Barnsley v Fulham: Bradshaw is happy to be hunter turned hunted on two fronts

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THE shirts of Barnsley and Wales have been particularly resplendent in their red hue throughout 2016.

The footballing voices of both club and country have resonated far beyond the former coalfield areas of South Yorkshire and the valleys and mountains of the Principality – and Tom Bradshaw sees no reason why both cannot continue to be loud and proud.

Tom Bradshaw hopes to force his way into Wales side by impressing with Barnsley.

Tom Bradshaw hopes to force his way into Wales side by impressing with Barnsley.

Success has garnered added respect from others from much further afield, with both the Welsh national team and Barnsley having fully earned that on the back of stellar accomplishments during a fine year with Chris Coleman and Paul Heckingbottom deserving of all the bouquets thrust into their direction.

That respect, inevitably, brings its own fresh challenges and added expectation. Both sides can now not be afforded the luxury of slipping under the radar. The ‘secret’ is out in many respects.

Not that Reds summer arrival Bradshaw sees that as a burden, with the pressure very much to be embraced. It is why, after all, that he was so keen to move to Oakwell.

Bradshaw, handed his first taste of being part of a World Cup qualification travelling squad during the recent trip to Austria, said: “In some respects, teams almost see Wales as a scalp now because of how well they did in the Euros.

“Speaking to the lads when we were away, we mentioned about how much it has changed in two-and-a-half years. To take 4,000 away to Austria shows how far Wales have come.

“Eighteen months ago, they were only half filling the Cardiff (City) Stadium and now it is packed to the rafters and I am sure it could fill twice over.

“Certainly, Wales have become more of a scalp and I think we are at Barnsley as well.

“I think some teams maybe underestimated us in the first four or five weeks and we flourished on that.

“But I think that teams are giving us a lot more respect now that we deserve because of our performances and we have got to improve that situation again.

“We have got a great squad of young players who we knew could thrive at this level. Everyone is pushing everyone else and it is all positive.”

Having dipped his toes into the Championship for the first time, the former Aberystwyth forward, 24 , has seen his international appetite whetted by his experiences as an unused substitute in two qualifiers in the past week – first in Vienna and then back in Cardiff for Monday’s Group D fixture with Georgia.

Bradshaw’s hope is that somewhere further down the line he can add to his solitary Welsh cap, with boosting his international prospects very much being in his thought process when he made the move to Barnsley.

Memories of Wales’ epic Euro 2016 adventure were still vivid when he made his £600,000 switch in mid-July, with a calf injury precluding Bradshaw’s squad involvement.

Not that it stopped him from cheering on Wales from afar. Far from it.

Bradshaw added: “Me and my girlfriend flew out to America to get some time away to completely refresh and recharge the batteries.

“The time difference was a bit crazy – I think it was eight hours – and I had to get up early or late to catch the games, but I caught most of them.

“My missus wasn’t too happy, but I managed to get a few beers and she was all right.

“Watching it gives you that hunger to want to improve as a player and make a great stake to get a starting position with Wales, which is obviously the dream.”

Even accounting for those international hopes, Bradshaw is quick to accept that his bread and butter very much remains establishing himself at Championship level.

After being the ‘main man’ up front for former club Walsall, the striker – who fired 20 goals for the Saddlers last term – is now one of four frontline forwards competing for a place on a weekly basis at Oakwell.

The competition levels in the striking department are intense with Bradshaw battling it out with Sam Winnall and Adam Armstrong, plus Marley Watkins with Stefan Payne representing another option once he returns from injury.

Bradshaw, Winnall, Armstrong and Watkins have all found the net twice at Championship level – and the smart money is on all of them continuing to share the workload in the weeks and months ahead as Heckingbottom utilises his squad options to keep the Reds fresh, firing and ‘on message’.

Bradshaw, whose two goals arrived in the head-turning 4-0 thrashings of Rotherham United and Wolverhampton, said: “It is a different situation to what I was in at Walsall, but it was one which I said to the gaffer that I wanted.

“You need to be pushed in terms of knowing you have to improve and keep your levels right to keep your team place.

“That can only make players improve and it was a situation I wanted and expected coming here to the Championship and, hopefully, I can keep improving and getting a starting place.

“Everyone is working hard to give the gaffer a headache.”

While Bradshaw admits he is still a work in progress at Championship level, he can still reflect upon a considerable journey from his days starting out at Aberystwyth.

Next weekend, he renews acquaintances with the man who handed him his big break thus far at Walsall in current Brentford manager Dean Smith – and he is the first to acknowledge that he owes him a considerable debt of gratitude ahead of that Griffin Park trip.

Bradshaw added: “He was huge and instrumental in me becoming the player I am.

“I signed at Walsall from Shrewsbury when I was 21, but I was almost a bit-part player at Shrewsbury and never given a full run.

“From day one at Walsall, Dean and Richard O’Kelly were brilliant and they improved me technically and physically and gave me the run in the team and I scored a few goals and they kept me in.

“It improved me as a player and person and enabled me to step up to the Championship with Barnsley.”