THE LAST time Barnsley visited Sheffield United, in August 2017, Reds head coach Paul Heckingbottom confirmed post-match that the rumours in the morning newspapers were true and that Paul Conway and Chien Lee were close to buying the club from Patrick Cryne.
Almost five years on and Heckingbottom is now the Blades boss, while Lee and Conway are hoping to avoid a second relegation in their ownership, a year to the week after the Reds were cementing a place in the Championship play-offs with famous wins at Bournemouth and Wycombe.
Barnsley are third-bottom, two points off safety, having been nine points adrift last month, while United are ninth, a point off the play-off places.
Both look likely to be involved in battles at opposite ends of the table which go to the final day.
Barnsley are unbeaten in five at Oakwell but have taken just seven points from 18 away games this season.
They will need to cause some shocks to add much to that tally as four of their five remaining away games are at clubs with promotion ambitions while the other is at bogey club Swansea.
A derby win at Bramall Lane would take their resurgent form to a new level and send them into the final international break of the season on a major high.
It will be a first experience of a South Yorkshire derby for Poya Asbaghi.
The Reds’ Swedish head coach, 36, and Heckingbottom, 44, share the same birthday, but have had very different routes to the Championship as the Blades boss has spent his entire life in the English lower leagues while the Reds head coach was never a professional player but worked his way up the Swedish levels before being noticed by Barnsley’s data-driven model.
Heckingbottom, a boyhood Barnsley fan from Royston, won play-off finals with the Reds as a player in 2006 and head coach in 2016 when, like with the Blades now, he took over midway through the season having been under 23s coach and pushed them into promotion contention after they had been languishing near the bottom.
Hecky left Oakwell less than two months after Conway’s group officially purchased the club, exasperated with the latest in a series of disappointing transfer windows which had seen the dismantling of his side that gained promotion then flirted with the play-offs to the Premier League a year previously. He made the controversial move to Leeds United who sacked him months later and, after another short and unsuccessful spell in Scotland with Hibernian, returned to South Yorkshire as the Blades development coach.
He was first team caretaker at the end of last season in the Premier League then, after Slavisa Jokanovic’s brief tenure ended in late November, was appointed on a permanent basis and has collected 35 points from, 18 games – with only Middlesbrough taking more in that time.
The Blades did not concede a home goal in his first seven matches at Bramall Lane, until Nottingham Forest’s 95th-minute leveller earlier this month, but United responded with a 4-1 thrashing of fellow high-flyers Middlesbrough last week. This week they were stunned by a 4-1 loss at Coventry City on Saturday then drew 0-0 at Blackpool on Wednesday. They have been without 11 players due to an injury crisis.
Nathan Hemmingham, who covers the Blades for Yorkshire Live, said: “United have been in great form under Hecky, having a similar impact to the one he had at Oakwell when taking over during the promotion-winning season of League One. They have lost just three in 18 league games and have climbed from 16th in the table at the time of his appointment to ninth, a point behind the play-offs. It’s been an incredible rise up the table and they are right in the thick of the promotion picture. However, they had four games called off over Christmas, which has led to a brutal fixture period of three games a week since the start of February and that has taken its toll with a host of injuries now leaving his squad down to the bare bones. They have one more game to go before the international break, which will be most welcome to hopefully get some players back for the final run-in.”
Heckingbottom has three players in his squad who worked with him at Oakwell, in Conor Hourihane, Adam Davies and Oli McBurnie.
All three had fine spells with the Reds but have struggled for gametime at United this season.
Goalkeeper Davies – who played more than 200 times for Barnsley from 2014 and 2019 – signed from Stoke in January but is yet to play due to the excellent form of Wes Foderingham.
Hourihane – the legendary Reds midfielder who captained them to the 2016 promotion – was mainly a substitute under Jokanovic but has made ten of his 13 league starts this season under Heckingbottom. He was on the bench on Tuesday alongside Davies and five youngsters.
The Irish international, who played 135 Barnsley games, is on loan from Aston Villa having helped previous loan club Swansea knock the Reds out of the play-offs last May.
Hourihane is yet to score for the Blades as is, this season, striker McBurnie who they signed from Swansea for £20million in 2019. He has played 24 league games, mainly from the bench.
He came on then off again on Saturday with an injury but is likely to return for the derby.
Heckingbottom thought he had signed McBurnie for Barnsley in August 2017 but a paperwork error meant the loan deal from Swansea did not go through. He joined in January 2018, weeks before Heckingbottom left, and excelled with nine goals in 17 appearances but could not prevent relegation. McBurnie netted in Barnsley’s 3-2 win over Sheffield United under Jose Morais in 2018 at Oakwell.
That is their only win in the last six meetings, while they have won just three of 17 since 2001. Jokanovic’s United won 3-2 at Oakwell in October. It was 0-0 at half-time but Lys Mousset, who has now been loaned out, scored twice early in the second half then Ben Osborn made it 3-0.
The home crowd’s fury was tempered by late strikes from Devante Cole and Aaron Leya Iseka.