MICHAEL Duff has challenged his Barnsley team to be even better in the final third of the season than in the middle third when they were among the best performing sides in English football.

The Reds are sixth in League One, six points clear in the play-off places and nine off the two automatic spots with two games in hand on second-placed Plymouth Argyle who are due to visit Oakwell a week tomorrow.

They thrashed fellow top six side Derby County 4-1 at Oakwell on Saturday, taking them up to fifth before the Rams won in midweek.

Barnsley have won their last four matches and six of their last seven, while they have at least two games in hand on the sides placed second to fifth.

Their 12 wins, and 38 points, from 16 games since late October is a record only beaten in the top four divisions by Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley.

They have 15 games left starting with fixtures this week against two mid-table sides – at Bristol Rovers tomorrow then at home to Portsmouth on Tuesday.

After that, they complete March with home games against the top three Plymouth, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town as well as trips to seventh-placed Wycombe Wanderers and mid-table Exeter City.

Duff told the Chronicle: “We’re two thirds of the way through the season.

“The first third was up and down, the second was generally pretty good, and we have to make sure the last one is even better.

“Saturday was perfect with the supporters’ noise and the result and performance. It was a good day but it is just one day. We took three good points but there are 45 to play for. We want to keep that momentum and we have to harness it and not let it slip away easily.

“From the last 16 games, we’ve taken 38 points and gone from sixth to sixth.

“That tells you everything about the league. It shows you just have to keep winning. It’s relentless.”

Duff has played down suggestions that Barnsley are in a good position to launch a late assault on the automatic promotion places.

“I would imagine there are eight or nine teams looking at the top six and three or four thinking about the top two.

“The outside noise is irrelevant.

“We had a month when we didn’t score, a month ago people were wondering if the teams below us would catch us and now people are saying top two.

“I haven’t got time to look at all the permutations and I am not clever enough to work them all out.

“We’ll just win the next one and the next one then pop our heads up at the end of the season and see where we are.”

Duff knows Barnsley’s mentality must be the same for tomorrow’s trip to 15th-placed Bristol Rovers as it was against Derby.

He said: “If we go down there thinking it will be easy because we’ve been on a good run and they’ve been on a dickie run, we will get beaten comfortably.

“We lost at Morecambe and, no disrespect, but Bristol Rovers are better than Morecambe.

“People talk about the run of big home games coming up but, if we don’t win the away games, it’s irrelevant.

“The lads are confident but there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance. We need to keep the mentality strong then the quality can come out.

“We’ve had a good week’s training and you can see the buzz around the staff, more smiles around the place.

“But football has a habit of kicking you in the nether regions when you think you’ve cracked it.”

Duff was named League One’s Manager of the Month for both November and December while his team won five out of six games in February.

Asked if he could make it a hat-trick, he told the Chronicle: “I have not thought about it. I would imagine we would be in with a shout. But Fleetwood have gone well recently and Mooro (Wednesday manager Darren Moore) is about 20 games unbeaten. It’s a by-product of what the team does, not just me.”