BARNSLEY head coach Lee Johnson has thrown down the gauntlet to Dale Jennings to reignite his career – and potentially provide a trump card in the Reds’ play-off pitch.
The winger, who famously left first club Tranmere Rovers for past European champions Bayern Munich at the age of 18, arrived at Oakwell with a fair bit of fanfare in the summer of 2013 for around £250,000.
But flashes of inspiration have been fleeting during his two seasons at Oakwell.
Still only 22, the Liverpudlian is clearly at a bit of a crossroads in his career, with Johnson, just like his Reds predecessor Danny Wilson, being an unabashed fan of the player – at his best.
Jennings’s best spell so far at Barnsley saw him named as the Football League’s Player of the Month last March.
But Jennings has stood still this season in a campaign which has seen his confidence and fitness levels dip and he has yet to appear under Johnson.
The Tykes’ new boss said: “We have got to rebuild his confidence and get him physically in the right state.
“But there’s no doubt that at his best, he is one of the best players in the division. It is up to him really to get to his best.
“I am looking forward to whether we can turn him around, if you like, and get him to his peak. But, inevitably, it will be down to him.”
It is not just Spring in the air at Oakwell; under incoming Johnson there is also play-off talk from some optimistic supporters, buoyed by a run of four successive League One victories, all involving clean sheets.
It is all a far cry from just under three weeks ago when the Reds held 19th place in the table, just four points above the drop zone, after a humiliating 5-1 loss at Crawley Town on February 14.
Much was made by the Reds’ board of Johnson’s dynamic 100-day plan when interviewed for the Oakwell post, but whether this involved securing a play-off place is a moot point.
For Johnson’s part, he is not getting carried away and believes the 10th-placed Reds, two points behind the side currently occupying the final play-off place in Doncaster Rovers, must still win “six or seven” of their remaining 12 matches to progress to the end-of-season lottery.
This would eclipse the impressive statistics he mustered in hauling Oldham away from the League One drop zone when he arrived in Lancashire at the back end of the 2012-13 campaign, with the 33-year-old – Barnsley’s youngest manager since Allan Clarke arrived at the club in 1978 – steadfastly keeping his focus.
Johnson, who says that there is scope for new loan recruits with funds released following the departure of Leroy Lita to Notts County, said: “When I first came in, it was looking like the priority was to stay in the division.
“By hook or by crook, that had to be done.
“But the guys got the two wins under caretaker Mark Burton and followed up with two wins at the start of my reign and all of a sudden we are now looking in the other direction.
“With every win, you give yourself a better chance. But you are still going to need six or seven wins to have a chance and beat the teams around you.
“It’s a good start, but we must continue to strive forward. My dad was Latvia manager and they had a saying over there that you should never relax, because the minute you do, you get caught unstuck.
“We have got to make sure we stay focused and the good thing is, injury-wise, we are not too bad.
“Sam (Winnall) has come back, which is a big boost and gives us options and we have a little bit of scope to play with, if we need to, in the loan market.
“If you can recruit well on that, it makes your squad stronger.
“It is all going in the right direction and we know in football that perception can change with a win or loss and we have to go out on Saturday and keep the hammer down.”
Barnsley’s run is all the more laudable given that frontline striker and expensive summer signing Winnall has been on the bench in recent games, with last season’s League Two Golden Boot winner making his first appearance under the Johnson regime as a late substitute in Tuesday night’s 1-0 home victory over Coventry City.
Johnson says that the fit-again marksman, who has netted nine goals in an injury-hit season, is desperate to make an impression, with the Reds’ quartet of recent victories all the more commendable given that they have pretty much done it without key men in Winnall and Peter Ramage, still sidelined with a thigh injury.
Johnson, who says Barnsley are speaking with Manchester United about extending the loan stint of Ben Pearson – although they may have to fend off competition – said: “Hopefully in the run-in, Sam will be very important. You can see in training he’s chomping at the bit and sharp and is a good character and type, which is good, and he’s full of confidence.