New Barnsley manager Danny Wilson takes his Championship strugglers into the cauldron of an Elland Road derby with Leeds United today with a defiant message: “Don’t write us off”.
The Reds may be rooted to the bottom of the Championship, but that did not deter Wilson from making an emotional return this week to Oakwell, the scene of his greatest managerial triumph.
As a rookie boss, Wilson took unfashionable Barnsley into the Premier League against all odds, but he faces just as great a challenge 16 years later in preventing relegation to League One.
Starting today at high-flying Leeds, Wilson is determined to stop the rot and warned his players there will be no honeymoon period and he will not be afraid to axe under-performers.
“We have been written off because of the position we are in, but we know the reality that, at this stage of the season, you cannot write anybody off or tip a team for the title,” said the 53-year-old former Sheffield United and Wednesday manager.
“There is so much football in front of us and if we can get a bit of momentum I will be more than pleased with that.
“You have to take the bull by the horns. We don’t have a settling in period – I certainly don’t. We just have to get on with it.
“There will be one or two decisions I get wrong, and some that players may like or may not like, but that’s the way it goes.
“We don’t have the pleasure of being able to sit for a few weeks in pre-season and learn people’s foibles or strengths, it’s important we just get on with it.
“That’s where Micky Mellon and the rest of the staff have come in handy. They have directed me in certain areas and certain ways. Obviously, knowing one or two of the players as I do anyway, it’s all good information.
“I don’t think there can be clean slates, we don’t have the time. The lads have to get it in their minds we have a big derby game on Saturday. Impressing me in training is not really what I am looking for; it’s impressing me in games is the place that matters.
“It’s important they do train correctly and professionally, which they have done brilliantly, but Saturday will be the big test and see how they respond to a big game like that.
“I think the group has responded really well to the change-over. It’s never easy.
“We have three games before we get into January and those three games may tell us a great deal about the squad we have.”
Barnsley have an amazing recent record against the Whites, just one defeat in their last eight meetings.
That came last season at Elland Road when Luciano Becchio’s 42nd-minute penalty proved the difference in a 1-0 win.
Barnsley have won all four games at Oakwell – scoring 14 goals in that quartet of matches – while claiming two high-scoring draws at Elland Road, plus a 2-1 win in 2011. Not even Ross McCormack’s goal could deny Barnsley that day, as strikes from Ricardo Vaz Te and Craig Davies did the damage.
Asked if the current squad was capable of staying up, Wilson responded: “Yes, without a doubt. People might say we have no chance, but I have certainly not come here thinking I am flogging a dead horse, that’s for sure. Far from it.
“I have seen enough in training and also from the games I have watched on DVD. They have a great talent here.
“Sometimes it’s a little bit of confidence, here and there, a new voice may help, maybe spot one or two things that have gone un-noticed.
“Players who don’t expect to play every week might be playing every week, and vice versa. There’s no guarantees. We might just need to freshen up in certain areas.
“There’s not a great deal wrong. There’s always fine lines between getting results and not, missing a chance in front of goal or tripping over the ball at the back.
“If we can start eliminating those problems, then great. If we can start squeezing the for and against columns, we would be halfway up the league.”
Elsewhere today, Hull City travel to managerless West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League.
The Baggies, just two points off the bottom three, trail Hull by four points and a win for Steve Bruce’s side would be a massive boost to their survival hopes.
In the Championship, Sheffield Wednesday host Bournemouth in the Championship looking to drag Yorkshire rivals Doncaster Rovers and Middlesbrough into the relegation scrap.
Wednesday have 17 points, three less than Doncaster and Boro, although the latter possess the healthiest goal difference.
An Owls win would see them leapfrog Paul Dickov’s Rovers, if they fail to return with anything from a daunting trip to in-form Derby County.
Middlesbrough are also on the road, away to fellow strugglers Millwall.
Huddersfield Town make the long trek down to Brighton, looking to claw back the seven-point gap between Mark Robins’s side and sixth-placed Leeds.
In League One, promotion favourites Wolverhampton Wanderers arrive at the New York Stadium to face sixth-placed Rotherham United.
Bradford City are four points behind the Millers, but the Bantams face a tough trip to Peterborough United, while Sheffield United defend a five-game unbeaten run when they travel to Stevenage.
York City host League Two leaders Oxford United needing points to stay clear of the drop zone.
Previews: Pages 2-5.