Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium, nestled just by the side of the M6 motorway, is a venue etched in the memory of Dale Tonge.
It was here that Barnsley famously rubber-stamped a second trip to Wembley in the space of a few months in a joyous Spring uprising in 2016. There was more than a hint of swagger from the Reds after they eased past the Saddlers 3-1 in the League One play-off semi-final second-leg.
Tonge can also recount another famous May result, in 2006, when he was part of a Reds line-up who triumphed 2-1 in that particular corner of the West Midlands to seal top-six qualification – thanks to goals from Marc Richards and Daniel Nardiello – the latter netting the winner with a late penalty.
That 2005-06 season also culminated in promotion back to the second tier and should Barnsley prevail against relegation-threatened hosts tomorrow their route back to the Championship will look less hazardous.
A victory would move Daniel Stendel’s second-placed side five points clear of nearest rivals Sunderland and, while the Wearside club will hold two matches in hand, three points would increase the pressure upon Jack Ross’s outfit.
With Sunderland not returning to league action until April 3 – due to international call-ups this weekend and the Checkatrade Trophy final with Portsmouth on Sunday week – they could find themselves eight points adrift of Barnsley, albeit having played three games fewer, if the Reds win their next two matches.
Tonge said: “I have really fond memories of Walsall and at the last game (in 2016) I was there and the boys were on a great run.
“Equally, when I was there in 2006 it was the last game that got us in the play-offs. I have good memories of the place itself and am looking forward to going there.
“We are under no illusions that Saturday is a massive game and we can extend the gap. But equally we know it will be very tough and they are fighting for their lives and in a predicament. Add to that the fact that they are on Sky and will want to beat a top team.”
On potentially increasing some psychological pressure upon Sunderland, he added: “Ultimately they have to do their thing and we have to do ours.
“We know if we win both our games it will put pressure on them. We are not going to hide from that, but we have got to do our job or it becomes irrelevant.
“We will focus on us and what will be, will be.
“Especially with their current form the league is the most important thing for Sunderland. Cups can be an added bonus or a hindrance. I am not sure what their squad is looking like at the minute, but it is obviously for them to deal with.
“April will be a tough one for them, but they are a big club with lots of players with a big budget and staff, and I am sure they will be able to cope.”
Barnsley have certainly coped with setbacks in recent times, handling the double-whammy of injury and suspensions to keep their promotion bandwagon on course by virtue of an 18-match unbeaten run.
A season-ending leg-break suffered by Kenny Dougall in last Friday’s game at Doncaster Rovers represented their latest piece of adversity, and they must make do without influential captain Adam Davies and winger Ryan Hedges tomorrow with the pair on international duty with Wales.
Welcome news sees Jacob Brown and Cameron McGeehan return from three-match bans, while Jack Walton is set to deputise for Davies and make his first league appearance in goal since appearing in the televised win over Luton in mid-October.
Tonge said: “We have trust in the group and you have seen that in the gaffer’s selections.
“Everybody was of the same opinion that when he (Walton) came in at the end of last season he was outstanding. We are in a really good situation and have ’keepers fighting for first spot at the same time. It can only be a good position.”
Tonge is challenging winger Hedges to use his midweek man-of-the-match performance with Wales as a catalyst to help play a prominent role in the Reds’ promotion charge.
Hedges caught the eye in the Principality’s friendly win over Trinidad and Tobago in Wrexham on a noteworthy night that saw Davies make his cherished debut for Ryan Giggs’s side.
Tonge added: “I thought Hedgey performed very well and ended up getting the man-of-the-match, which was brilliant.
“I am hoping that his confidence will be high and this will catapult him. He is a confidence character.
“When he is confident he is firing and you see it in training and in games.
“On the opposite side he can be in little fits and starts and I am hoping that this will catapult him for the rest of the season.”
On Davies’s overdue first cap, Tonge continued: “It is not just this season, but in recognition of the past two or three seasons.
“Adam is a character who does not shout and bawl and say, ‘this is me’, but he lets his performances do the talking. This season has highlighted what a good ’keeper he is.”