After a play-off place was secured, Doug O'Kane looks at what the Reds may need to do to reach the top flight
ENJOY ACHIEVEMENT BUT RE-FOCUS ON HUGE OPPORTUNITY
THERE have been two strong emotions detectable from Barnsley fans this week
One is an immense pride in their team for allowing them to dream of the top flight for the first time in decades and for capping an excellent season, which has brought joy in difficult times, with a place in the Championship play-offs.
The other is a growing excited tension and a sense that, while there will be no shame in losing a semi-final or final they were never expecting to participate in, the Reds may never get a better chance to return to the top level and net the £150million or so that would totally transform the club.
For the players and staff, they can’t dwell too much on their impressive recent past or their potentially glorious near future but instead they must focus on the present as they prepare for the biggest month of their careers this May.
That is no different to the approach they have had all season with Valerien Ismael – the main architect of this wonderful campaign – repeating his ‘one by one’ mantra and the players mentioning ‘one game at a time’ in every interview.
There is limited experience of the play-offs in this squad. Carlton Morris lost a League One final with Shrewsbury, Herbie Kane tasted defeat in the League One semi-finals with Doncaster Rovers and Conor Chaplin was beaten in the League Two semi-finals with Portsmouth.
This time they will face a long semi-final trip to either Swansea, Brentford or Bournemouth – three clubs who have enjoyed success since joining Barnsley in League One in 2005/06 with the Swans and Bees also in the play-offs that were won by the Reds while the Cherries came 17th.
All three have since set their sets on the Premier League – with Swansea and Bournemouth enjoying long stints there and Brentford coming very close in recent seasons – while they each have far bigger budgets than the Reds and, in theory, better squads.
Wherever they finish and whoever they face in the play-offs, Barnsley will be billed as second favourites by most.
But, although defeating Bournemouth, Swansea, or Brentford over 180 minutes will be extremely difficult, they are certainly capable of it.
They have shown consistently over the last six months that they are one of the best teams in the division and will now look to prove it again in three more games.
Barnsley’s previous three seasons have seen them dip into the relegation zone on the final day in 2018, secure promotion in the last week a year later then incredibly stay up at Brentford last year. This could be the most dramatic finish of them all and feature games and moments that are remembered by fans forever.
SUPPORTERS HOPEFULLY TO RETURN HAVING LAST WATCHED BARNSLEY SLIP TO BOTTOM
BARNSLEY fans left Oakwell on March 7 last year following a disappointing 2-0 loss to Cardiff City which put them bottom of the Championship and seven points from safety.
More than 400 days later, they could return to watch their side in the Championship play-offs.
That comes after they watched from home as their team escaped relegation in the final minutes last season then Valerien Ismael took over near the start of this extraordinary campaign and led them into the top six.
If crowds are confirmed for the play-offs, they will be in limited numbers, with about 5,000 expected at Oakwell.
Barnsley fans have never seen Romal Palmer, Callum Brittain, Michal Helik, Carlton Morris and Daryl Dike play in the flesh or Ismael patrol the touchline. Callum Styles was a teenager with one Barnsley start to his name when lockdown began.
The Reds have 92 points from 53 behind-closed-doors but a crowd behind them in the play-offs would be very helpful and a great reward for the fans’ patience and loyalty.
A STRONG FINISH IN THE FINAL TWO LEAGUE FIXTURES
BEFORE their 45th game of last season, the Reds were bottom and five points from safety but they famously netted last-minute winners to stay up in the final seconds.
This time, going into 45th match, they are guaranteed a place in the top six, having already added 28 points to last season’s tally. They now visit mid-table Preston North End tomorrow before hosting promoted Norwich City a week later in games which are essentially dead rubbers in terms of promotion or relegation for any of the clubs.
But there is still plenty to play for.
The Reds could break club records for the most points and wins at second tier level while individuals will hope to play themselves into the starting 11 for the play-offs. Barnsley will be looking to finish as high as possible with the third- and fourth-placed sides playing the second legs of the semi-finals at home, possibly with fans.
Most importantly, they need to stay in rhythm and sharp ahead of the biggest games of their careers later in May. Ismael’s attitude all season has been to pick his best team in every game including the FA Cup matches in January against Tranmere and Norwich, while he has said recently that his side performs better when their schedule is busier. The next two games are a chance for Carlton Morris, Daryl Dike and Cauley Woodrow to develop an understanding as a front three.
Under league rules, clubs have to include in their squad at least ten players who were in the squad for the previous game which, with nine substitutes now, means the Reds can change almost their entire team.
The previous manager to take the Reds to within a play-off final of the Premier League – Dave Bassett – told star player Craig Hignett to take a week’s holiday in Tenerife instead of playing the last league game of 1999/2000. That will not happen this time as, although he may rest players if they have slight injuries, Ismael will attempt to go into the play-offs in the best possible form.
NO MORE INJURED PLAYERS WITH SOME TO COME BACK
DOMINIK Frieser limped out of last week’s win at Huddersfield Town with a hamstring injury to join Herbie Kane, Liam Kitching and Ben Williams on the sidelines.
Frieser is the first regular starter to be injured for months as the Reds’ staff have done a remarkable job to keep their players fit in an unprecedently gruelling schedule.
They need to keep that going in the next month as injuries to key players could be very damaging to their promotion hopes.
Frieser, who has impressed in recent months and is crucial to Ismael’s style, could return for the play-offs as could Kane whose passing and ability to dictate a game might be vital.
This final month will require a top performance from every member of the playing squad and also the backroom staff who keep them fit and firing.