Barnsley teenager James Bree feared his Wembley dream could have been ruined by injury.
The 18-year-old has been one of the Tykes’ success stories this season, making 22 appearances, after taking over the right-back shirt from Reece Wabara.
But a hamstring tear in the 2-0 win over Coventry City on March 1 sidelined Bree, and left him fearing he would miss out on tomorrow’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final.
The Wakefield-born teenager had helped the Reds get to Wembley after featuring in earlier rounds against the likes of Wigan Athletic and Fleetwood Town. But Bree is now back in training – he was an unused substitute in Monday’s 1-0 win at Port Vale – and is hoping to be named in Paul Heckingbottom’s match-day squad to face Oxford United tomorrow.
“It was really good to be back for the Port Vale game,” said Bree. “After being out injured, I was always worried about whether I could get back. So to get back in and around the team the week before Wembley was a good experience.
“The hamstring is always dodgy, you never really know if it’s fully right.
“But I am feeling good and with the ultimate prize of Wembley, I think I have been able to push myself on.
“It’s feeling good at the moment and back to normal so, hopefully, I won’t get a twinge before the end of the season.
“I have done a lot of work with the physio to try and get back to full fitness.
“I have just tried to think positively (about making Wembley) and just worked really hard to get back.
“At one point, it was touch and go, but the fitness guys said I have done really well.
“It has been a strange season. It’s just been a case of keeping my sharpness up, because I have been in and out of the team.
“I had quite a long spell out, and when I got my chance that gave me the motivation to think ‘right, I have got to do well to keep the spot’.
“With Reece moving on in December it has given me a really good chance to put a run of games together.
“Unfortunately, I just picked up this little injury.
“George Williams has done great since he came in, done really well, very solid at the back both at left-back and right-back.
“Hopefully, I will start on Sunday, but with the lads getting a win on Monday it might be tough to push myself back in.
“I am really excited. Everyone says as a little kid you dream of playing at Wembley, even taking the winning penalty, and I am no different.
“It will be a chance to live the dream if I do get to walk out there on the pitch, even for a few minutes, it will be massive for everyone.”
Barnsley secured their Wembley place after a two-legged tie with Fleetwood, the latter game coming on February 4.
But the Reds have managed to shut out thoughts of the final as they battle to gatecrash the League One promotion scene.
“It’s crazy and has come around really fast,” admitted Bree. “Obviously we have had our focus on the league games and have tried not to think about Wembley. To play at Wembley will be really exciting and it will be a big game for us all.
“We have all been thinking about the final, but we have a job to do in the league, and that’s been our main aim.
“It’s all been about picking up points in the league as we all want promotion at the end of the season. We want to win the JPT, but Hecky and Tommy Wright have just been telling us to take it one game at a time, focus on the next game.
“Now Wembley is the next game, and our focus is on that game.”
The presence of Heckingbottom – a former full-back at Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City – in the dug-out and at training has helped Bree quickly settle in.
The pair have worked closely together at Oakwell for a long time, starting out in the Under-14 age group.
“Hecky has been really good,” said Bree. “I have worked with him closely since he was the Under-14s coach, then through the Under-18s and Under-21s.
“He has helped me a lot in my time at Barnsley, and with him being a full-back when he used to play, he’s really helped me in my career and pushed me on.”
There has been a buzz in training this week, but Bree admits there will be some pre-match nerves at the weekend if he makes the match-day squad.
Bree said: “Everyone is buzzing in training, four points from two games in a tough Easter weekend.
“With Wembley just around the corner everyone has been in high spirits, knowing we can really achieve something this season. Everyone has been working really hard.
“I will be nervous on Sunday, but I am quite relaxed now.
“I still do get a few nerves before games, but I think that’s a good thing. It helps you concentrate and focus on the game.
“If I do get to walk out at Wembley I will be nervous, but it’s just another game at the end of the day.”