HILLSBOROUGH is always an emotional place for Michael Duff to visit but now he will hope it is where he kick-starts Barnsley’s season with derby win over Sheffield Wednesday.

The Reds’ head coach was an 11-year-old watching the FA Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest, whose youth team he then played for, and Liverpool – who he supported – in 1989 when the disaster struck which claimed the lives of Liverpool 97 fans.

He has previously spoken of seeing people desperately searching for loved ones on the pitch and his ‘disgust’ at how long it has taken to get justice for the families of those who died.

He does not enjoy returning to Hillsborough, which he has done on numerous occasions as a player and now coach, and always has a ‘five-minute spell to myself before the game starts then when the whistle blows it’s just a game of football.’

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When that whistle blows tomorrow, his focus will turn to securing a first away win of the season, and building on the gutsy display on another tough trip to Ipswich Town.

There are still major question marks over whether Barnsley have the quality to compete with the best sides in the division, many of whom they will or have faced in this difficult opening set of fixtures.

It has been an inconsistent start, as many expected after last season’s horrorshow and a summer of change. They have been poor in some games but shown brief glimpses of a high-quality League One team in others – while they have ranged from resembling the broken, beaten side of last season to putting in heroic efforts like at Ipswich to secure a point.

There must be no questioning of their attitude in this South Yorkshire derby but they will likely to have to be very near their best to compete with one of the division’s strongest sides.

This will be the 88th meeting of the two clubs, with Barnsley winning 23 and losing 37.

The Reds have good recent memories of Hillsborough, having triumphed 2-1 there in December 2020 under Valérien Ismaël, with Dominik Frieser nutmegging the goalkeeper to complete an excellent move for the winner.

That was behind-closed-doors, with Barnsley fans witnessing defeats in 13 of the previous 16 visits there since 1990. It was also Barnsley’s only win in the last 14 versions of this derby, with seven losses, including a 2-1 victory for Wednesday at Oakwell in March last year before they dropped into League One.

Darren Moore, the former Barnsley defender, could not save them from the drop having moved from Doncaster Rovers late in the season then took them to the third tier play-offs last season but they lost to Sunderland in the semi-finals. The Owls were made one of the favourites for promotion this time and have so far justified that, losing just once in the league, a 2-0 defeat at Peterborough, with their other league matches bringing four wins and a draw.

After starting with a 3-3 home draw to Portsmouth, they have not conceded in four home games in all competitions.

In the league, they won 1-0 at Hillsborough against Charlton Athletic then 5-0 against Forest Green on Saturday.

That leaves them third in the early table with 13 points from six games.

Wednesday have two former Barnsley players, who struggled badly at Oakwell but have done well nearly everywhere else – especially in Yorkshire.

Michael Smith joined the Reds on loan in 2015 with great excitement from Swindon Town for whom he had been very good the season before, but did not score in 13 League One appearances and the deal was cancelled. The tall striker, now 30, spent four years at Rotherham, scoring 61 goals, before moving to Hillsborough this summer with team-mate Michael Ihiekwe after they had taken the Millers into the Championship.

Smith had been out injured since the opening day but returned and scored in the 3-1 EFL Trophy loss at Bradford on Tuesday.

Mallik Wilks joined Wednesday last week.

The winger was handpicked by then Reds boss Daniel Stendel in 2019 to sign from Leeds United after starring against Barnsley on loan to Doncaster Rovers in the 2018/19 season, but he had a very disappointing 16-game spell before leaving to Hull City later that season.

The 23-year-old scored 30 goals for the Tigers but has now dropped down a level. He came off the bench in both Wednesday’s games this week.

Wednesday also have right-back Jack Hunt who played 11 Reds games in 2014.

After this derby, the Reds will face a much more calm September with just six games scheduled following eight in the opening month alongside the draining transfer window.

Duff will know his squad and have more time on the training pitch to work with them, so in theory should start getting more consistent results and performances. After Portsmouth visit a week tomorrow and complete a triumvirate of matches against promotion favourites, the Reds take on Port Vale and Cambridge United who were both tipped to struggle but have made reasonable starts, before another tough home game against Charlton Athletic. By the end of the month, the Reds will have played 11 league matches – almost a quarter of the season – and will hope to have collected several more wins and at least established themselves in mid-table.

OPPOSITION VIEW

Dom Howson, Yorkshire Live

Most Sheffield Wednesday fans expect automatic promotion this season. They finished fourth last year after a rollercoaster campaign but missed out on an instant return to the Championship after losing to Sunderland in the play-offs.

Expectations have increased over the summer, with Darren Moore having assembled arguably the strongest squad in the division. He has signed players with proven track records in League One. Anything less than promotion would be regarded by many as failure.

Although Wednesday have yet to hit their stride, Moore’s men have taken an impressive 13 points from their opening six matches.

Wednesday’s home form will be critical to their hopes of going up. Only Rotherham United have beaten them at Hillsborough in 2022. They are currently on a 14-match unbeaten run on their own turf.

They will fancy their chances of maintaining their fine home run against Barnsley.

KEY BATTLES

Darren Moore v Michael Duff

Moore had an excellent record against Duff as a player, winning three and drawing one of his league meetings against Burnley for Derby and Barnsley.

The former centre-backs both made the most of their talent, and got to the Premier League with a strong mentality and leadership qualities.

They met for the first time as managers last season, with Duff’s Cheltenham netting an injury-time leveller in a 2-2 home draw but losing 4-1 at Hillsborough later in the season.

Moore has had far longer to work with his squad and shape it in his mould, while he is thought to have a bigger budget.

There is a mutual respect between the pair but they will both be desperate to outwit the other in this derby.

Lee Gregory v Brad Collins

Collins was outstanding in goal at Ipswich on Saturday. He may have to be at his best again at Hillsborough against a strikeforce led by experienced 34-year-old striker Gregory who has 96 EFL goals. Gregory has scored twice against the Reds for Millwall and once for Stoke. He is likely to be partnered by Josh Windass who has netted twice for the Owls against the Reds.

They both struck on Saturday in the thrashing of Forest Green.

Collins will need help from those around him such as Liam Kitching, who must keep his head in a feisty derby, and potentially Robbie Cundy who may return to the back three for this physical test with Jordan Williams back at right wing-back.

Barry Bannan v Luca Connell

Wednesday have a plethora of midfield options.

Bannan – who has played more than 300 Owls games and is 32 – is the polar opposite of Barnsley’s young midfield.

He is likely to be joined in the centre by younger players, but still with Championship experience, in Tyreeq Bakinson and George Byers – with Championship stalwart Will Vaulks having been on the bench.

Connell assisted two goals at Ipswich and his set pieces should be a major threat again. But he will also have to compete well in midfield – denying Wednesday the sort of possession dominance Ipswich enjoyed. He may be joined in that task by Matty Wolfe since Josh Benson is a doubt and Herbie Kane not fully match fit.

Michael Ihiekwe v Jack Aitchison

Aitchison must take a lot of confidence from his first Barnsley goal into this derby.

Wednesday’s tall back three – including former Rotherham man Ihiekwe– will try to bully him and Devante Cole, should they continue to start together.

But they must find a way to disrupt the hosts with their movement and link up with the midfielders, while of course being clinical if they get chances.

Slobodan Tedic could provide more physicality.