SAM WINNALL may not yet be 25, but it has not escaped his attention that he is already one of the ‘elder statesmen’ in a fresh-faced Barnsley dressing room.
With seniority comes responsibility, with the Reds possessing not just one of the youngest managers in the Football League in Lee Johnson, but also a squad which has a kindergarten feel.
It includes teenagers James Bree, George Smith, Mason Holgate, George Maris and Jack Cowgill along with a quintet of 20-year-olds in Conor Wilkinson, Joe Rothwell, Ben Pearson, Brad Abbott and Paul Digby. A fair few will be first-team regulars in 2015-16.
Just five players in the squad, including Winnall, are 24 or over, with only Lewin Nyatanga being over 25.
With such a cherubic squad, it is no surprise that senior men such as Winnall have been entrusted by Johnson to step up to the plate and lead by example and that sort of scenario is something that is right up the striker’s street.
Winnall said: “That’s kind of the way I like it and I like being a senior player in the dressing room and being a leader rather than someone being led.
“I am willing to take on as much responsibility as needs be. That is when I feel as if I play my best football.
“There are going to be tough times in the season where we are either going through a bad spell of form or bad spell in a game and that’s when the gaffer will look to the likes of me, one of the older lads, to rally the troops a little bit.
“I’m more than happy to do that and it is something I take a lot of pride in, in having that responsibility.
“I get on really well with the gaffer and we talk quite often in terms of what we think and bounce ideas off each other.”
When fully fit and firing last term, Winnall showed enough evidence of why former Oakwell chief Danny Wilson forked out £250,000 for his services last summer from Scunthorpe, on the back of a haul of 23 goals in 2013-14 which saw him pick up the League Two Golden Boot.
A respectable enough tally of 13 in the circumstances was recorded by Winnall last term, given a 2014-15 campaign being interrupted mid-stream by a serious hamstring injury which kept him out for virtually all of the winter.
Highs including key goals in derbies against Sheffield United and Bradford City and an FA Cup hat-trick against Burton Albion in December, with his haul of three goals in the Reds’ final four matches of last season ensuring he finished just one goal behind top-scorer Conor Hourihane.
But for Winnall, very much the leader of the pack in Barnsley’s attack, he feels a nagging sense of unfinished business.
He added: “It wasn’t ideal missing such a big chunk of the season because it was hard to get back up to where I felt my peak fitness was after being out for so long.
“But I have done a lot of work over the summer trying to get my fitness back up.
“I wanted to come back as fit and strong as I have ever been and I am feeling that now. I am raring to go and, hopefully, will get off to a good start and carry on from there.
“I think I was missed three-and-a-half to four months last season and I got 13 goals. Who knows what would have happened if I was fit?”
Last season’s stop-start campaign for Winnall was a microcosm of a spasmodic season for the Reds, who found themselves too close for comfort to the foot of the table at certain junctures, prompting the decision to axe Wilson in February.
Equally, Barnsley showed glimpses of their potential, most manifestly during a thrilling early Spring when they chalked up six league wins on the trot for the first time since November, 1980 to hoist themselves into the top six – only to subsequently fall away.
With a core squad now very much intact – something that was not the case last term when 42 players were utilised in the league including a plethora of loanees –Winnall feels that continuity will reap its rewards.
He added: “Last season was very stop-start. We had a lot of inconsistencies with results, performances and team selection.
“We played a lot of different players whereas this year, we have gone for a different plan in having a strong and settled squad.
“Hopefully, that will play into our hands with us going in with everyone knowing each other rather than players coming in at different parts of the season when we were over-reliant on loans.”