A GOOD January on and off the pitch could put Barnsley in position to mount a serious attack on the summit of League One in the spring.
Because of their impressive recent form, Monday’s loss with ten men aside, the month is not as make-or-break for the season as it may have seemed in autumn.
They are already in a good place, but a few more wins and a few more good players would make it even better.
As well as playing at least five games, the Reds will be looking to use this month’s transfer window to strengthen up front and at right wing-back while keeping hold of their star men. If they do so successfully, they should have a strong chance of at least making the play-offs.
Unlike the current UK government, Barnsley are more than happy to negotiate with strikers. More options up front and regular scorers is the vital ingredient to add in this window.
The loan of Max Watters is a good start, as he has scored goals in League One before and the Reds have got a deal done very early in the window.
They are likely to be a more attractive proposition than in the last window given their decent form and healthy league position.
Barnsley are now exactly halfway through this season and, despite a few bumps in the road like the loss to Bolton, to be in the play-offs is a fine achievement while no club has more points over the last eight games.
They have two fewer points than at this stage in their last season in League One under Daniel Stendel who had to deal with far less changes on and off the pitch in the summer, had a plethora of goal-scorers and fewer injuries.
December was another excellent month for Michael Duff’s men, following on from their very good November. They took ten points from a possible 12 last month, only denied a full house by a frustrating draw at Accrington Stanley which would have been a win if not for poor finishing and refereeing.
The loss in the first game in 2023 was painful but far less worrying in the long-term than after their previous league defeat – to Lincoln City in October when they were badly struggling to create chances.
A victory over Bolton would have left the Reds seven points clear in the top six and looking capable of turning the breakaway top three into a four. But instead, following the controversial red card for Mads Andersen, they dropped down two places to sixth with Bolton and Sunday’s cup hosts Derby overtaking them, while they are just two points clear of the teams outside the play-offs.
They now have four more league games in January – potentially only three if they reach the fourth round of the FA Cup – so will look to get back to winning ways quickly and stay in the top six. It is likely to be a gruelling month, with a lot of travelling around the country as well as all the stress and chaos that every transfer window inevitably brings.
While Portsmouth and Peterborough, who had both hoped for promotion, each changed managers this week, the Reds look settled and happy under Duff.
Here are the remaining January fixtures:
DERBY COUNTY, AWAY, SUNDAY
The only previous meeting between these clubs in the FA Cup was in 1897 and the Reds, then known as Barnsley St Peter’s and yet to enter the Football League, were hammered 8-1 having taken the lead.
It is probably fair to assume this third round Sunday lunchtime clash will be a much closer contest between two sides in the thick of the League One promotion chase.
Making an immediate return to the Championship will be both of their priorities and this tie might be decided by which team is closest to their best league form. The Reds have taken the FA Cup seriously so far this season, fielding the strongest possible outfield side in the previous two rounds, as have Derby.
They know victory could potentially be rewarded by a fourth-round tie against a Premier League giant which would provide them with much-needed funds late in the transfer window and be a great occasion for fans and players.
It is also a chance for Barnsley to test themselves against one of the better sides in their division – now managed by Paul Warne who is searching for a fourth promotion out of the third tier – and to show how much progress they have made since the August league loss there.
CHARLTON ATHLETIC, AWAY, JANUARY 14
This will be Barnsley’s only trip to London in the league this season but the first of many journeys to the south in the second half of the campaign.
One of the reasons League One has been more even and competitive this season than many predicted – rather than the ‘two leagues’ last season – is that teams expected to compete for promotion such as Charlton, Milton Keynes Dons and Oxford United all had very poor starts.
Having sacked club legend Johnnie Jackson after finishing 13th last season, the Addicks brought in Ben Garner from Swindon as manager but replaced him last month with former Bristol City boss Dean Holden.
They were winless in eight and three points clear of safety but won 3-1 at Portsmouth on Sunday.
They are clearly a team that tries to keep the ball – they have the best pass completion rate in the division, the second highest number of passes and the second fewest aerial challenges.
They lost 3-1 at Oakwell in September.
This is due to be the first game of the second half of Barnsley’s league season, although they are yet to play Oxford or Portsmouth and have faced Fleetwood and Bolton twice.
ACCRINGTON STANLEY, HOME, JANUARY 21
This will be Barnsley’s first home league game on a Saturday for more than a month since the win over Burton Albion, which was a month after the previous league fixture at Oakwell.
Barnsley will be looking to get back to winning ways at home after the Bolton defeat.
The Reds and Accrington will meet for the second time in just 26 days.
Barnsley will feel they owe the Lancashire club a beating after the Boxing Day draw last week which they dominated but missed several big chances and conceded a controversial penalty.
Stanley fell into the relegation zone at the end of the year but bounced out of it on goal difference, despite a 4-0 thrashing at Derby County, because Burton Albion lost 5-0 at Morecambe.
They will visit Oakwell having scored just seven goals in 12 away games this season.
Stanley lost 2-0 at Oakwell in 2019 and, in their previous incarnation before folding in the 1960s, were beaten there 4-0, 6-0, 4-1, 5-0 and 5-0 as well as a 2-1 victory in 1954.
It is possible that Barnsley may have played a few days before this at Oakwell against Derby in an FA Cup replay.
EXETER CITY, AWAY, JANUARY 24
Barnsley’s progression to the third round of the FA Cup meant this game was moved from January 7and handed them a brutal midweek journey to Devon which, at best, will be a nine-hour round trip.
This Tuesday game is the first in a series of long treks south with a midweek match at Oxford United on the Wednesday of the following week, followed three days later by a game at Portsmouth.
That is more than 1,200 of travelling in ten days, which could increase should the Reds get to the fourth round of the FA Cup and draw a far-away team on the weekend of January 27-29.
It will be their first trip to St James Park since November 1980 which was also the last time Barnsley had as good a first 20 games of the season as this campaign. Norman Hunter’s won 1-0, ending a run of seven successive losses in Exeter.
The Grecians are currently tenth after promotion last year, just six points off the play-offs.
They won 2-0 at Oakwell in October, starting a terrible month for the Reds, between the exit of manager Matt Taylor for Rotherham United and the appointment of Gary Caldwell.
The Scotsman had won just one of his first eight league games but they have won their last two.
SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY, HOME, JANUARY 29
Should neither side reach the fourth round of the FA Cup, January will be completed with a local derby that has even more significance than usual.
Added to the normal geographical rivalry will be – assuming both sides’ good form continues – their proximity to each other at the top end of the table.
Wednesday are one of three teams, along with Ipswich and Plymouth, who appear to be breaking away from the rest.
The Reds have two games in hand but are 12 points and four places below their rivals.
The Owls will be looking for revenge after losing 2-0 at home to an inspired Barnsley in September, while the Reds will hope to win this derby at Oakwell for the first time in seven attempts across 14 years.
With the transfer window closing the following Tuesday, this could be a crucial week for the Reds.
If the derby does not happen on this date – due to a cup win for Barnsley over Derby or Wednesday against Newcastle – then it could be pushed back much closer to the end of the season and gain even more importance.
After this weekend, February is currently scheduled to see Barnsley play two home games and four away.
It starts with the long trips to Oxford and Portsmouth then a home game against Cambridge United before they visit Port Vale and Duff’s old club Cheltenham ahead of a home match with Derby.