Doug O’Kane looks at the head coach situation and the six games before Christmas
AFTER the sacking of the hapless Markus Schopp, last Wednesday’s win over Derby County – which stopped them going bottom while ending a horror run of seven losses and 13 without a win – and the return from injuries of key players, Barnsley looked to be in a much better place.
But Saturday’s pathetic loss to fellow strugglers Hull suggested the problems may run deeper than one bad managerial appointment.
This is a young squad badly lacking confidence and in desperate need of a strong manager to come in and give them clarity, belief and momentum ahead of a vital run of games.
The small fire in one of the floodlights on Saturday added to the sense of a club falling apart but, just like that blaze was put out, the Reds can save themselves.
This group of players – although lacking experience and consistency, especially in central midfield – should not be second-bottom of the Championship.
The likes of Cauley Woodrow and Callum Brittain have dipped well below last season’s standard of performance while, Aaron Leya Iseka and Josh Benson aside, the summer signings are yet to make a major impact. Iseka’s countryman Obbi Oulare has played just 15 minutes with Joe Laumann saying he was not injured but ‘didn’t feel good’ for Saturday’s game.
The balance of the squad is not quite right, even allowing for the Reds’ focus on developing youngsters.
The under 23s’ central midfield on Monday against Hull of Isaac Christie-Davies and Will Hondermarck was older combined than the first team midfield of Josh Benson and Claudio Gomes against the same club two days earlier. Schopp and caretaker Laumann have continued to use Valerien Ismael’s 3-4-3 formation despite it clearly not working without the organisation and discipline the Frenchman instilled in his team.
Barnsley have now won 11 games of their last 61 in front of fans compared to 31 of their 61 behind-closed doors. The theory that the crowd’s absence was a major factor in last season’s success has never made much sense, and is patronising to the players who finished fifth, but it is so cruel that the fans watched such good times from home and have returned to another bleak relegation fight.
The bottom six are in danger of being cut adrift from the rest of the division and, within that, Barnsley are already four points behind fourth-bottom Peterborough United, who they visit this month, and fifth-bottom Cardiff City who are also looking for a new manager.
The run-up to Christmas is far from an easy fixture list, especially compared to the last block of six games which were all against teams currently in the bottom half and brought just three points.
In between games against top three sides Fulham and West Brom, they take on Swansea, who ended their Premier League dreams in May, and a Huddersfield team currently just outside the play-offs.
But they also visit Peterborough, who currently have the worst defensive record in English professional football, and another bottom eight side in Preston.
Here is a look at the next six fixtures:
FULHAM A, NOVEMBER 20
This appears, in theory, to be the ultimate home banker for the Cottagers. Marco Silva’s men are the highest scorers by 13 with 44 while Aleksandar Mitrovic’s astonishing 20 goals from 17 starts is more than more than half the Championship clubs have scored this season, including Barnsley with 12.
They recently won 7-0 at Blackburn Rovers, one of six successive victories which puts them second. They have kept five clean sheets in a row. Their matchday squad will likely have been recruited for more than £100million.
Second-bottom Barnsley are the only Championship side who have not won away from home this season while no side have scored fewer than their five goals on the road. They have lost four straight away games for the first time since losing the final six away games of the 2017/18 relegation season.
But, the last two times the sides met, Fulham were also huge favourites and lost 1-0 at Oakwell in August 2019 and 3-0 at Craven Cottage the following February.
Another result like that could kickstart the Reds’ season.
SWANSEA H, NOVEMBER 24
The last time Swansea visited Oakwell, just six months ago, Barnsley were two wins from the Premier League and an incredibly excited home crowd of about 4,000 returned for the first time in more than a year.
This time the Reds will be hoping to mark a new head coach’s first home match with a win and get revenge for the play-off loss. Like Barnsley, the Welsh club lost the manager who took them into the play-offs with Steve Cooper leaving well into pre-season then joining Nottingham Forest in September.
The Swans recruited Russell Martin from MK Dons who, after one win in the first eight league games, has won five of the last ten – although they were thrashed 4-0 at leaders Bournemouth in the final game before the break which left them 12th.
Martin has been linked with a move to Rangers this week.
They have collected just eight points from nine games on the road, conceding 18 goals which is the second most in the division. Swansea are unbeaten in 14 against Barnsley.
PETERBOROUGH UNITED A, NOVEMBER 27
The final match in a busy three-game week before the schedule settles down with one match per week until after Christmas.
Barnsley have won their last three games against the Posh without conceding, including a 4-0 rout on their last visit to London Road in League One in October 2018.
The newly-promoted Posh are currently fourth-bottom so this is likely to be a very important match in Barnsley’s quest to get out of the bottom three.
Darren Ferguson’s side have conceded 32 goals this season which is the most of any team in the top seven levels of English football.
Mark Beevers, from Higham, is one of their defenders while their top-scorer Siriki Dembele had a trial at Barnsley.
HUDDERSFIELD TOWN, H, DECEMBER 4
This will be the third successive weekend match at Oakwell against a fellow Yorkshire club – and very probably under a third different manager.
The defeats to Sheffield United and Hull City were humiliating days for the club – bar the last 15 minutes against the Blades.
Huddersfield were expected by many to struggle this season after winning just three of their final 25 games in the last campaign. But they have been in the play-off places for much of the season and are now eighth, 14 points clear of Barnsley.
They have not won any of their last five away games and visit QPR before travelling to Oakwell.
December was the month when the Reds motored up the table under Valerien Ismael last season, including a Boxing Day home win over Huddersfield, and they need something similar to end 2021.
PRESTON NORTH END, A, DECEMBER 11
This game is almost a year to the day since Victor Adeboyejo’s late winner against Preston at Oakwell last season.
North End looked to be in trouble after losing their first three games of the season, under Frankie McCoy in his first campaign as manager. But they have lost just three of the next 14 and pulled off one of the results of the season so far last week with a 2-1 win at previously-unbeaten leaders Bournemouth. They are 17th but ten points clear of Barnsley.
Ex-Reds Brad Potts and Liam Lindsay have mainly been warming the bench this season.
After this game, Barnsley return to the North West for their final away match of the year at Blackburn Rovers on December 29.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION, H, DECEMBER 18
The majority of Barnsley fans will finally see Valerien Ismael in the flesh – in the opposition dugout for this Friday fixture, following his astonishing success as Reds head coach in last season’s behind-closed-doors Championship.
That is assuming he is still West Brom manager by then as many of their fans appear to be turning against him and his direct brand of football despite the Baggies currently lying third in the table.
Alex Mowatt, who followed Ismael to the Black Country after his Barnsley contract expired in the summer, had been a regular in midfield and has three goals, but is currently injured.
The Reds are unbeaten in five meetings with WBA since 2007, including two draws against the promotion-bound Baggies in 2019/20.
After this game, which marks the halfway point in the season, Barnsley host another Midlands side currently in the top five when Stoke City arrive on Boxing Day.