BARNSLEY will go into February knowing their squad for the remainder of the season and with their position as a strong top six contender beginning to crystallise.
The month of January which was due to finish with a big derby against fellow promotion-chasers Sheffield Wednesday at Oakwell actually ends with 11 days without a match due to the Owls’ FA Cup run.
After excellent November and December – for which head coach Michael Duff won Manager of the Month both times – January has been a less successful month.
The Reds lost their first three matches of the year, with an early and controversial red card handing Bolton victory, followed by a poor FA Cup display at Derby County then a much-improved performance in a loss at Charlton Athletic.
A comfortable home win over a poor Accrington Stanley was followed by the badly-handled postponement at Exeter City on Tuesday.
While the early losses in 2023 dented hopes they can catch the breakaway top three, they have a gap of two points between them and the sides outside the top six, with as many as three games in hand on some teams around them.
There seems to be some doubts from sections of the fanbase over the quality of the squad but the Reds have made huge progress under Duff.
They are in a promotion battle and hopefully the majority of fans will fully get behind them over the next three months.
They have one of the strongest defences in the division – conceding the fewest shots on goal by far – while the Accrington win and signing of Max Watters, as well as possibly Oli Shaw, suggests the goal threat can return after three successive blanks.
The Reds deserve credit for their work in the transfer window so far, moving quickly to plug gaps that were obvious at the start of the month – striker and right wing-back – then others that emerged later such as at centre-back due to Tom Edwards’ injury.
Bobby Thomas made a very good debut while Watters and Barry Cotter are both building up their fitness to different extents.
The Reds seem determined to keep hold of all their star players at least until the summer and are now on the look-out for that last sprinkling of quality which could make the difference – with Shaw’s arrival a possibility in the coming days.
If they can do both, a play-off campaign is a huge possibility – although there will be plenty of hard work still to do, starting with six February games which include four away trips.
Of their next five opponents, three are in mid-table and two in the relegation fight.
They will hope to build up a good run before an extremely tough sequence of fixtures against sides in the promotion hunt – including all of the top three – across a month starting from February 25 when they host Derby County.
It is easy to point to that clump of games and say they will define the season for Barnsley, before an April which sees them face a series of relegation-battlers.
But they will need to make sure they pick up regular points in February first.
Here are the February games:
OXFORD UNITED, AWAY, WEDNESDAY
Barnsley’s first two games of the month are away at the only two sides who they are yet to play in League One so far this season.
Both Oxford and Portsmouth are teams who were expected to compete for promotion at the start of this season but find themselves in mid-table.
But Oxford beat high-flying Ipswich in their last home game so will be tough opponents.
When this match was originally called off on December 10 due to a frozen pitch, the Reds were on excellent away form but, since then, they have drawn at Accrington then lost at Derby in the cup and Charlton in the league.
This game is the day after the transfer window closes so the Reds will hope to have all their current star players lining up at the Kassam Stadium with potentially another new signing involved.
PORTSMOUTH, AWAY, FEBRUARY 4
This will be a third consecutive long away trip for the Reds, after going to Exeter and Oxford in midweek –even if they did not play the first fixture.
Although the squad are due to stay down south between Wednesday’s match and this trip to the south coast, any fans who go to all three places by car will have travelled more than 1,200 miles in 11 days.
Portsmouth sacked Danny Cowley at the start of January after a nine-match winless run in the league.
They then appointed rookie manager John Mousinho, who left his role as player/coach at Oxford to join them last week. The 36-year-old made an excellent start as they beat Exeter and Fleetwood this week and are just six points behind the Reds.
This fixture is likely to be a difficult test for the Reds who have won just one of 21 games at Fratton Park since 1980.
CAMBRIDGE UNITED, HOME, FEBRUARY 11
The only current Barnsley player who was born when Cambridge last visited Barnsley in 1993 was striker James Norwood.
They have only won one of their 11 games at Oakwell and will arrive as underdogs again as they are currently in the relegation zone.
They were seventh after ten matches but, since September, they have won two of 16, losing 12 including a 5-1 crushing at Shrewsbury this week.
Star striker Joe Ironside – whose grandfather and father were Barnsley goalkeepers – ended a 15-match goalless run on Saturday.
Ex-Reds Paul Digby and George Williams are regular starters and could make returns to Oakwell.
No side has fewer goals, or collected fewer away points in League One this season while they have conceded the most away goals in the EFL.
PORT VALE, AWAY, FEBRUARY 14
The last time Barnsley played on Valentine’s Day, in 2021, they won 2-0 at Brentford which began the seven-match winning run under Valerien Ismael which took them into the Championship play-offs.
They also won 3-1 at Aston Villa on that date in 2017, two years after a 5-1 thrashing at Crawley Town in League One.
Port Vale – who were promoted in the League Two play-offs in May – are having an impressive season, currently comfortable in mid-table and eight points off the play-offs.
The Staffordshire club – with former Barnsley manager David Flitcroft as director of footballer – have caused the Reds problems this season.
They drew 1-1 at Oakwell in September in the league then knocked them out of EFL Trophy at Vale Park in November.
CHELTENHAM TOWN, AWAY, FEBRUARY 18
Michael Duff makes the journey from Barnsley to Cheltenham regularly on Saturdays and Tuesdays for a day with his family who have stayed in the south west after he moved between the two clubs last summer.
He will do so again for this game which will be a return for both him and first team coach Martin Devaney to the club where they began their playing careers in the late 1990s.
They will look to put emotion and nostalgia to one side for a match in which the Reds will be favourites.
Duff’s former assistant with the Robins, Wade Ellliot, currently has them just outside the relegation zone in 18th.
But they have lost their last four games and are the joint lowest scorers in the division.
They will face huge games against fellow strugglers Cambridge and Accrington before taking on the Reds.
DERBY COUNTY, HOME, FEBRUARY 25
This looks like a massive game, assuming both teams are still in contention for the top six.
The Rams are fourth, seven points and two places clear of Barnsley who have two games in hand. The Reds will need a much better performance than in the 3-0 loss at Pride Park in the FA Cup earlier this month. They will also need to start far better than in their last Oakwell meeting with a fellow promotion-chaser, when they were slow out of the blocks against Bolton even before Mads Andersen’s controversial red card in a 3-0 defeat.
March will then see the Reds take on a series of teams currently competing for promotion.
After a trip to Bristol Rovers, they host Portsmouth and Plymouth then visit Wycombe Wanderers before welcoming Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town.