SAM WINNALL insists that Barnsley’s season remains very much on track – despite the club heading into tonight’s marquee fixture with title favourites Newcastle United on the back of a five-match winless streak.
After a flying start to the campaign which saw the club among the early pacesetters, the ‘honeymoon period’ appears to be over with the Reds dropping from third to 11th in the past month, having taken just one point from the last 15 available.
In spite of that run, last season’s top-scorer Winnall, who netted his third goal of the season in Saturday’s 4-2 home loss to Fulham, believes that perspective needs to be afforded, given how far the club have come in the past calendar year.
Twelve months ago, the Reds were in the midst of a crippling eight-match losing sequence in League One which saw them drop into the relegation zone with the club also knocked out of the FA Cup in embarrassing fashion at Altrincham.
While the Reds – who will be without suspended central midfielder Josh Scowen this evening, with influential captain Conor Hourihane also a major doubt with a calf injury – are struggling to find top form, Winnall says the dose of realism is also required, given the club’s epic journey.
Winnall, seeking to find the net for a third successive home game tonight, said: “This time last season we were probably in the relegation zone in League One and now we are 11th in the Championship.
“Sometimes, you do have to be realistic and have a bit of perspective and realise we are actually doing really well and hope this continues.
“Look at the squad that we have got and, for most people, it is their first year at this level. Considering we have come in off the back end of last season and carried on what we have been doing, we are doing fantastically well.
“We are in mid-table at the moment and we want to be aiming higher.
“But, realistically, we have done fantastic so far and beaten some really big sides and played some really good football and just need to carry on.”
Despite his side’s recent form, head coach Paul Heckingbottom – likely to be down to his last 15 senior players against the second-placed Magpies with teenager midfielder Jared Bird and a couple of other Academy players likely to be in his match-day squad – says that everyone connected with the club is relishing tonight’s encounter.
A crowd in excess of 18,000 is expected this evening, including a sell-out contingent of 5,700 Newcastle supporters for the north-east club’s first visit to Oakwell since December, 2009.
On this evening’s test against Rafa Benitez’s Magpies, Heckingbottom said: “They are everyone’s favourites (for promotion).
“But playing at home with that extra atmosphere and energy will be great and it will give us that extra lift and that spark will be there. Everyone will be behind the team and it will be a good one.
“It will be a (near) full house here, which is great and perfect for us. To play in these games is why our players worked so hard to get promoted. It will be another big test and one we are going to enjoy.
“If we perform like we can, things will take care of themselves. Two glaring things from Saturday were that we need to be better with the ball and cut out the errors at the back. They were not individual ones, but organisational ones with the cover and reading of the game.”
Heckingbottom has stressed that the Reds will not deviate away from their defined transfer policy of bringing in young players with potential in the weeks and months ahead, even accounting for form and injury issues.
The club, mindful of their current low numbers in terms of senior first-team options, are keeping an eye on the free agent market, but any moves for any experienced Championship operators will not be in the equation.
Heckingbottom, who remains comfortable with the club’s recruitment strategy, added: “There is scope and we have been monitoring players in all positions who are free.
“But they have to be what we are about and the club are not going to be changing policy simply because we are light on bodies.
“They have to fit into our group of players and how we play and young with the potential to get better – and that is it.
“Patrick (owner Cryne) has spoken about it before and been upset when he has thought that we have committed ourselves to players who have not necessarily been right for the club because we have wanted someone as an emergency and are in a bit of a panic.
“I am all for that as well and everything we have to do is in the long-term interests of the club and that is fine by me.”
Last six games: Barnsley WLLDLL; Newcastle LWDWWW.
Referee: P Tierney (Lancashire).
Last time: Barnsley 2 Newcastle 2, December 12, 2009; Championship.