BARNSLEY’S relegation has been a case of when not if for months now.
It could happen in West Yorkshire tonight, if the Reds lose at Premier League candidates Huddersfield, or East Yorkshire tomorrow if Reading win at Hull City, or South Yorkshire a few days later when Barnsley host Blackpool on Tuesday and Preston the following Saturday.
The mood among fans seems to be split between a ‘just put us out of our misery’ mentality and a desire to see the Reds take the fight as long as possible, despite realistic hopes of survival being long extinguished, while providing a morsel of enjoyment at the end of an awful season.
Thoughts are also turning to the battle for promotion in League One in the 2022/23 season.
It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Barnsley will bounce straight back, considering the large turnover or players – and potentially staff – likely in the summer, and the collection of relatively big and ambitious clubs who now congregate in England’s third tier.
Here are some of the key questions for next season:
SQUAD LIKELY TO LOOK VERY DIFFERENT AFTER BUSY SUMMER
One of the big questions is how many, if any, of Michal Helik, Mads Andersen, Brad Collins, Callum Brittain, Callum Styles, Carlton Morris and Cauley Woodrow will play in League One for Barnsley next season?
The Reds’ chief executive Khaled El-Ahmad has admitted that the £7-8million loss for relegation will have to be offset by the sale of players.
Barnsley players’ values are difficult to assess with the market still returning to normal after the Covid-19 crisis while they have followed one excellent season playing a style of football that allegedly does not attract big offers by a terrible campaign in which most of them have been less impressive.
Helik, 26, and Woodrow, 27, both have a year remaining on their contract so are at the stage when Barnsley, under their development-for-profit philosophy, would consider moving them on anyway regardless of relegation.
Helik is, statistically, one of the best defenders in the division and could go to the World Cup this year while Woodrow, although he has had a tough season with form and injury, is a proven Championship goal-scorer.
Brittain, Styles, Andersen, Morris and Collins are also all out of contract in 2023 but, in each of their cases, the Reds announced that they had an option to increase the deals by another year.
The Reds are likely to hold out for relatively big offers for those players but, ultimately, they will all go if the price is right.
Brittain, despite dipping well below last season’s standards, was linked with a move away in January and is thought to have been of interest to several Championship clubs.
Styles has also had a poor season but, as a 22-year-old international footballer with undoubted talent, more than 150 career appearances and the ability to play in several positions – is likely to be highly sought-after.
Styles is already being linked with a move in the Turkish press to reunite with Valerien Ismael at Besitkas while Morris, Collins and Andersen all have done more than enough to interest clubs at Championship level at least.
It is likely to be a summer of gossip, rumours and drama but, if Barnsley can keep any of the above players, they should be among the better performers in their position in the third tier.
Having two or three of those players next season could form the backbone of a potential promotion contender.
The Reds have several players in contract who have been out on loan. They include Herbie Kane, who has impressed at League One Oxford in an eerily similar career move to Alex Mowatt, Jack Aitchison who could celebrate promotion to League One with Forest Green tomorrow while he has spent all of his two years as a Red on loan, and Luke Thomas who Joey Barton has said he wants to keep at Bristol Rovers despite barely using him in their League Two promotion charge.
The current Barnsley loanees are unlikely to stay as, while Remy Vita and at least one other have buy clauses in their deals, the plan was never to be activating them in League One.
After Matty Wolfe signed a new deal last week, those who are out of contract from the first team squad in the summer are Romal Palmer, Victor Adeboyejo and Will Hondermarck, while the Reds have an option to extend Aapo Halme’s contract for a year.
Both Palmer, 23, and Adeboyejo, 24, have been at the club since they were teenagers and are now approaching 100 appearances so, from that perspective, it would be shame to see them leave especially from a club which looks to develop players. They were each expected to sign new deals last summer but, after the departure of Dane Murphy and Valerien Ismael, that did not happen. Adeboyejo has never been a regular scorer or starter while Palmer has had a very difficult season but has played the fifth most games.
POYA FUTURE IN QUESTION AS REDS LOOK FOR MAN TO LEAD PROMOTION CHALLENGE
Poya Asbaghi is expected, at this point, to remain head coach for the last four matches of the season. After that, his future is unclear as, although there is a break clause in his contract.
Based on all evidence, it appears he is more likely to leave than stay but that is not certain.
The Reds want to reduce the turnover of head coaches – having had seven in four years with three caretakers – but know they must put their trust in the right person as they rebuild in League One.
The only permanent Barnsley boss with a worse win percentage than Poya in the club’s history is his predecessor Markus Schopp.
It is always difficult to tell the true opinion of the entire fanbase but, from the more vocal supporters at games and online, it appears Asbaghi is not at all popular.
That should not necessarily matter to the board if they think he is the right man for the job and fan opinions would change if he has them competing for promotion next season. But, if he has an average or poor start, he may be cut less slack due to this season than a new manager would.
The Reds had great success with an overseas boss last time in League One, with Daniel Stendel’s brand of football too much for most third tier opponents, but it is not exactly clear so far what Poya’s preferred style is since he has been operating in emergency circumstances with one of the worst teams in the division.
