Leon Wobschall: Barnsley pay ultimate price after failing to learn lessons

TAKE THE STRAIN: Paul Heckingbottom shows his concern during a home match against Middlesbrough last October. He later left to take over at rivals Leeds United.
TAKE THE STRAIN: Paul Heckingbottom shows his concern during a home match against Middlesbrough last October. He later left to take over at rivals Leeds United.
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PRE-SEASON results only occasionally offer a glimpse into what is to come in the subsequent campaign.

Barnsley supporters may cast their minds back to an oppressive and uncomfortable afternoon in Rotherham last summer that sowed the seeds of doubt that 2017-18 was going to be a rough old season.

Others would venture that the signs were apparent well before then for the Reds, the winter transfer window of 2017 to be precise.

But back to last summer and July 29 when the Reds headed down the Dearne Valley and were smashed 4-0 by a rampant Rotherham United side in the most one-sided pre-season friendly you can imagine.

It was not so much the margin of the defeat that was troubling, but more the collective brittleness of those in Barnsley colours, who were outclassed, outfought and ‘old-manned’ by their counterparts in Millers’ colours.

For those sat in the press box the conclusion was inescapable. Knowing looks were exchanged and comments made. Barnsley were in for a long, long season.

Nine and a half months on and the Millers are three games away from a Championship return and Barnsley are heading the other way. Most who attended that warm-up game at the New York Stadium will not be surprised.

Men against boys, then manager Paul Heckingbottom sagely uttered afterwards, suggesting that the Reds were ‘miles away’ in both numbers and quality in terms of assembling a fit-for-purpose Championship side.

It was a recurring theme: men against boys. It was apparent on the opening day at Bristol City just as it was on the final assignment at Derby on Sunday and in several other painful episodes in between. Forest away, Millwall at home, Bolton away, Derby at home.

The trouble largely came from that thorny issue of recruitment, which saw Barnsley always seemingly playing catch-up.

NAIVE: Jose Morais didn't have what it took to deal with the combative nature of The Championship.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

NAIVE: Jose Morais didn't have what it took to deal with the combative nature of The Championship. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Just as they had previously failed to lock a host of leading players into contract extensions, the likes of Josh Scowen and Marley Watkins followed Sam Winnall and Conor Hourihane to Championship rivals – the heart ripped out of a side who were knocking on the door of the play-offs in early 2017.

Put bluntly, this season was always an accident waiting to happen.

Heckingbottom’s comments on that dismal afternoon in Rotherham were reinforced by a grim 3-1 opening-day loss at Ashton Gate – and so began a season when most connected with the club would have taken a fourth-from-bottom finish before a ball was kicked.

In a standard season Barnsley would have been probably been relegated several weeks ago and perish the thought what would have occurred had Oli McBurnie not arrived on loan in January.

It was a recurring theme, men against boys. It was apparent on the opening day at Bristol City just as it was on the final assignment at Derby on Sunday and in several other painful episodes in between.

Leon Wobschall

After some dark times in pre-season squad numbers were eventually replenished and money spent. But the demands of the Championship and the lack of second-tier experience among those signings ensured results were scratchy.

Barnsley were always on the defensive, but a second chance arrived in the last window when the need for Championship-ready captures was paramount.

But, McBurnie aside, recruitment was again underwhelming.

Then when Barnsley required a trouble-shooter to save their season and inspire a squad – after Heckingbottom upped sticks to take over at Leeds – they took the gamble of appointing Jose Morais, someone with no experience of one of the most competitive and testing divisions around.

Another punt that led to another harsh lesson.

ANOTHER ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Marley Watkins.' Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

ANOTHER ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Marley Watkins.' Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe