THERE were just five points in the final league table between fifth-placed Bolton Wanderers and fourth-placed Barnsley.
Now they face each other over 180 minutes, at least, in Lancashire tomorrow and Oakwell next Friday with a place at Wembley the prize against either Sheffield Wednesday or Peterborough.
The Reds can take a huge amount of positives from this season whatever happens, given the strides made on and off the pitch.
They have equalled a club record of 31 wins in all competitions in a campaign.
But they have never not won the third tier play-offs before and it would be hugely disappointing to experience that – not to mention the financial cost and increased risk of key personnel being poached by other clubs this summer.
The only side in the top four divisions of English football to have conceded fewer home goals this season than Bolton this season – with 13 let in in 23 matches – are Manchester United with eight.
Bolton won at Wembley last month, 4-0 against League One champions Plymouth in the EFL Trophy final but Barnsley are standing in their way of a return.
MOMENTUM LOSS DISMISSED BUT FIRST GOAL LIKELY CRUCIAL
The first goal has been vital for Barnsley this season. No side in the top four divisions of English football have collected fewer points from losing positions this season than Barnsley’s three, while they have not scored an equaliser at Oakwell since 2021.
But they have dropped just six points from winning positions which is the lowest since 1938/39.
Either the Reds have to do what they have not managed to do all campaign, and come from behind to win, or they simply must score first.
Outsiders may feel that the Reds have lost momentum going into the play-offs, having collected just a point from their final three games while their record over the last ten is the weakest of the four play-off sides.
But Michael Duff is adamant that is simply not the case, citing their excellent form across six months and that this team has been regularly written off all season but continued to surpass expectations. Barnsley have proven this season that they are one of the best teams in this division and should not fear anyone in the play-offs.
The play-offs are a clean slate and the results in recent weeks are unlikely to be a major factor.
TETCHY MEETINGS THIS SEASON
There has been an edge to the meetings between these two teams this season.
Former Bolton youngster Luca Connell was booed by tens of thousands of home fans for slowly coming off the pitch late on in the 0-0 league draw at October. Barnsley’s November FA Cup win was another tempestuous contest with Tom Edwards’ long throw towel ‘put in a puddle’ according to Duff. The two managers exchanged heated words, particularly after the cup game – with images going viral on Twitter of a furious Ian Evatt following Duff, shouting and wagging his finger at the back of the Reds head coach who walked away from him.
Barnsley are an improved side from when they lost 3-0 at home to Bolton in the first game of 2023 with Andersen sent off early.
CONTRASTING PLAY-OFF RECORDS
Barnsley have won both of their League One play-offs campaigns in 2006 and 2016.
They will look to add more memories to the famous comeback win at neighbours Huddersfield, followed by a tense penalties win over Swansea in the final 17 years ago.
Ten years later there was Sam Winnall’s quickfire brace against Walsall, who were crushed 6-1 on aggregate, followed by Adam Hammill’s stunner against Millwall at Wembley.
Bolton have not been in the play-offs for 22 years, having been involved six times between 1990 and 2001. They reached the top flight via the play-off final in 1995, with a 4-3 extra-time thriller against Reading, and 2001 with a 3-0 victory over near neighbours Preston. They lost in the 2000 semi-final to Ipswich – who beat Barnsley in the final – and the 1999 final to Watford.
They also lost the 1991 Third Division play-off final at Wembley to Tranmere, 1-0 in extra-time, having been beaten in the semi-final by Notts County a year earlier.
BOLTON HAVE GOOD REDS RECORD
The two clubs meet in this play-off semi-final after wildly diverging journeys over the last couple of decades.
Bolton spent 11 years in the Premier League - finishing in the top eight four seasons in a row between 2004 and 2007.
But two years ago, when Barnsley got to within two wins of the Premier League, they were in League Two.
They only spent one year in the fourth tier and will look for a second promotion in three seasons.
Barnsley have won 13, drawn 14 and lost 18 of their 45 meetings with Bolton.
Their last league win over the Trotters was in the Premier League in 1997 when Eric Tinkler and Georgi Hristov scored.
Since then, the only Reds wins in 16 meetings were in the FA Cup, in 1998 – thanks to a Darren Barnard free-kick at Oakwell – and earlier this season.
That latest win was their only victory in ten attempts at a stadium they have visited under the names Reebok, Macron and, currently, University of Bolton.
It will be renamed ‘Toughsheet’ after this season and a slight variation of that might be said to the losers of what is likely to be a hard-fought tie.