BARNSLEY’S 2022/23 season feels much closer after the appointment of head coach Michael Duff was followed in the last week by a flurry of transfers in and out, the start of full pre-season training and yesterday’s fixture list reveal.
The instant headline was that Duff’s first competitive game at Oakwell will be against Cheltenham Town – the club he left last week to join the Reds.
The opening match of the season at Plymouth Argyle is, for those fans who follow the club home and away, surely an excellent first trip.
It gets the longest journey of the season out of the way early and provides a chance, for those who can, to go to Devon for a weekend in July.
But it will probably be a hard match, as Plymouth collected 80 points last season and missed out on the play-offs on goal difference.
It looks to be a difficult first month in general.
After a trip to Derby County – who are currently in administration with very few players and could face more points deductions – then a home match with Joey Barton’s Bristol Rovers, Barnsley take on Wycombe, Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and Portsmouth in successive games.
Those last four opponents should – although it is impossible to truly know in June – be competing towards the top end of the table and, as last season’s play-off final losers and three of the best-funded and best-supported sides in the division, should provide a very good early marker of how good the Reds are.
October brings the first ever league meetings with Morecambe and Forest Green Rovers then, after a November with just two scheduled league matches, the Boxing Day trip to Accrington Stanley is another that will excite those who enjoyed the last game there in 2018.
The Reds will do more than 3,000 miles of travelling in the upcoming season with the majority of opponents based in the south and only bitter rivals Wednesday within 50 miles of Oakwell.
But the midweek fixtures have been kind, with only two weeknight away matches at the relatively nearby Lincoln and Port Vale.
If Barnsley are in promotion contention, the final matches of the season against Oxford United, MK Dons and Peterborough United could be huge as those sides can be reasonably expected to be competing in the top half as well.
But will the Reds be in promotion contention?
The ousting of Paul Conway and Chien Lee from the board, and the appointment of an impressive young head coach has started to lift some of the gloom that settled over the club last season, with the new board and new gaffer all saying the right things in their introductory press conferences. They need to build on that with good work in the transfer market – with the signing of highly-rated centre-back Robbie Cundy a positive start – then, most importantly, good results on the pitch. Though, in both cases, patience may be required with changes in the squad expected while the players’ belief may need restoring after relegation.
With Cauley Woodrow off to Luton Town, it seems safe to assume that Callum Styles and Michal Helik are highly likely to follow him out of the Oakwell exit door in the coming weeks.
They are both internationals who are understood to have a host of suitors and two of the players likely to generate the biggest sales.
It then becomes a question of – with few multi-million deals expected for EFL clubs this summer – how much of the roughly £8million losses from dropping into League One those transfers clear. That will decide whether the Reds have to sell others for cut price deals or refuse unless their valuation is met.
There is a very different mindset from the one that would have probably been at Oakwell had Conway and Lee still been in charge, with their distant dictatorship and money-making priorities crippling the club. The new board have put in £1million and say there is more to come.
The likes of Carlton Morris, Mads Andersen, Brad Collins and Callum Brittain are thought to be highly-rated by other clubs but Barnsley will be thinking that, if finances allow, they could form the spine of an excellent League One side.
How many, if any, of them leave could be crucial for Barnsley’s season – as will the players who are brought in.
Assuming Woodrow, Helik and Styles all leave, as well as out-of-contract duo Romal Palmer and Victor Adeboyejo who have not been in training, the Reds will need – at the bare minimum – a left wing-back, at least one more central midfielder, and probably another striker.
As well as those specific positions, the Reds desperately need some more experience injected into the team. Duff is now assessing the squad, working out who ‘wants to be here’ and who will fit into his 3-5-2 system as well as his style of play and general ethos which involves ‘no egos’ and a high level of physical fitness.
There will be plenty of twists and turns before and after that opening day trip to Devon.