1982 – winning seven including the 2-1 success in the final game of 2020.
PRESTON NORTH END, AWAY, MAY 1
Barnsley’s 5-1 loss at Deepdale in September 2019, which prompted the sacking of Daniel Stendel, seems far longer ago than just last season.
They may come up against two players from the last Reds promotion season in Brad Potts and Liam Lindsay. But they will not face their former midfielder Alex Neil who was sacked this week, with Frankie McAvoy made head coach for the rest of the season.
North End just missed out on the play-offs last season but have spent most of this one in the bottom half.
Only bottom club Wycombe have lost more than their 20 Championship games this season than 16th-placed Preston who have 15 goals and 19 points from their 19 games at Deepdale.
NORWICH CITY, HOME, MAY 8
This, in theory, could not be a more difficult final game for the Reds as Norwich are currently runaway leaders and have by far the best away record in the division, with 13 wins on the road.
However, the Canaries – 14 points clear in the top two and eight ahead of second – are likely to be promoted when they visit Oakwell.
While it would be slanderous to suggest City boss Daniel Farke would take it easy on friend Valerien Ismael if Barnsley need a win or draw to secure a place in the top six, Norwich may arrive with nothing to play for except perhaps a three-figure points total.
Barnsley have proven they can defeat Norwich this season with an excellent FA Cup win in January.