The surprise package of last season, Barnsley plan to continue confounding the critics as they head into 2017. Richard Sutcliffe reports.
WHEN Barnsley bade farewell to 2015, they did so on the back of a six-game run that had yielded 10 points.
Despite that, the Reds were just a point above the League One relegation zone and the talk around Oakwell was of prevailing in a likely survival scrap rather than the double Wembley success that the club went on to enjoy.
The incredible turnaround that followed, capped by May’s play-off final victory over Millwall,y, is why no-one at the South Yorkshire club is going to get carried away by Paul Heckingbottom’s sitting ninth at the halfway stage this season.
“You only have to look where we were last Christmas,” defender Marc Roberts told The Yorkshire Post. “Bottom of League One and yet look how we finished. We went on a brilliant run and ended up having a great season.
“I am sure the big teams will come strong in the second half of the Championship season. But we have to concentrate on ourselves, do the right things week in and week out in training and then take that into games. If we do that, we will be fine.”
Considering Barnsley’s most recent stay in the second tier lasted eight years though the club’s highest placing was 17th, it was perhaps inevitable that the bookmakers would not fancy Heckingbottom’s men making too much of an impact following promotion.
Just Burton Albion and Rotherham United were priced at shorter odds for the drop than the Reds in August but a return of 34 points from 23 games means the play-offs are within touching distance.
It is a mightily impressive showing and one that has been characterised by plenty of free-flowing football. Only Newcastle United have scored more than the 40 goals that Barnsley have to their name this season and another victory at home to Birmingham City on Saturday will ensure a very happy ending to what has been a momentous year at Oakwell.
The key, of course, is continuing to build on that progress in the New Year. A trip to Nottingham Forest will kick-off 2017 for Heckingbottom’s men, who then face an eminently winnable FA Cup third-round tie at League Two Blackpool.
Heckingbottom made plain his desire to keep driving his players forward in the wake of the Boxing Day triumph at home to Blackburn Rovers.
After acknowledging his side had no been at their best, the Reds chief revealed his aim before a ball was kicked in anger this season had been for a lot more than merely staying up in the Championship.
“Don’t get me wrong, we would be happy with survival but we don’t set that as the end goal,” he added. “We are ninth now. We aren’t satisfied with that, either. It is all about how good can we be? How far can we go? That is how we work.”
Roberts echoes the sentiments of his head coach, once again pointing to how Barnsley turned things around a year ago.
“Last season showed that things can change quickly,” added the former FC Halifax Town defender. “That is more the case in this league than the one we were in last season.
“Look how tight it all is. There isn’t a lot of points between the top and bottom. Win a couple of games and you shoot up the league but lose a couple and the opposite is true. We have had spells of winning a couple of games and people start looking up the table. We just have to concentrate on ourselves and if we do that, we will be fine. I am sure we can finish in a good position.”