IT promises to be a season-defining afternoon for Championship duo Barnsley and Doncaster Rovers today – with Tykes chief executive Ben Mansford labelling their game with Millwall at Oakwell as their most important of the campaign.
Four of the sides in the bottom five of the Championship square off, with the stakes immeasurably high for the second-from-bottom Reds, who can move to within two points of safety, with a game in hand, if they beat the 21st-placed Lions.
Paul Dickov’s Rovers, one place above Millwall, visit basement club Yeovil Town today, knowing that a second away victory of the season could see them move nine points away from the relegation zone.
On the downside, if Rovers lose and results go against them elsewhere, they could find themselves just three points above the bottom three this evening.
It has all the makings of this being the most important day for Yorkshire clubs at the bottom of the Championship since ‘Survival Saturday’ on May 4, 2013, when Barnsley, Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday all went into the final-day programme harbouring relegation fears.
Seventeenth-placed Wednesday, seeking to avoid a third straight league loss, also have key business to attend to today in their derby at Huddersfield, with FA Cup matters being put firmly on the back-burner.
The lion’s share of the pressure rests on Barnsley, mindful that defeat would be a huge blow in their quest to secure a ninth season of Championship football.
Mansford told the Yorkshire Post: “It’s probably no under-statement to call the Millwall game the most important of the season. If we win that and also the re-arranged game with Charlton, you can see a path towards safety.
“Everything is geared towards staying in this division and we have 16 ‘cup finals’ left and it’s no different to last year.
“If we are not successful against Millwall, it will look like a real uphill task.
“But I have no worries at all that Danny (Wilson) will encourage and motivate the boys to fight until it’s not possible. But, hopefully, we will be staying up.
“I am a ‘glass half-full’ person. I know that might not be typically ‘Barnsley’ or, indeed, Yorkshire, but I believe the squad we have got is better than the one we had this time last year. I’m an optimist and believe the tide will turn.”
That said, what can not be dressed up is that the Reds’ season has been a big let-down thus far with hopes that they would build on their amazing form in the second half of 2012-13, when they lost just four times in 20 league matches, proving groundless.
While supporters are hurting, so is everyone associated with the club, according to Mansford.
He added: “In the summer, we were riding a bit of euphoria and looking up and not down.
“We didn’t expect to be where we are and I want fans to know that the owners, board of directors and myself hate losing as much as them. We feel their frustrations, disappointments and anger.
“No-one in the backdrop of what happened in the second half of last season believed we would be five points adrift of safety.”
Rovers fans have been provided with free coach travel for today’s trek to Huish Park with the game sandwiched between similarly lengthy trips to Brighton and Bournemouth, with Dickov hoping to reward them further with a long overdue away win and a first seasonal double.
The Rovers chief has not shied away from the importance of the game, just as he did not ahead of big tests in their past month against Barnsley and Charlton.
Dickov said: “It’s another big one and we will approach this game in the same way as we approached the Barnsley game.
“We have confidence and feel we are playing well, scoring goals and in good form. If you take a couple of mistakes away from last Saturday (2-2), we are also defending really well.
“We have had one defeat in the past six games and desperately want to keep that run going.”
Owls head coach Stuart Gray is concentrating firmly on the bread-and-butter of league matters and refusing to get side-tracked by constant talk in the city regarding Monday’s eagerly-anticipated FA Cup tie against Charlton and the juicy prospect of a Steel City quarter-final.
He said: “When I’m walking down Ecclesall Road and somebody comes up and says ‘all the best on Monday’ I just bat it back and say ‘we’ve got a game on Saturday!’
“What I don’t want to do is over-hype it.
“We’ve got to make sure we concentrate on the jobs we have to do: we’ve got an important game at Huddersfield.”
Football previews: Pages 2-4.