Where do you even start to analyse Barnsley’s magical, history-making and potentially club-changing season which, following this week’s results, will end in a play-off campaign?
Do you go back to when Patrick Cryne – having saved the club from financial oblivion as the second tier promotion challenges of 1997 and 2000 faded into distant memory – decided after relegation in 2014 to abandon the old strategy of recruiting journeymen and focus on only developing young talent?
You could concentrate on the current owners, who took over from Cryne in 2017 and – despite worrying legal disputes off-the-pitch – have delivered two of the club’s four highest points tallies ever in their first three full seasons in charge and made increasingly excellent decisions in the appointment of head coaches and recruitment of players.
Perhaps it is right to date this rise back to July 22 last year when Barnsley, having spent 311 days in the relegation zone and been nine points adrift with 14 games left, won in the last seconds at promotion-chasing Brentford to finish a coronavirus-ravaged season just clear of the bottom three, thanks in part to Wigan’s 12-point deduction.
Then we have the appointment of Valerien Ismael in late October, following Gerhard Struber’s exit to New York Red Bulls and the joint longest wait for a first league victory of a season in a century since 1920.
The Frenchman took over a side who were fourth-bottom, above the drop zone on goal difference.
He has won 23 of his 37 matches, drawing four – as many as in the seven games before he arrived – and losing ten, producing an astonishing total of 73 points and taking the Reds into the play-offs with two games to spare which could see them finish as high as third.
At the end of a week which saw six Premier League clubs attempt to create a European Super League, prompting furious reactions, Barnsley securing a top six place was a reminder that football is not always about money and that the so-called smaller clubs should keep dreaming.
This week has also brought the 40th anniversary of Barnsley’s 1981 promotion under Norman Hunter and the 24th since Danny Wilson’s side reached the top flight.
This team could be remembered with similar fondness in decades to come .
They have broken all kinds of records – six straight away victories, seven successive second tier wins, 11 away wins in a second tier season – while they could break more in the next two weeks as they prepare for the play-offs which will hopefully see the return of fans to Oakwell.
They have won as many league games, 23, as the squad’s average age.
It has been a simply astonishing performance from Ismael, his staff and his team which, whatever happens in the play-offs, should be regarded as one of the club’s greatest ever campaigns.
By the halfway point, they were already on course for one of their best second tier seasons this century, thanks mainly to an excellent December in which they collected 18 points with a series of come-from-behind wins. But it was the seven-match winning run from mid-February until early March – inspired by terrifying Chelsea in an FA Cup defeat then ending Brentford’s 20-game unbeaten run – which catapulted them into the top six.
Summer signings Michal Helik and Callum Brittain have been exceptional, while January transfer window arrivals Carlton Morris and Daryl Dike have 16 goals in 17 starts between them and have transformed Barnsley’s attack.
Centre-back Mads Andersen has gone from liability to linchpin in a transition which could have been taken from the fairytale stories of namesake and countryman Hans Christian, while his success shows that the club’s youth-based transfer policy and data-driven recruitment is working.
Alex Mowatt is having a season that his mentor and predecessor as Reds captain Neil Redfearn would have been proud of while Callum Styles is one of the division’s most exciting talents and Cauley Woodrow has 13 goals and six assists in all competitions. Good luck picking a player of the year.
Every member of the squad has contributed to getting Barnsley into the play-offs. That might be Brad Collins’ recent excellence in goal, Victor Adeboyejo’s winner against Preston after Ismael brought him in from the wilderness, Romal Palmer replacing Matty James in central midfield, reliable Austrians Michael Sollbauer and Dominik Frieser, or Toby Sibbick excelling after coming back to the club. Various players top Championship stats tables while, as a team, the Reds have made the most tackles, clearances and blocked passes of any side, as well as the third most interceptions, while they have conceded the fewest shots on goal.
Their style of play has turned opposition managers into an army of 1997 Mark McGhee impersonators – condemning Barnsley’s ‘direct’ approach, usually after losing to them having played more long balls than the Reds in order to avoid being caught out by the relentless pressing of Ismael’s team.
Although it is heart-breaking that fans have not been in the stadium to cheer every win and goal, more of them than ever before have been able to watch every match at home whereas usually only a diehard core of a few hundred would attend each away fixture in a normal season.
Many supporters must be wrestling with the dual emotions of total pride at the last 44 games but also nerves and tension over the next few as opportunities like this do not come along very often for one of the lowest-budget clubs in the division. Given everything we have seen in the last year, you would be foolish to rule out promotion.