THE BARNSLEY fanbase is hurting, badly.
That is not only because of the unprecedentedly bad results on the pitch which have seen record-breakingly low totals of two wins, 14 points and 16 goals from 24 games, leaving them eight points from safety and second-bottom in the Championship.
It is not just because, after finishing fifth last season, they have produced a series of extremely poor performances with the dominated midfield and ineffective attack major problems.
But it is also because of some very concerning off-the-field issues.
This ownership group came within two games of taking the club to the top flight for the second time in their 135-year history.
But it is clear that Paul Conway and Chien Lee’s group have made mistakes and very unclear what their ultimate motives are.
A series of controversies have erupted in recent months.
Tomorrow’s FA Cup match is due to be the final game for which fans are not allowed in the West Stand, following its controversial closure in October which prompted fury from the Supporters’ Trust and bemusement from the landlords Barnsley Council.
About 150 fans took the option to refund their season tickets rather than be moved elsewhere in the ground and possibly be split up from elderly relatives.
It is understood that about 100 of them are still yet to reclaim their season tickets.
The Chronicle has been told the main official reason for the closure was to obtain independent safety reports, rather than because the repairs would take a long time.
That begs the question: why weren’t those reports commissioned in May or June so they would be done by the start of the season?
Until more information is provided, theories of a powerplay to scare the ground owners – the council and Cryne family – will abound.
Then there are the ongoing stories of the club’s majority owners sounding out other clubs about a future groundshare and exit from Oakwell – which the Chronicle understand to be accurate.
Conway repeated this month to The Athletic’s ‘In The Boardroom’ podcast he was ‘keeping alternatives open but the goal is to stay at Oakwell.’
Opinion is split on whether this is a scare tactic to force the stadium owners to compromise on the rent agreement and update the stadium, or a genuine threat to move the club elsewhere like with Wimbledon and Coventry City.
Either way, it is a deeply unsettling prospect for supporters which only serves to further alienate them from the club and owners.
Then there is the transfer policy of recruiting young and unknown players.
It has brought great success but it is a delicate balance which went wrong last summer.
After making a series of so far unsuccessful signings, they left themselves with a central midfield which is young, raw and inexperienced.
Everyone could see it could become a problem except, apparently, those in charge.
That has been compounded by not recalling the club’s in-form midfielder Herbie Kane this month from his successful loan at Oxford.
The owners have always been clear that they will develop and sell talent. But the refusal to sign more experienced players, along with chief executive Khaled El-Ahmad’s pronouncement that last season’s successful style of play was shelved as it did not create ‘value in the squad’, depicts the club as a factory of sellable assets with winning games or keeping fans happy secondary.
Then there is the lack of communication out of the club.
El-Ahmad is due to speak to the press and some supporters’ groups this month, which will be a positive forward step.
Co-chairman Conway did a very rare interview with the local press in September when he said the gap to the rest of the Championship was shrinking and predicted regular promotion challenges. He recently said he wanted to take Barnsley to the Premier League but ‘a slower way than other clubs.’
Those in positions of power need to show leadership, answer questions on the issues laid out above and below, as well as other topics, and remind fans they care.
Some may say it is more important that they are working hard behind the scenes on transfers rather than chatting to fans and media, but the months-long cloak of silence does nothing to improve the mood on the terraces.
For the last home game, against West Bromwich Albion on December 17, thousands season of ticket holders did not turn up. That was evident from the large gaps in the East Stand particularly, and confirmed by club staff to the Chronicle.
That may have been because the match was on a Friday evening, on Sky TV, in terrible weather, and supporters had to show the newly-introduced ‘Covid pass’ to gain entry. But many of them will have decided not to attend because of the way things are going on and off the pitch.
There are three home games across the next eight days – as long as there are no further Covid cancellations – and the crowd size in all of them will be interesting to note, as will season ticket take-up when they go on sale in a few months.
Away crowds, which were around the 1,000-mark for long journeys to Fulham and Peterborough, are getting smaller and smaller despite recent trips being shorter. Support at Oakwell and on the road is starting to be trimmed down to the real diehards who will back the team no matter what, and even their patience is being tested.
It is impossible to blame any fan for staying away at the moment but it should be concerning to the club that, at a time when funds are tight due to Covid, their chief source of revenue – other than player sales – is dwindling due to the lack of a good product on the pitch and a general feeling of contempt towards the club from some.
The Reds are hurtling towards relegation, and a £7million loss they will look to offset by selling several key players and leaving what looks to be a soft underbelly and not as strong a squad as the one that bounced straight back from the last relegation in 2018. That can still be avoided, with 22 games remaining and 66 points to play for, of which they will probably need about half to stay up. To do that, they must have an excellent transfer window, with midfield strengthened and more goal threat found, and Poya Asbaghi must get his first win in the next week followed by several more in quick succession.
From tomorrow, Barnsley play six games in 21 days after just four in 42. They surely have to, in that time, at least double their current tally of two league wins to have any chance of staying up.
If their awful form continues, the gap to safety will likely be well into double figures this month which may impact transfer window decisions.
Even if they get better results, many Reds supporters will still be unsettled until the off-the-field problems are addressed.