THIS weekend will be the end of the season for 60 of the 72 EFL clubs across England and Wales.
In a flurry of awards nights, retained lists and flights abroad, the 2022/23 campaign will finish for the vast majority.
But not for Barnsley, who are one of 12 clubs going into the high-stakes televised pantomime which is the play-offs.
It was not expected by many that they would be in this position last summer. Head coach Michael Duff has been right to point out that, even if they do not get promoted, there has been massive progress made in the last year following the nightmarish relegation.
But, now that they are in the play-offs, it is a huge opportunity.
Promotion would see their annual earnings from television money and other income rise by about £8million – a major boost to the cash-strapped Reds – and give them a better chance of keeping most of this squad together or at least getting larger fees for the ones who leave.
If they go up, they could potentially be playing next season against some of Leicester City, Everton or Leeds United who are battling relegation from the Premier League.
If they stay down, they could face those clubs’ under 23s in the Papa John’s Trophy as well as trips to Stevenage, Northampton and Salford City.
Going 4-1 down to relegation-battling MK Dons is clearly worrying but they were without some key players in a match which meant far less to them than the hosts, then they showed character to come back to draw.
They will be hoping for a more solid performance at home to Peterborough United on Sunday although it will be another good test against a side who could still join them in the play-offs.
All that really matters is that they turn up when it counts on May 13, when they will probably be visiting Bolton Wanderers but potentially Derby County – two of the shortest possible trips in this southern-based league.
Either way it will be a game in front of a decent crowd against one of the third tier’s biggest clubs.
The prospect of taking on Sheffield Wednesday in the final at Wembley may be either exciting or nauseating or both, depending on your disposition.
But both clubs have to get there first and, although the South Yorkshire duo will be favourites having finished higher in the table with the second legs at home, they are likely to be two tough and tense semi-finals.
Duff has had mixed fortunes in the play-offs. He missed a penalty in a fourth division semi-final shoot-out for Cheltenham against Hartlepool in 2002. But they still won on spot-kicks and in the final against Rushden and Diamonds, with a goal by his now Reds coach Martin Devaney.
He was part of the Burnley team, along with assistant Martin Paterson, who beat Sheffield United 1-0 at Wembley in the 2009 Championship final – realising his private lifelong dream of playing in the top flight.
His only experience as a manager was a painful one with Cheltenham in 2020 when, after returning from the break due to Covid-19, they won 2-0 at Northampton in the League Two semi-final behind-closed-doors before losing 3-0 at home. Overall he has six promotions as a player and one as a manager.
There is some play-off experience in the team, although Jordan Williams, Mads Andersen, Brad Collins and Liam Kitching are the only current players who played for the Reds in their 2021 Championship semi-finals.
James Norwood scored the winner at Wembley in the National League final for Tranmere in 2018 and Nicky Cadden won promotion to the SPL in the play-offs with Livingston the same year.
Luca Connell will be hoping for a third straight promotion having won the Scottish League One play-offs with Queens Park last year. Devante Cole and Herbie Kane have both been beaten in League One play-off semi-finals previously.
New memories will be made throughout this month and those players will hope pictures of them celebrating at Wembley adorn the walls of Oakwell by next season with the club back in the Championship.
The Reds are likely to play Bolton in the semi-final, unless the Trotters slip up at Bristol Rovers on Sunday and Derby County overtake them in fifth.
Ian Evatt’s side have won four of their last 11 league games, going down 1-0 at home to relegation-battling neighbours Accrington Stanley last week then recovering to beat Fleetwood Town on Saturday.
Barnsley have endured mixed fortunes against Bolton this season.
They were beaten 3-0 at home on January 2, but largely due to a red card wrongly given to Mads Andersen in the tenth minute.
They had previously drawn 0-0 at Bolton in the league in October then returned a few weeks later for a 2-1 victory in the FA Cup, with Adam Phillips netting a stunning volley.
The games in Lancashire were both bad-tempered affairs, with former Bolton youngster Luca Connell booed by the home fans for alleged time-wasting then the Reds’ long throw towels reportedly dumped in puddles. Managers Michael Duff and Evatt argued on the sidelines.
The cup win was the first time Barnsley had triumphed against the Trotters in 16 attempts across 25 years since another FA Cup victory in 1998. That 1-0 success, secured by a Darren Barnard free-kick, is the last time Bolton lost at Oakwell – winning four and drawing three.
Since the last meeting, Bolton have signed striker Victor Adeboyejo from Burton Albion.
He spent five years at Oakwell, playing 97 games including starting in the Championship play-offs two years ago, but left last summer after rejecting a new contract.
In order to finish fifth, the Rams would have to win at Sheffield Wednesday and rely on a Bolton loss – or a draw if Derby win by three goals at Hillsborough.
Derby will be more interested in making sure they finish in the top six, with Sunday’s Oakwell visitors Peterborough hoping to pounce if County fail.
The Reds produced one of their best performances of the season to thrash Derby 4-1 in February, beginning a serious challenge for the top two.
The Rams won just three of their next ten but are now unbeaten in six.
Barnsley lost twice at Derby this season, edged out in the league 2-1 in August then dumped out of the FA Cup 3-0 with a changed team in January.
Midfielder Conor Hourihane lifted two trophies at Wembley, including the League One play-offs, in 2016 when Reds captain.
But he knocked them out of the Championship semi-final with Swansea City two years ago, sending in the disputed free-kick which led to the winner in Wales.
Korey Smith, another ex-Red, was also in that Swans team and is now at Derby.
They are two of a series of experienced Championship veterans recruited last summer to take the Rams immediately back to the second tier.
They are managed by Paul Warne, who took Rotherham to the Championship three times and is a good friend of Michael Duff’s.