LEE JOHNSON believes Barnsley will return as heroes if they secure a positive result at League One champions-elect Bristol City today – and admits it is the toughest assignment of his Reds tenure so far.
The Oakwell head coach has enjoyed a dream start to his time at the club, who have yet to see their colours lowered during his six games at the helm.
All told, Barnsley – including caretaker-manager Mark Burton’s time in charge – are unbeaten in eight matches and will equal a 10-year-old record if they win or draw today.
The last time Barnsley boasted a nine-game unbeaten league run was between November 2004 and February 2005, but to emulate those feats, Johnson feels his side will have to be at the top of their game against one of his former clubs.
Steve Cotterill’s side are seeking to crown a fabulous week in style after winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final on Sunday against Walsall at Wembley in front of 40,000 ecstatic Bristolians in a crowd of over 72,000.
Celebrations may have been the order of the day at the start of the week, but the Robins are now focusing on the second leg of a famous league and cup double.
The West Country outfit can move 16 and 13 points clear of third-placed Swindon and second-placed Preston, respectively, with victory today, which would put them on the cusp of promotion.
Acknowledging the task in hand for Barnsley, who have not won on 13 visits to Ashton Gate since October, 1993, Johnson said: “If you look at sheer individual quality, one versus one, they have the best group of individuals in the division.
“They have done very well. Credit to them and Steve Cotterill. They have really cruised it and they have never really looked in doubt or danger.
“After winning the JPT final, they will be high-spirited and full of confidence. But sometimes, that is a good time to catch people.”
He quipped: “Hopefully, they will be dehydrated from all the alcoholic beverages they have enjoyed celebrating their win.
“But it would be rude of me and unwise to say they will be complacent. They are up there for a reason and have been the best side and they are champions-elect if you like.
“But it gives us the feeling we can go there and the boys aren’t under pressure. We can play freely and, if we come away with any decent result from there, they can return heroes.”
While Johnson’s respect for the Robins is obvious, he also believes that they are not infallible.
The Robins, who have won 14 home league matches at Ashton Gate this term – losing just twice – were given a real run for their money by Johnson’s former club Oldham in the autumn in a fortuitous 1-0 win.
Johnson believes his current side can also take confidence from a 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture at Oakwell.
Johnson, set to hand a debut to rookie goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith, added: “If we can get a good result, it gives the club a boost and raises the club’s profile and that’s what we want – the feelgood factor going into the last eight games.
“They have definitely got weaknesses, and Oldham exploited them down there and did well. We lost 1-0, but should have at least come out with a draw.
“Just because they are top of the league, we should not fear them. I also came to the game where Barnsley should have beaten Bristol City.”
Barnsley head south in seventh spot, one place and a point behind Peterborough, who occupy the final play-off spot.
Johnson, who played 199 times in his playing career at Bristol between 2006 and 2012, is confident that five wins and a draw from his side’s remaining eight games will rubber-stamp a top-six finish.
While eight sides, down to Bradford City in 13th, are fighting to finish in sixth place come season’s end, Barnsley also still have a chance of reining in fifth-placed Sheffield United.
But Johnson acknowledges that to do that, they must beat the Blades in their lunchtime showdown at Oakwell next weekend.
He said: “It has become a six-pointer really for us, not so much them. If we are going to have serious ambitions of fifth, we must make sure we win that game.”
After a morale-boosting 4-0 thrashing of Scunthorpe in midweek, the Blades are eyeing a third successive win in seven days at Bramall Lane today against lowly Crewe.
Bradford City are in Roses action against one of a host of sides with aspirations of claiming the final play-off place in Oldham Athletic, who visit Valley Parade.