Barnsley have come a long way since FA Cup humbling
They travelled to non-league Altrincham for their first-round tie looking to get a result that would provide a much-needed confidence boost.
Damien Reeves’s 46th-minute goal at Moss Lane, however, was enough to dump the Tykes out of the competition and leave a huge, dark cloud hanging over Oakwell.
It was a low point in Barnsley’s history, and few would have guessed what would come next.
It was more a case of ‘road to redemption’ than ‘road to Wembley’ – although the Reds would eventually taste success twice at the national stadium later that season – after Johnson’s troops started to fight their way out of trouble.
Success in the Football League Trophy – which culminated in a 3-2 win over Oxford United at Wembley in April – was allied to a dazzling run in the league to clinch a play-off spot.
Not even Johnson’s exit in February could derail Barnsley, with Academy boss Paul Heckingbottom stepping forward in a seamless transition.
And after beating Millwall 3-1 in the play-off final, Barnsley have been one of the surprise packages of the Championship.
They sit mid-table, just four points off the top six, and that Moss Lane debacle of November 7, 2015, seems a lifetime ago.
For head coach Heckingbottom, the transformation over the last 12 months has been staggering.
The 39-year-old has impressed as Oakwell leader, assembling a young squad, hungry to succeed.
Tomorrow they travel to face Burton Albion – promoted alongside Barnsley last year – and both clubs have adapted to life in the second tier of English football despite small budgets.
While Barnsley have the youngest squad in the Championship, with an average age of just 23.1 years, Burton, under Nigel Clough – have opted for experience. They have one of the oldest squads, at an average age of 27.4.
“They have brought some experience in, a lot of their signings have played at this level, so it’s no fluke for me they are doing well,” said Heckingbottom.
“That’s their plan, they wanted Championship-ready players, but we have gone down a different route.
“We are trying to bridge that gap over a long period of time, not making short-term decisions that will cripple us in the long term.
“Those decisions, gradually over a period of time, will get us closer to where we want to be.
“At the minute, these boys here are performing fantastically well and over-achieving.
“But we want more, we always need more, and the players know that and enjoy the pressure put on them.”
Burton held Barnsley to a gritty 0-0 draw in April, and Heckingbottom expects another tough battle tomorrow.
Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, Cardiff City and Birmingham City – four teams who finished in the top 10 of last season’s Championship – have already lost at Burton this season, the hosts conceding just five goals in seven outings at home.
“They are a tough team, their home record is great,” said Heckingbottom. “Clubs have gone there and really struggled so we know it will be a massive test.
“I don’t think it will be a dissimilar game to when we went there last year, two teams flying high in the league, performing well, a real war of attrition.
“They did well at Leeds last week, when Leeds beat them with a couple of late goals.”
Another difference to 12 months ago is the workload in November. Barnsley played seven times in a month in 2015, this year they have just three games.
After today’s trip to Burton come Oakwell games against Wigan and Nottingham Forest – three teams below them in the Championship.
Not that Heckingbottom is taking notice of league positions in an unpredictable division where top can beat bottom on any given weekend.
He said: “This league is crazy. Preston were down there, put a great run together – flying up the table – and were unlucky against Newcastle.
“The two games where I thought we were below par, Brighton and Fulham, they both beat teams at the top (Norwich City and Huddersfield Town respectively) 5-0 at the weekend.
“You can never be too harsh on yourself, but likewise, you can never give yourself points and expect things.
“You have got to turn up and perform in every single game.
“At times, that might not even be good enough, but I know now – and the players believe it – that when we do turn up and perform, we have a great chance of winning.”