TOMORROW’S meeting with Derby County feels like the start of the real business end of the season for Barnsley.
That may seem too early given the campaign is only two thirds completed and we are still in February.
But, for a month starting tomorrow, Michael Duff’s Reds face almost all of the sides currently jostling with them for a place in the Championship next season.
They have done excellent work to get themselves in their current position of sixth, with coaches and players deserving massive credit for bouncing back from the horrors of last season.
They have proved they are a very good League One side, but can they show over the next month that they are an excellent one?
After facing Derby then making a long trip to Bristol Rovers, they host Portsmouth in a midweek match rearranged after the death of the Queen in September.
Then comes a massive fortnight. They host top two Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday either side of a visit to Wycombe Wanderers – who are just below them in seventh but lost manager Gareth Ainsworth to QPR this week – before hosting another top six side Ipswich Town then making the long trip to Exeter City.
The Reds have won 11 of 15 games and gone up just three places while, more recently, they have won five of six but stayed sixth. If that form continues in the next month, they will finally start to climb towards the summit of the third tier.
If the Reds win the vast majority of the above games, they may suddenly emerge as contenders for the top two while, if it goes badly, they could slip out of the top six.
A more mixed set of results would likely leave them with a good shot of the play-offs places but no realistic chance of automatic promotion.
The first challenge is Derby.
These two sides have made the fewest tackles in the division but it is likely to be a hotly-contested battle with plenty riding on it.
Derby are one point and place ahead of the sixth-placed Reds who have a game in hand.
The Rams have one of the biggest budgets in the division, a deep squad with abundant Championship and Premier League experience – such as former Reds captain Conor Hourihane – as well as a manager in Paul Warne who is looking for a fourth promotion from League One.
County had been on a remarkable 15-match unbeaten run which began in October, winning the last six.
But they lost 3-2 at fellow promotion hopefuls Wycombe last week then drew 1-1 at home to Lincoln City before winning 2-0 at home to Charlton Athletic on Saturday.
It will be a tough test for the Reds but they have been on fine form themselves and are capable of beating any side at this level.
Barnsley will need to perform better than in their previous two meetings with Derby this season, both away from home.
Although they had a strong second half in a 2-1 loss in the league in August, they were still gelling as a team and in need of new signings, while the 3-0 FA Cup loss last month was one of the worst performances under Duff.
Barnsley will need full concentration, organisation and discipline while being clinical with chances. At their best, their youthful and energetic players can outrun and rattle more experienced opponents.
They certainly need a much better start than in the last home game against a fellow top six side, Bolton on January 2, when they were very sluggish before Mads Andersen was harshly sent off after ten minutes and they lost 3-0.
They are likely to face adversity in the upcoming games so will surely need to come from behind at some point.
They have lost every match in which they conceded the opening goal, other than the creditable draws at Ipswich and Portsmouth.
It should help them that they have a lot more options off the bench now, with the likes of ex-Ram Luke Thomas, the rejuvenated Slobodan Tedic and new signings Oli Shaw and Jon Russell all potential game-changing substitutes.
Supporters could also play a key role.
The home crowd roared their side on to a win over Cambridge with ten men in the last Oakwell fixture and, with Derby expected to bring 5,000, the same will be required again.