Doug O’Kane looks ahead to a South Yorkshire derby against Sheffield United, with both teams struggling to change style and find good form
DERBY wins can make a manager’s tenure but defeats can end them.
A victory on Sunday could be a turning point in the so far miserable tenure of Markus Schopp at Oakwell, albeit one that is hard to imagine given their woeful form, terrible scoring record and rank performance in Middlesbrough on Wednesday.
There would still be a lot of work to do to turn around a sceptical fanbase, many of whom would point out that Jose Morais – the last manager to attract the level of contempt now heeped on Schopp – beat the Blades but took Barnsley down.
But it would certainly be a step in the right direction, as would a rare goal or two.
About 4,000 Blades fans are expected while this will be the first home game since the West Stand’s closure to supporters, a controversial decision which may add an undercurrent of discontent depending on what happens on the pitch.
The visiting fans will surely be expecting to cheer their side to victory, although they have not had much to celebrate themselves of late.
Both clubs are struggling to recreate the success of their best managers in recent years who each left earlier in 2021.
Chris Wilder took the Blades from League One to ninth in the Premier League in three years.
But, after collecting just two points from the first 17 games last season, they finished bottom with former Barnsley head coach Paul Heckingbottom finishing the season as caretaker following Wilder’s March exit.
Heckingbottom has now returned to his role as under 23s manager with Serbian Slavisa Jokanovic taking over.
Jokanovic has previously gained promotion to the Premier League with both Watford and Fulham, doing the double twice over the Reds with the Cottagers.
He had a disappointing start to this season, with the Blades collecting only 12 points from the first 11 games despite being among the favourites for promotion.
But this week they won 2-1 at home to Stoke City on Saturday – with goals in the 80th and 83rd minutes – then lost 2-1 at home to Millwall on Tuesday. The Blades had Morgan Gibbs-White sent off at 1-1 on 54 minutes then conceded in injury-time.
That left them, 17th in the table, six points off the play-offs and seven clear of the Reds.
Their away form has been poor, with just one win in six on the road while they failed to score in four of those games.
Reporter Nathan Hemmingham said: “United, like Barnsley, really need a win on Sunday. They have slipped to 17th in the table and have won just four times - three of those wins have come against bottom five teams. United are in a transition period having appointed Slavisa Jokanovic in the summer following five years with Chris Wilder. The new manager is trying to shape the squad into his own style and is playing a very different way to Wilder’s and it’s taking time. A lot longer than fans expected. Promotion was very much the aim from the board at the start of the season but United find themselves behind the curve and with a lot of work to do to catch up with those at the top end of the table.
“In the games where United have clicked and it’s all come together they have looked really tasty indeed. However, they are vulnerable at the back and, despite an experienced ‘keeper and back four, they are conceding a lot of avoidable goals and only four teams have conceded more.”
The Blades spent about £120million during their two years in the top flight and their squad is still full of eight-figure signings such as £20million Norway midfielder Sander Berge and £23million striker Rhian Brewster who have both made little impact so far.
The same could be said of ex-Red Oliver McBurnie who has scored eight goals in 76 appearances since signing for £20million from Swansea.
He has no goals on nine Championship appearances this season and was an unused substitute in both games this week.
McBurnie was outstanding in a 2018 loan spell at Oakwell, netting nine goals in 17 games for the relegated Reds including one in a win over Sheffield United.
Another very popular former Barnsley player at Bramall Lane is Conor Hourihane.
The Irish midfielder captained the Reds to promotion from League One in 2016 with his stunning late equaliser against the Blades at Oakwell proving a crucial moment in the campaign.
He is on loan from Aston Villa, having helped previous loan club Swansea beat Barnsley in the play-offs last season. Hourihane has started twice and come off the bench five times. He was taken off after 38 minutes on Tuesday.
After Sunday’s derby, Barnsley visit Bristol City – the only Championship side without a home win this season – a week tomorrow then host bottom four sides Derby County and Hull City before the next international break. It is not exactly a cruel fixture list for a side desperately trying to find their form and this run of five straight losses, winless in 11, simply has to stop.
CAULEY WOODROW V JOHN EGAN
Captain Woodrow is Barnsley’s only scorer in eight games since August.
His main rival in this game may actually be United manager Slavisa Jokanovic who forced him out of Fulham with limited opportunities.
Egan has excelled for the Blades in defence while he has netted twice this season. Alongside the Irish international is likely to be Ben Davies who signed on loan from Liverpool in the summer, having been a surprise recruit for the then Premier League champions from Preston.
Barnsley have seven goals this season but the player with three of them, Woodrow, is being asked to drop deeper and take set pieces rather than get in the box while Dominik Frieser, who has two, has been an unused substitute in the last two games.
Claudio Gomes v John Fleck
Gomes was one of the few Barnsley players to play well on Wednesday, at least in the first half.
He deserves to stay in the team on Sunday and could be joined in a central two by Josh Benson, if deemed fit enough after injury, or Romal Palmer.
With Callum Styles back at left wing-back, that would at least give a more balanced look to the Barnsley side.
Fleck, who has five caps for Scotland, and Oliver Norwood form an experienced and talented central midfield.
They are good passers but could be ‘got at’ if the Reds can press and hassle them with little time on the ball.
Michal Helik v Billy Sharp
Sharp has four goals and four assists this season.
The 35-year-old striker has 118 Championship goals which puts him just behind David Nugent and Ross McCormack as the division’s third highest scorer ever.
But he only has two goals in 16 games against Barnsley, although one was the last time they visited Bramall Lane.
Helik will look to keep him quiet and look for support from those around him to stop the runs of United’s three attacking midfielders. Barnsley will be glad that Wolves loanee Morgan Gibbs-White, who has impressed this season on the wing, is suspended.