He is clearly a thoughtful, hard-working and respected coach who the players and staff genuinely seem to enjoy working with. But the league table since he was appointed in November places Barnsley joint bottom with Peterborough, who have an inferior goal difference, having collected 19 points from 24 matches.
He would say he took over a team very low on confidence then was down to just ten senior players in January due to injury and Covid-19 – which also sidelined him for two games – so he should be judged on results since mid-February. But, even since that point, the Reds have the 14th best record with 16 points from 13 games – when they needed play-off form at least.
Asbaghi often uses a defensive approach, which sometimes costs the Reds as they sit back far too much when in the lead. The main example was in the must-win game against Reading when they tried to defend for 85 minutes and drew, but they have done the same in various other matches and dropped costly points.
His substitutions are also a source of debate. He seems reluctant to introduce more attacking players when they are trailing and has brought on players when in the lead who make errors that lead to levellers – such as Jasper Moon at Coventry and Devante Cole against Stoke among others.
The players who come on and perform poorly must also take some responsibility as must those who recruited such a weak squad.
No coach is going to make all the right decisions, especially one new to the league in a relegation battle. It is a question of whether he has shown enough to keep his job.
GIVE LET DOWN FANS SOMETHING TO CHEER AGAIN
In this three-season spell in the Championship, the Reds have played 136 games and won 41.
If you include only the games with fans, they have won 14 out of 80, a 17.5 per cent win ratio.
Behind-closed-doors during the pandemic, they won pretty much half – 27 of 55 league games.
In fact, those 27 wins are as many as the Reds have collected from their last 148 Championship matches with fans.
That is not to suggest that playing behind-closed-doors was anything more than a small factor in last season’s fifth-place. That would be an insult to the supporters, as well as hugely patronising and disingenuous to a squad and staff who did magnificent work.
But it does intensify the misery for a fanbase who had to watch a gloriously successful spell at home before seeing a dire season live.
Last season allowed fans to dream of a repeat of 1997’s Premiership promotion while at least appearing to signal the end of constant relegation fights.
In fact, it was a bizarre, brilliant but barely believable anomaly – made more surreal as it was behind-closed-doors – standing out from a series of seasons in which the Reds have struggled in the Championship.
It should have been a platform towards at least stability but they made a total mess of last summer and have never recovered.
Then you add in the off-field problems.
There have been discussions about a groundshare with other clubs, a legal dispute between the two sets of owners – both of which understandably distress and scare supporters – the fact that Paul Conway’s mistakes last summer mainly led to this situation but he has not addressed fans publicly, and a transfer policy which seems to have gone wrong.
It is a very bad season to be a Barnsley fan – the worst in most supporters’ lifetimes in terms of results and performances regardless of division.
The season ticket sales for League One are likely to be thousands lower than this season, and not just because of the relegation.
Inboxes and postboxes at Oakwell have been inundated with hundreds of letters from fans expressing their disgust and, in many cases, explaining that they will not be returning.
Some honest answers to the above problems, and a winning team the fans can get behind would start to mend some of the wounds but, in many cases, it could take years.
GET BALANCE RIGHT WITH RECRUITMENT
Too young, too weak, too inexperienced.
That has been the case pretty much all over the pitch for Barnsley this season, but especially in central midfield where they have failed in both windows to sign a more dominant, wily leader.
It was ‘junior takeover day’ at Oakwell on Monday, with children doing various roles around the club, but it has felt like that in the team for most of this campaign in which the Reds got the balance badly wrong between developing young players and having a competitive side.
Peterborough’s January signing Jeandro Fuchs, who won the most tackles and made the most interceptions on Monday as well as helping to set up the first goal, is a Cameroon international who, while only 24, has made almost 200 career appearances.
While he is not necessarily the answer, it shows that the assertion from Oakwell that Barnsley cannot afford a ball-winning midfielder with more experience than their current callow crop is simply not true, since Peterborough are one of the few sides with a similar budget.
Much of the Reds’ budget was wasted last summer on the likes of Obbi Oulare.
Not only is the Reds’ owners’ approach not working at Barnsley, there are problems around Europe at the clubs owned by Paul Conway and Chien Lee.
AS Nancy, who play in the French second tier, could also be relegated tonight in what would be an astonishing double dip for Conway’s group.
Esbjerg may make it a hat-trick.
But, staying at Oakwell, with many players expected to leave this summer, the number of new arrivals is likely be at least heading towards double figures. What funds they have to spend will be determined by the cash they can generate mainly through player sales.
Chief executive Khaled El-Ahmad is now in full control of the planning for next season, and is set to work closely with James Cryne’s recruitment department. The Reds must surely return to their previous policy of recruiting from the lower leagues in England, as well as Scottish football, with the occasional foreign signing.
They attempted to focus mainly on the continent but Brexit put paid to that, with the type of players who qualify to move to an English club unlikely to join Barnsley especially in League One.
They will face competition from others who are also going down the development route, but Barnsley have shown before that – when there is a united approach at Oakwell between board, coach and recruitment department – the data-driven approach can yield some good signings.
It should be tweaked slightly to bring in more experience, especially in central midfield, even though that is slightly less important in League One than it is in the Championship.