JANUARY was an often quiet window for Barnsley, punctuated by some important decisions which could define the promotion chase.
The window was just a few hours old when Donovan Pines sauntered into the Oakwell directors’ box to watch a match, signing the following week. But it took until the first day of February for Barnsley to make another signing, bringing in Josh Earl, then Conor Grant’s loan capture was confirmed the next day.
They tried to bring in a striker on deadline day but missed out, despite some significant bids.
January is notoriously tough to recruit in and the market has been slow at most levels even in the usually cash-crazy Premier League.
Barnsley’s window was overseen by acting director of football Bobby Hassell, who is now set to be replaced by data expert Mladen Sormaz.
Although they received many millions for sales last summer, and from the owners, Barnsley is clearly not a club flush with cash. They had been saddled with expensive failed signings and are still counting the cost of relegation while not all the outgoing transfer fees came in at once.
There are some positions lacking strength in depth, which could hinder a top two charge, but they should – if fortunate with injuries and more like their performance at Bolton on Saturday than against Exeter a week earlier – maintain a place in at least the top six.
They got Callum Styles and Aaron Leya Iseka’s significant wages off the books as well as two players who wanted to move on – leaving behind a united and motivated group.
The arrival of Earl, who can play left-back in a back four unlike anyone else in the squad, and Conor Grant – who can play number ten behind the strikers instead of John McAtee dropping back there – provides Collins with more formation options and tactical flexibility.
The main positive is they retained all their star players despite several being out of contract in the summer. Barnsley had not sold a first team starter in their last four January windows since Preston broke their club record to sign Brad Potts in 2019.
You could argue that record continues as it is debatable if Styles is in Barnsley’s best 11 or not, and of course he has been loaned, not sold.
Certainly the idea that they consistently derail promising campaigns with winter sales is now out of date.
In total, they have loaned out ten players in this window – some under 21s, others players with bright futures at Oakwell – but it is also a symptom of failed recruitment in previous windows.
Barnsley’s first choice team looks strong.
The signing of Pines – assuming he performs as well as expected and adds a dominant physical presence – allows them to play a back three of natural centre-backs with Mael de Gevigney on the right and either Jamie McCart or Earl on the left.
That means Jordan Williams could return to his previous right wing-back role after a difficult spell in the back three.
With Luca Connell, Herbie Kane and Adam Phillips all fit to play in midfield again, and Nicky Cadden on the left, it is the five across the middle that played so much last season.
Then up front they have the top-scorer in the division, Devante Cole, who has forged an effective partnership with the impressive McAtee.
It looks to be a first 11 which is capable of competing for the top six.
But do they have enough strength in depth?
While they have three right wing-backs, Cadden is the only real option on the left following the exits of Styles and recalled Burnley loanee Owen Dodgson.
A Cadden injury would lead to a change in formation or someone playing out of position.
Earl is seen as a possible back-up but laughed when asked about playing there on Saturday.
Behind the reliable midfield three, they have the wildly-inconsistent Jon Russell, the injury-plagued Josh Benson and untested arrival Grant.
Their back-up strikers are Sam Cosgrove, who has one goal in 21 games this season, and Max Watters who has four in 28 – although they have both mainly been substitutes.
They were not used at Bolton on Saturday even when the game was in the balance.
Barnsley loaned out defenders Jack Shepherd – who had started the previous four league games – and Kacper Lopata who had been a regular on the bench, to League One relegation-battlers.
That is likely to be good for their long-term development into first team regulars for Barnsley but it leaves the Reds short of depth in defenders until Pines can play. They will have to hope McCart returns as planned and there are no other injuries in the short-term.