ONE YEAR on and, although it may not feel like it, Barnsley are in the same basic situation as at the end of last season – with two games against Bolton Wanderers between them and the League One play-off final at Wembley.

But this time the Reds, who ended the league season with ten points from 12 games, are not favourites to again win a semi-final against the Trotters who finished 11 points clear of them.

There has been much less positivity and consistency around the club than in last year’s run-in – with the shock sacking of Neill Collins last week the clearest example.

In contrast, Bolton were unbeaten in their last seven league games of the season, including a 3-3 draw at fourth-placed Peterborough on the final day which they began with a mathematical but distant chance of automatic promotion but they finished five points off second-placed Derby in third. They have won eight of their last 21 matches since January.

Wanderers finished with the best home record in the division with 50 points and were unbeaten in their last 12 league games at the Toughsheet Community Stadium since December, winning eight. But they only won one of their final eight away leagues – a big factor in missing out on second place.

Barnsley – until losing their last four away games – were the opposite, with a mid-table record at Oakwell and a club record away points tally plus the most goals on the road in the division by seven.

Despite the poor home form and unrest in some sections of the fanbase, there should be a big atmosphere at Oakwell tonight with home supporters keen to get behind their team if they compete well. Ideally they will take a lead into the away game on Tuesday but even a draw will be one of their better results for weeks and keep them well in the tie given their record on the road through the season.

Barnsley, who have not been consistently good all season, will likely need their best back-to-back performances of the campaign.

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Many of the current Barnsley starting 11 could leave the club in the summer, especially if they don’t achieve promotion – due to contracts or loans ending as well as the Reds’ selling policy. So, if they lose, it could be a last farewell for a whole host of good performers for the Reds. More will probably stay if they are promoted but tonight’s match is likely to be a goodbye for some to the Oakwell crowd.

Can they collectively put together 180 plus minutes of concentration and quality to reach Wembley for the second time in a year?


Dominik Thalhammer’s admission that he was set to become Barnsley head coach as Neill Collins was sacked but could not get a work permit is another humiliation and distraction for the Reds in the build-up to the semi-final.

We so far only have one side of the story but it appears to be the type of PR own goal they were trying to avoid with new appointments behind the scenes after the FA Cup expulsion.

Although you can rarely be confident predicting any future event at Oakwell, the chances of a new head coach taking over for any of the upcoming play-off games are receding all the time. There is a gap of 11 days between the second semi-final leg and the final but, if Martin Devaney has masterminded a win over heavy favourites Bolton across two legs, it would make little sense to replace him.

Perhaps there could be a change between the two legs if tonight’s game goes badly, as one final roll of the dice, but we are venturing into unheard-of and barely believable territory.

Firstly, Devaney needs to prove he is more than a positive-speaking cheerleader who is popular due to his connections to the club over two decades. He would not have been promoted into the first team set-up if he did not have tactical acumen and coaching nous which he must now display. If he can cut out the basic errors in defence – mainly a concentration issue – and devise a plan which rattles Bolton’s possession-based style, he will have at least sent his side out with a chance of competing.

Collins, from wherever he has been observing events after his sacking, must be wondering what has changed since his departure but Devaney, having scraped into the top six thanks to other results, now has another chance to prove himself.


The last time Bolton visited Oakwell, less than two months ago on March 5, the Reds went 2-0 up and were set to go level on points with the Trotters and Derby with a game in hand.

Collins’ side looked likely to secure a fourth straight win and had lost one in 20, with many of their upcoming games against relegation-battlers.

They were favourites for second.

But, from the moment ex-Red Victor Adeboyejo pulled one back, their season has been on a vicious downward spiral.

Bolton levelled with a rebound from a 98th-minute penalty save from Liam Roberts, Donovan Pines, who looked like the missing piece for the Reds after signing in January, was ruled out for the season, they were humiliated 5-1 at home to Lincoln, held 0-0 by now-relegated Cheltenham and beaten by badly off-form Cambridge after netting a comical own goal.

They lost their final four away games and are winless in six at home. It has been a miserable run in which they have collected less than a point per game while the rate at which they have conceded goals doubled. The reasons have been discussed in these pages and further analysis can follow once the season ends but for now all that matters is whether they can somehow reverse that slide across two games and get to Wembley.

A match against Bolton has been a turning point already this season and they need the next two to be the same in the opposite direction.


Despite all of the above, Barnsley are in the play-offs. Yes, they are there because other teams messed up on the final day and their points return in recent months would have them easily relegated to League Two if repeated across a whole campaign. But they are in the play-offs.

Over the whole season they collected 76 points and earned a place in the top six.

They can reset now, try to shrug off the pressure they have been playing under and the disappointment of recent weeks. They could be finalists in four days and champions in a fortnight.

Bolton, despite being one of the better sides in the division, are the kind of side the Reds usually enjoy playing against in terms of style.

When facing a team that passes out from the back, Barnsley can be an effective pressing and counter-attacking unit – as seen two weeks ago at champions Portsmouth before the late implosion.

In both games against Bolton this season, the Reds have had great success closing down the Trotters defenders and midfielders – robbing them of the ball and creating big chances and goals. Both home and away, the Reds were the better side for the first hour and should have had an unassailable lead. But Bolton eventually responded by playing more directly and came back into the game, equalising in both fixtures.

If these games follow a similar pattern, with Bolton boss Ian Evatt apparently keen to stick to his possession-based philosophy, the Reds must take their chances when on top and manage the game well for 90 minutes – something they have struggled to do all season.


Any analysis of this semi-final inevitably returns to one massive issue for Barnsley: they have not been defending well at all for months.

The Reds have conceded 25 games in the last 12 games, having let in 39 in the previous 34.

They have kept two clean sheets in 29 games.

The last time they conceded more than the 64 goals they have shipped this time in a third tier season was in 1964/65 when they finished last.

The problems are both individual and collective. Clearly they miss Pines’ physical dominance, while defender Josh Earl and goalkeeper Roberts are making regular mistakes among others.

They have started leaking goals from set pieces – with three conceded in successive games from right-wing corners before Saturday’s equaliser off a free-kick.

They do not have many tall players who can win regular headers and seem to lack the organisation and concentration to keep out those kind of goals.

Last season they only conceded once in 180 minutes against Bolton in the play-offs, giving up just a handful of chances.

It is hard to imagine that this time based on recent Reds performances and all the threats that Bolton possess with talented midfielders, speedy wing-backs and strikers with good movement.

Barnsley need to play to their strengths – press Bolton so they cannot get the ball forward regularly and apply pressure, disrupting their rhythm and allowing the Reds’ own impressive attackers the chance to make an impact.

Their total of 82 goals is the most Barnsley have scored in a season since the 1999/2000 campaign, and the second most since the early 1960s.

They have four players in double figures for goals this season so can pose a real threat.