THE NEXT three weeks, on and off the pitch, could help to shape Barnsley’s promotion challenge.

Following an unbeaten December, with three wins from five games, and a frustrating New Year’s Day draw with Wigan, the Reds play five matches in 14 days, including two games in hand and two visits to fellow top seven sides.

After a 12-day break from action, it is a big opportunity to move well clear in the top six and put pressure on the top two.

Then there is the January window which is approaching its halfway point.

If they have a good month on and off the pitch, and go into February cemented in the top six with a strengthened squad from the window, suddenly it may sink in for the vocal Neill Collins sceptics in the fanbase that Barnsley are in another serious promotion push with just a few months left in the season.

It was not until early February, and a win with ten men over Cambridge, that Michael Duff – who garnered much more personal support early on than his successor Collins – and his side began to receive raucous backing at Oakwell.

Automatic promotion has been the aim within Oakwell.

The Reds are ten points off leaders Portsmouth but – after Pompey lost at lowly Cheltenham – have two games in hand and are due to visit Fratton Park, possibly in the final weeks of the season if the March 23 game is called off due to international call-ups as expected.

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They are eight points off second-placed Bolton Wanderers who they are due to play twice.

But they must first make sure they secure their place in the top six.

The Reds are unbeaten in eight, back in the play-off places, have not lost at home since September, have one of the best away records in the division and are starting to pick up points against fellow promotion challengers while they played better football in flashes over the Christmas period than in several months before.

But performance levels and consistency can still improve significantly while they need to be better at keeping hold of leads after some poor second halves over the festive period.

They also need to add at least one defender to their uneven squad.

The Reds are in the advanced stages of a deal for US international Donovan Pines who, if he signs, appears to be exactly the dominant centre-back they need.

He has not played for more than three months so will need time to get up to full fitness but Barnsley, on their budget, were always unlikely to recruit exactly the type of player they want who was playing every week for another club who would then expect a sizeable transfer fee.

A signing like Pines would add better balance to Barnsley’s backline, allowing them to play three natural centre-backs with Mael de Gevigney and Jamie McCart either side of the six foot five American.

Jordan Williams’ time at centre-back has been a generally unsuccessful experiment as the natural full-back has struggled against almost any attacker with a significant physical presence.

Even the benefits of his recovery pace and ability to bring the ball out of defence have been eclipsed recently by him starting to gift opponents the ball in dangerous areas in nearly every game. Williams – who has played every minute this season – needs to be moved out of the back three soon and, with Collins unlikely to drop his captain, a return to right wing-back seems most likely with knock-on effects for Corey O’Keeffe and Barry Cotter.

A centre-back was the main priority in the window but they are always looking for good deals, with even more cover in defence and some more pace in attack potential areas to improve.

They will also look to keep all of their star players and the exit of Devante Cole, who is on course to net more than 25 goals this season on current form, would be particularly damaging.

This current squad plus a dominant centre-back looks like a top six contender.

BRISTOL ROVERS, H, tomorrow

The problems that have troubled Barnsley for the majority of this season became obvious when they visited the Gas for the first away game of the season in August.

The Reds scraped a draw in one of many poor early season performances while John Marquis, who should have had at least a hat-trick, was the first of many big strikers to dominate Jordan Williams in the air.

It would be pleasing if the Reds could come full circle and, by the time of this return fixture, secure a comfortable victory with a more dominant back three, but it may now be tight to play a new signing on Saturday.

This is a big game for Barnsley to start a busy sequence on a high and also for Rovers who are nine points behind the sixth-placed Reds so defeat would leave their play-off chances looking slim.

CARLISLE UNITED, H, Tuesday

The Reds should be favourites for this midweek game against the second-bottom side who have won one in 11. But the Cumbrians have already won at another promotion-chaser this season in Bolton Wanderers and began 2024 with a home victory over Port Vale who caused Barnsley a lot of problems in the second half on Boxing Day.

They were bought by US businessman Tom Piatak in November and have been by far the busiest League One club in this window – signing four players in the opening days. Manager Paul Simpson last came up against the Reds as Bristol City manager in 2021 when Valerien Ismael’s side won 1-0 at Ashton Gate on the kind of run Barnsley may need now to compete for the top two.

Carlisle – who host Barnsley in March – are one of two teams in League One who the Reds are yet to face this season, with the other being top six rivals Bolton who they will come up against in crucial matches.

STEVENAGE, A, January 20

Barnsley will make their first ever trip to the Hertfordshire club, for the second meeting in four weeks following a 2-1 win at Oakwell on December 23. It was a poor performance by the Reds against direct visitors.

Stevenage manager Steve Evans said his side were ‘by far the better side’ and added: “They think we are little Stevenage, we’re the black sheep of the yard, we’re the little one nobody wants.” It was a crucial result – the first time the Reds picked up points against a top eight side this year, and they will look to add to that tally with this game and the visit to Oxford three days later.

Stevenage’s form has dropped off since Oakwell and they were knocked out of the FA Cup by sixth-tier Maidstone.

This is the second of four away games against promotion rivals, with Bolton on February 3 the last, and, if they repeat their performance in the first at Peterborough, they may collect some impressive results.

OXFORD UNITED, A, January 23

Barnsley will be looking to play much better than in their August home loss and gain a vital victory over a direct rival.

Oxford, who play passing football, will be a very different test to Stevenage.

Liam Manning – who kept the Us up last season while his former club MK Dons went down to League Two – secured 32 points from the first 15 games, which put them second, before leaving for Championship club Bristol City. He was replaced by Des Buckingham, who is from Oxford and a long-term coach in their academy before working in New Zealand, Australia and India then taking his first manager’s job in the UK.

He has won three of his nine league games so far, with Oxford slipping down to fifth.

After this game and the trip to Bolton, Barnsley’s February away games are at lowest-scorers Shrewsbury Town on Tuesday the 13th then four days later at bottom club Fleetwood Town who recently sacked former Reds boss Lee Johnson.

EXETER CITY, H, January 27

Barnsley will hope for a more routine victory against a struggling side than their last-minute away win in October which was followed by a fire on the team bus on the long journey home.

After winning five of their first eight league games, Exeter lost six in a row at the start of a 13-game winless run, with ten defeats and just three goals scored, before beating Wycombe on Boxing Day.

They then dropped into the relegation zone but pulled out of it with a 2-1 win over fellow strugglers Carlisle on Saturday.

Only Shrewsbury have scored fewer goals than Exeter. Manager Gary Caldwell was backed by the board late last year.

Barnsley’s February home games are against mid-table Leyton Orient then fellow promotion-chasers Derby County.