NEILL Collins knows Barnsley will need ‘excellent form’ to challenge for the top two, but believes they are capable of it – starting with a home game against lowly Exeter City from 3pm.

The Reds saw their game at Stevenage called off on Saturday then won 1-0 at sixth-placed Oxford United on Tuesday.

That leaves them fifth in League One with 52 points from 27 games, six clear in the play-off places and three behind the top two. They are four points off leaders Portsmouth with a game in hand.

Barnsley are unbeaten in 11 league games with seven wins, including the last three. On Saturday they could equal the 12-game unbeaten runs last season and in the Championship in 2021 under Valerien Ismael while it would be the joint longest such sequence since the 20-game run under Daniel Stendel in 2018/19.

Head coach Neill Collins told the Chronicle: “I am absolutely delighted with the players’ mentality.

“Despite the youthfulness we might have, the mentality is very very good to approaching different challenges, particularly away from home.

“The group should take a lot of credit for their togetherness.

“We would hope that we would be getting closer to the top after the run we’ve been on, otherwise the teams ahead would be on a phenomenal run.

“We will need to keep up excellent form to challenge at the very top but the players have not shown anything to suggest they can’t.

“We’re excited about what can be achieved.

“We’ll just focus on ourselves and let the others beat each other up.”

Exeter are 19th, four points and two places outside the relegation zone.

They have won three of their last 20 league games and the only side in the EFL to have scored fewer than their 19 goals in 28 games this season are fellow strugglers Shrewsbury Town.

No side in League One has conceded more goals on their travels than Exeter’s 28 while Barnsley are unbeaten in nine at Oakwell since September but several key players may not be available.

The Grecians won five of their first eight league games this season and were top in September.

But they then lost six in a row at the start of a 13-match run which brought ten defeats, three draws and only three goals. Manager Gary Caldwell was given the public backing of the board in November.

They have been on better form since Christmas, taking 11 points from seven games including home wins over Wycombe and Carlisle, with the latter taking them out of the relegation zone after they briefly fell into it.

They drew 0-0 at home to Cambridge United on Saturday then won 1-0 at Bristol Rovers on Tuesday, ending a run of one point from nine away games.

They lost a series of key players last summer then Demetri Mitchell, their star man in the early months of this season, sustained a long-term injury.

Collins said: “We’re all guilty of looking at results and making conclusions, but they faced a lot of injuries to attacking players.

“They went through a difficult spell. They have regrouped, got guys back and shown more of the performances they showed at the start of the season.

“They are a really awkward team to play.

“Gary has them playing great stuff.

“You have to play with good discipline against them.

“I thought we did that at Exeter and we will have to do the same here.”

He added: “They are a good footballing side who like to keep the ball, and play through the lines. We need to be very well-organised, give them respect in terms of ability. Their result at Bristol Rovers is a reminder of how difficult this league is. It is a one-goal game in nearly every Exeter game. We expect another tight match.”

Former Reds midfielder David Perkins is a first team coach for the Grecians but, due to a lack of players, was on the bench aged 41 on New Year’s Day when they lost at fellow strugglers Reading.

Exeter’s goalkeeper coach is another ex-Red in Kevin Miller who played for Barnsley in the 2000 play-off final.

Scottish forward Jack Aitchison, who left Oakwell a year ago, has one goal in 27 appearances for Exeter so far this season.

The clubs have met 23 times with Barnsley winning eight and losing 11.

Exeter did the double over the Reds last season but Barnsley won in Devon on October 7 with John McAtee netting a late winner before the team bus was engulfed in flames on the way home and they had to be rescued from the side of the M5. City won 2-0 at Oakwell last season during a difficult run for Michael Duff’s side in October.

This match will finish a month which has so far brought three wins and a draw. The Reds then begin February at fellow promotion-challengers Bolton Wanderers a week later.