Barnsley v Nottingham Forest: Tykes aiming to stay one step ahead of pack

aptain Conor Hourihane has had initial talks about a contract extension with Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).
aptain Conor Hourihane has had initial talks about a contract extension with Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).
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FEW would deny that the past 12 months have been anything other than a stupendous journey for Barnsley Football Club.

Ahead of a game in front of the Sky cameras this evening in front of a watching national audience, it would seem an opportune moment to reflect on just how far the Reds have come.

While acknowledging that fact, Paul Heckingbottom – more akin to a seasoned manager as opposed to one who has just under 10 months of hardened experience in the role – is rather more focused on the next destination as opposed to the club’s stellar accomplishments over the last year.

For the record, this time 12 months ago, Barnsley had just tumbled to their ninth defeat in 10 League One matches in a tempestuous autumn, with a 3-2 loss at Peterborough United sending them to rock bottom.

A run that was wonderfully beguiling followed, with the Reds afforded Wembley glory – not once, but twice – in the Spring. Now they are consolidating their place in the Championship as winter approaches.

Heckingbottom is striving for much more, putting past feats firmly in the past.

That refreshingly old-school approach could be seen immediately after commandeering the club’s Johnston’s Paint Trophy and League Two play-off final wins – when he spoke straightaway about the next challenges when many young managers in his shoes would have milked the moments for all they were worth.

His mindset would surely have brought a sage nod of heads from rather more feted managerial grandees from Paisley to Clough and Stein to Busby.

On the Reds’ past 12 months, he said: “To be honest, I don’t think about it. For me, it is ‘how can we get better.’

“People do keep mentioning the past year and Forest on Friday night on Sky; I don’t know the fixture we had last year, but it will have been a million miles away.

“It is good where we are and we are enjoying it and everyone is. We know it is hard work with the teams above us and their resources, but we know we can do better and upset a few.

“You have to do (think ahead), don’t you? I have got a little bit of a mind on next week already and I am always thinking one step ahead.

“Speaking to other managers and people I know at other clubs and in the game, all the feedback is positive about us and how we play and what we have done and where we are going.

“That is great; but they are just words. We have to just keep winning games.”

Winning in front of a televised audience is something that Barnsley proved proficient at in their intoxicating ride in the second half of 2015-16 – dual Wembley wins and the play-off semi-final triumphs over Walsall representing wondrous occasions.

There is also plenty of incentive for the Reds tonight when three points could lift them – temporarily at least – seven places to eighth place ahead of the weekend’s main Championship programme.

Heckingbottom, grounded as ever, may be more inclined to look at the next challenge if that arises, but he accepts it would prove a psychological fillip for his players, seeking their first win in seven league matches at Oakwell since the 4-0 derby demolition of Rotherham United in late August.

On the value of a victory this evening in terms of shooting up the table, Heckingbottom said: “That is something I have been thinking about. But as soon as that is done, my focus will be thinking about the game next weekend and who I am watching on the Saturday afternoon.

“For us and the staff, we are on that never-ending cycle. But for the players, I would love them to be checking their phones and seeing where it puts us in the league.”

Back onto the future and Heckingbottom is already making plans with the club having held ‘initial discussions’ with a number of players whose deals expire in the summer

Those include captain Conor Hourihane and Sam Winnall, but while acknowledging that it is the prerogative of any player to run down their deals, Heckingbottom insists that the club will not be forced to sell anyone in January if any choose not to commit by then.

He said: “Players might put themselves in a position where they want to sit their contracts out and see what happens in the summer. If the club cannot tie them down, that might be the case.

“Our priority is staying in this league and we have made clear as a club that we don’t need to (sell in January). Our priority is being as strong as possible for this season and retaining our Championship status.

“If selling our better players weakens us, we would be silly to do so unless we have got a replacement in.”

Last six: Barnsley LLWDDD; Nottingham Forest WLLLDW.

Referee: O Langford (West Midlands).

Last time: Barnsley 1 Nottingham Forest 0, March 8, 2014; Championship.