MANAGER Paul Heckingbottom has stressed that Barnsley’s outstanding start to the Championship campaign is no surprise to him – and he sees no reason why the Reds cannot continue to ‘overachieve’ in 2016-17.
The Reds and fellow Yorkshire club Huddersfield Town have made a mockery of the pre-season predictions of a number of pundits who tipped them to struggle with both riding high in the top echelons of the table.
Town currently lead the way ahead of this weekend’s action following their best start to a league season, but third-placed Barnsley are right on their coattails just a point behind.
The Oakwell outfit are seeking to record their fourth successive Championship win against visiting Reading tomorrow, a feat they last achieved in the winter of 2013 during the ‘great escape’ season of 2012-13 when the club defied the odds to stave off relegation under David Flitcroft.
While retaining their divisional status was the first seasonal aim of the Reds before a ball was kicked in August, Heckingbottom sees no harm in striving for much more.
His mindset is backed up by the club’s flying start this term, with the Reds currently the top-scorers in the EFL with 18 goals, with the winning momentum following a remarkable second half of last season having continued inexorably.
On whether the Reds’ stellar form has surprised him, Heckingbottom said: “Can you really be surprised over what they have done after last year? I do not think you can be after last season.
“Does it surprise me? No. I know how hard they work and how willing they are to take information on board and try and implement it on the pitch, so it is no surprise.
“We are well on the way, which is fantastic, but opening it up to the bigger picture, we have to keep it going and know what it takes to win and must keep pushing.
“Our aim is to overachieve and where that takes us, it takes us. You can never be satisfied where you are and it is always about the next thing.
“Our approach to the next game has to be ‘win it, win it’. You cannot be any simpler than that. Score as many goals as we can and concede as few as possible and that is mine and Tommy’s (coach Tommy Wright) job and all we should think about.”
The style that the Reds have shown on their return to the Championship has added lustre to their current lofty league position for not only supporters, but Heckingbottom too.
And for the boyhood Barnsley fan, it represents a source of considerable pride.
The Royston-born head coach, handed the permanent reins at Oakwell in the summer after presiding over the club’s dual Wembley successes in the League One play-off final and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy showpiece, added: “Everyone is talking about it and proud to be watching this team.
“And the pleasing thing for me is that we are providing a brand and style of football which people like to watch and will be talking about for a while.”
It may have been a team collective so far this term, but several players have stood out from the pack, none more so than talismanic captain Conor Hourihane.
The Cork-born midfielder beat off stiff competition from the likes of Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy and Fulham’s Tom Crainey to be crowned as the Sky Bet Championship player of the month for August and Heckingbottom fervently hopes that another cherished accolade is not long in coming, namely the 25-year-old’s maiden call-up into the senior Republic of Ireland ranks.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post earlier this year, Hourihane revealed his hopes that international recognition would arrive in due course if he stepped up to the Championship plate.
After his exemplary start to the current campaign, Heckingbottom is confident that his star man will have shown on the radar of the selectors of Ireland, whose assistant boss Roy Keane contacted Hourihane to wish him well ahead of the JPT final against Oxford United at the start of April.
On the prospect of Hourihane earning full international recognition with Ireland, next in action in World Cup qualifiers with Georgia and Moldova early next month, Heckingbottom said: “I would love him to. They (selectors) must be sitting up and taking notice.
“I was delighted he got the player of the month because you cannot ignore that.
“Conor has shown that he has been the best midfielder in the Championship at the start of this season and it is up to him to keep it going and for someone else to recognise that and think he can do a job for them.
“Everyone from the opposition are talking about Conor and the media are, and he is one of many in our side now who people are sitting up and taking notice of.
“Everyone knew that we had some good players in League One and now they are thinking, ‘They have good players in the Championship’ and long may it continue.”