A MONTH ago, the sight of successive league fixtures against Preston, Bristol City and Sheffield United would have been viewed with a considerable amount of trepidation by Barnsley supporters.
How times have changed since then in Lee Johnson’s brave new world with all of the Reds’ next three opponents, as it stands, entitled to be the ones with concerns.
Barnsley, in surfing speak, are riding the wave after a marvellous run of six victories and one draw in their past seven games and while the fixture list affords them no let-up with engagements against the top two and another promotion-chaser and local rival, Johnson is embracing them to the full.
The Reds, who have shot up from 19th place to sixth in the past month, are in the perfect moment to address three epic tests, which provide a barometer of their inexorable recent rise.
You sense Johnson would not have it any other way with the Reds’ head coach retaining a boyish enthusiasm about the fixtures ahead.
He said: “There are great games. Four or five weeks ago, I don’t think too many people would have been getting excited about this time.
“Maybe these games could have been relegation ones.
“If you are not excited as a player, you may as well give up now because we are sixth in the table and up there on merit and in form and playing well and everyone is behind us; that’s the sort of atmosphere you want to play in.
“I know I feel frustrated because I still think I should be playing and I get the buzz as if I am sometimes. But I think it will be a good time.”
Barnsley may have created expectation given their outstanding sequence of results, but the pressure will weigh more heavily on the shoulders of Preston, Bristol City and the Blades in the coming games, according to Johnson.
Instead of potentially needing points to survive in the division, the Reds are chasing wins to consolidate a top-six spot, but each of their next three opponents will be under a more intense spotlight, in his view.
He added: “I think I’d rather have these games than playing the bottom three at home and the fact we have two exciting games at Oakwell where everybody is pumped up and people are not expecting us to trounce somebody makes it easier as a player to go out there.
“If one bobbles over your foot and you shank one out of play, everyone gives you a clap. But if it’s against Yeovil, they will start groaning. It’s human nature.
“We are in credit and that’s important and Oakwell is a tough place to come again.
“The fact is you can beat the top teams and easily get beaten by the bottom teams and it is about being in the moment.
“I think it is good we have got these next three games and it will keep us focused, energise the players and our crowd will energise the players and I am looking forward to them.”
As the season enters the home straight, Johnson believes that his side, despite their wonderful run, are likely to need another five wins from their remaining games to nail the play-off spot they are currently holding.
But it is a task that his side, given recent form, are more than capable of achieving and while Johnson is savvy enough to realise that Barnsley’s dream sequence will not last forever, he sees a well-equipped team who possess the fortitude to extend their season into late May.
He added: “I think we are going to need at least five wins and probably a couple of draws as well to nick one of those play-off spots.
“If we lose the next two, it is not the be-all and end-all, but we will have to go on another run then.
“It’s a case of keeping the hammer down and showing that work-rate and energy. If we do, with the crowd behind us, anything can happen.
“We are really good at set-pieces and have good height and movement and a really good defensive record at the moment and it is something we can build on.
“Of course, stuff is going to happen with 10 games left and we are going to have to come from behind sometimes and, hopefully, we are going to get a last-minute winner.
“But we might as well just enjoy the ride as this is a bit of a bonus which is a good way of looking at it. While we are here, we’ll give it a right go.
“There will be ups and downs. I used to go down the programme and add it up at the end and decide we are champions by 100 points.
“But so many things happen in a football match and you just have to keep going and trust yourselves.
“Every win you get at this stage of the season is massive. Not only do you gain three points, but you have one less to play.
“What I do know is we are up for the battle.”
Preston arrive at Oakwell today at the top of the League One form table along with Barnsley, with Johnson full of praise for the job done by North End manager Simon Grayson, who tried to sign him twice as a player – when he was previously managing Blackpool and Leeds United.
With promotions from this division on his CV with Blackpool, Leeds and Huddersfield, not too many would bet against Grayson achieving another, with Johnson full of praise for his work at Preston – and the squad at his disposal.
He added: “They are a strong side and the big thing is their squad is strong and they have invested heavily and have a good manager who knows this division.
“He has an exceptional record in League One, there’s no doubt.
“I hate (Joe) Garner up front and he annoys the life out of me. But that means I like him.
“He’s an excellent player and a winner in this division.
“The quicker he gets out of the division, the better. But on the day, we must make sure our centre-halves stop him.
“But we won’t lay down and die and will be up and at them.”