BARNSLEY is basking in the glow of a good summer – but for many of its townfolk, it is nothing to do with the weather.
It is everything to do with the warm front centring around Oakwell, even complete with a refreshing breeze, a marked contrast to the stiff winds of 12 months ago.
If anyone can appreciate the balmy conditions compared to the summer of 2012, it is Reds defender Martin Cranie.
The former Coventry City captain barely had time to familiarise himself with his team-mates before being thrown in for his Reds debut against Middlesbrough on the first day of the 2012-13 season.
After spending a spell at Leeds in a far-from-seamless pre-season a year ago, Cranie linked up with Barnsley comparatively late in the day.
He still had not signed on the dotted line when he helped the Reds kick-off the season with a much-needed opening-day win over Boro.
That victory proved a false dawn, but this time around, Barnsley have real and genuine seasonal hope – regardless of what happens in this afternoon’s attractive Championship home opener with FA Cup holders Wigan Athletic.
Heading into last summer, Barnsley fans were forgiven for being pessimistic. Who would not have been given a disastrous run of four wins in 22 games in the second half of 2011-12 which would have yielded relegation had it not been for the off-the-field implosion at Portsmouth, docked 10 points and consigned to League One?
Factor in the loss of a talismanic influence in Jacob Butterfield and a miniscule budget and it was easy to see why gritty realism dominated – even in the usually effervescent tones of former manager Keith Hill.
What a difference a year makes. New-look Barnsley – with a transformed operational structure in place off the pitch and a raft of new signings arriving in the building nice and early – are positively effusive ahead of this season’s start.
That is also down to their head-turning upturn in the second-half of 2012-13 which culminated in survival on the last day of the campaign.
Cranie, one of seven players convinced to re-sign this summer following the feelgood factor generated by manager David Flitcroft and company since the New Year, said: “I signed after the first game last season and didn’t do pre-season, which wasn’t ideal.
“I think it has really helped doing the (full) pre-season this year. Last year, I was at Leeds for three weeks and it was a case of coming straight in here. But I have got the games in this year and have played all the games with no injuries and not missed training sessions.
“I want to pick up from where I left off last season and play as many games consistently as I can.
“I am very happy with what we have got here with a few new faces, while the lads are aware of the changes in the background.
“It can’t change us too much, but it’s good for the club and fans to see the club are moving in the right direction. We will focus on the training side of things and games and, hopefully, everyone off the pitch can support us.”
One of the Championship’s top form sides since January, Barnsley’s vital statistics of taking 34 points from 21 league games in 2013 was a record bettered by just three other rivals.
Given that, the hope – with some justification – at Oakwell is that the club can finally avoid what seems to be their perennial scramble against the drop.
The spectre of relegation has stalked them for virtually all of their last seven seasons at this level, with their highest finish since returning to the second tier being a modest 17th, achieved under Mark Robins in 2010-11.
Thanks to the events of January onwards, the mindset of focusing purely on survival is rightly considered as being too narrow and while everyone at Barnsley is savvy enough not to make outlandish predictions of play-off pushes and the like, it is clear the bar has been raised.
Cranie, whose feats last season were recognised in being named as the Reds’ player’s player-of-the-year, said:
“It’s no good us going into the season thinking: ‘We are going to scrape relegation again this year’ or you end up doing that and struggling.
“With the players we have, we’ve got a good foundation in the team and if we finish mid-table, we will look at it as a great season.
“We have got to start from there and if we can go better, that would be fantastic.
“We played the teams at the top in the second half of last season and in the play-offs and beat most of them when they came down here, and then we picked up vital points at the likes of Cardiff and Palace.
“We got a massive boost from the second half of last season with the results and we know we can compete with the big teams in the league now. We have nothing to be afraid of on Saturday; obviously it’s a good Premier League team coming down here, but we showed last season we can beat the top teams.
“We have had a good pre-season and everyone is fit and I don’t see any reason why we cannot pick up three points.
“The three teams who came down last season struggled and you never know how they are going to do. Wigan could be flying or maybe don’t know where they are with a new manager and players and haven’t gelled yet.
“We have just got to concentrate on what we can do and we’ll be fine.”