BARNSLEY head coach says he’s been impressed with the mentality of ‘cheeky chappy’ Luke Thomas – who scored for the under 23s on Tuesday – following his return to the pitch from a broken leg.
The 23-year-old midfielder was a key part of Barnsley’s good form at the start of the season before he suffered a ‘freak’ injury in training.
Thomas broke his leg and sustained ankle ligament damage in October whilst he was sliding to score a goal, but instead got his foot caught underneath him.
After undergoing treatment later that month, he was sidelined for ‘at least four months’ – and has returned to action for the under 23s in the past few games.
On Tuesday he grabbed his first goal since recovery in a 2-1 win over Hull City.
His struggle with mental health issues has been in the spotlight in recent years, and Duff said he’s done well to keep his head up during a difficult period.
Duff told the Chronicle: “Luke’s off the field problems have been well documented but he seems to have handled that well.
“That’s credit to the staff at the club as well to keep him engaged and down to him too.
“He’s grown up, he’s learnt which is part of the experience.
“You only gain experience by going through hard moments and good moments, too.
“Everyone knows Luke and he’s infectious, he’s always got a smile on his face – he’s that sort of cheeky chappy kind of lad.
“It’s just great to see him because he was in a good place, he suffered another terrible one with no one near him – a freak injury.
“To get his head down and not feel sorry for himself, to not slip into those darker moments he’s been great.
“Hopefully he can impact the team in the rest of the season.”
Thomas wasn’t the only injured player who made his way back into the mix on Tuesday, Slobodan Tedic made his return to action, as did Jordan Helliwell.
Whilst Jon Russell played 60 minutes in his quest to get match fit following his absence from the Huddersfield team in the early stages of the season.
He also managed to get a goal from long range.
Duff said: “People are getting closer with the 23s game on Tuesday.
“We got minutes into some of the first team players.
“That’s a positive sign because we’ve got people coming back.
“Luke did well (at the start of the season) but to be honest we were fourth or fifth when he got injured so I think the whole team were doing pretty well.
“The penny dropped with Boban with what we want from him.
“The last three or four weeks we’ve probably seen the best from him.
“He understands what’s expected of him now.
“He offers a different profile, as does Luke, and people like Jordan Helliwell.
“It’s good when you visibly see the players on their way back with shin pads and kit on rather than just doing rehab all the time.
“They’ve all been out for a long time but 60 minutes in a 23s game is different to a blood and thunder of a league one game.
“But it’s good psychologically as the lads see that.”
There’s not yet a timeline on Thomas’ return, with Duff insisting that side of the game is down to the sports scientists.
“I need to have the conversations with the player and the sports scientists,” he said.
“I need to find out where they’re at from a mentality point of view.
“They might think they’re ahead of where they are so there needs to be some sort of alignment.
“We’re on a decent run, we’ve been in a decent place for a while, so we don’t feel the need to get them back in as quickly as we can.
“We’re not desperate but we want them to be back involved as well.”
The Barnsley head coach admitted that players like Tedic, who come from big clubs, will have to find their feet in League One – comparing training at their parent clubs to ‘Disney Land’.
“He’s out on loan to learn what football is,” he added.
“Sometimes it’s different when they come from these big, big clubs – he trains at Disney Land everyday.
“Sometimes you watch the Premier League to League One and it’s like a different sport.
“We had a firm conversation.
“I said I don’t think you’re strong enough, you don’t work hard enough on this and so put it on the players sometimes.
“My job is to pick the team and not to make players happy.
“He went away and it was almost like he thought he had to do something about it.”
Jon Russell is also on his way back to first team action and the club will manage his minutes in the coming games.
“It doesn’t matter how many minutes we get into him, he’s always going to be a big player because he’s massive,” Duff said.
“We believe there’s a player in there.
“We were surprised he came available.
“We think we’ve got a player we need to get the best out of.
“He is short of minutes but he does give us different options.
“He was good for Huddersfield last year but there’s a reason why he’s ended up here.
“So it’s up to me and the staff to find out why that happened and ask him.
“Hopefully we can get a reaction and help him become the player he was and get him kicking on again.”