Barnsley looking to emulate Danny Wilson’s class of 96-97

REPORTING on this fixture for Sky Sports was the irrepressible Chris Kamara, whose autobiography is entitled Mr Unbelievable.

Victory: Cauley Woodrow celebrates the win with Alex Mowatt at the end of the game. Pictures: Tony Johnson

That moniker should really be thrown in the direction of Valerien Ismael. Despite an engrossing story, he is not planning on writing a book on his time at Barnsley just yet. Maybe he is waiting for a few more special chapters.

Crunch the numbers in any way you see fit and his achievements since taking over in late October have been stupendous.

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Barnsley now have over 50 points – more than they managed last season – with 14 games left this term. Let that sink in. They have also amassed as many home points as they did in 2019-20 with seven matches still to go at Oakwell in this campaign.

Nap hand: Tykes celebrate Michal Helik's fifth goal of the season.

They have just won five second-tier games in a row for the first time since September, 1996 in that feted, joyous season from the gods under Danny Wilson.

Let’s hope the run does not again end versus next opponents QPR as it did in 1996-97.

It is pushing it to directly compare the Reds’ current class with that legendary crop and rash to make predictions – far better to just enjoy the ride. Yet there is one similarity.

Like Wilson’s braves, this Barnsley team is one that is greater than the sum of its parts and that was showcased on Saturday.

They have a goalscorer who has again reached double figures in terms of league goals in a season in Cauley Woodrow and a talismanic captain in Alex Mowatt.

Barnsley possess defenders of note in the likes of Michal Helik – whose fifth goal of the season proved the game-breaker on Saturday – and Mads Andersen and the stories of Callum Styles and Callum Brittain have the potential to be special.

There are plenty of others. The new boys in Carlton Morris and Daryl Dike have added drive and power and the supporting cast in the shape of Conor Chaplin, Toby Sibbick and Michael Sollbauer all put their hands up, as do others.

Holding it all together is head coach Ismael. His players have young hearts which are running free and he is turning a group of footballers who work in a coal town into iron men.

Plenty is being made of Barnsley’s direct style these days, but it has real substance.

It was their incessant energy and will which proved too much for a Millwall side who came into this with a nine-game unbeaten league run and one of the strongest away records in the division.

The visitors worked every bit as hard as the hosts in the first half, but could not keep it up and were overpowered and became another notch on Barnsley’s belt.

What about the next challenge? For Ismael, it is about how many points are gathered in a six-game March – to potentially put Barnsley in with a real chance of a top-six tilt at the business end.

This is a young and hungry group who want to be challenged.

Sibbick, whose Reds career has been rejuvenated under Ismael, said: “If we just focus on ourselves who knows what can happen? We just keep getting the wins and long may that continue.

“When we step out on the pitch, the manager gives the confidence and belief that we can go out and beat anyone. And that is exactly how we feel right now.”

As for the secrets of Barnsley’s recent success, he added: “We play with a lot of intensity and a high press.

“Everyone is always running for each other and if one player is out of position, someone else will cover for them, so it is a real good team spirit that we have and long may that continue.

“Our pitch makes it harder for the opposition to play as well, but the statistics show when teams come here, they play more direct because I feel the teams respect our press and how we play, so they try and get over the top and behind us.

“We nullify that and we are always prepared for different game plans and that is credit to the gaffer and the coaching staff.”

Ismael’s clever usage of substitutes again came to the fore on Saturday. This time it had nothing to do with a rotation of strikers but bringing on an extra physical midfield presence in Aapo Halme and it worked a treat.

The interval replacement hoovered up the second balls and gave Barnsley a platform. In the words of an admiring Ismael, he was ‘a beast.’

At the start, goals had been exchanged in quick-fire fashion.

Woodrow’s striker sense enabled him to sniff out an opener after Mowatt’s free-kick was not cleared, but Millwall soon hit back with a pinpoint low angled finish from the dangerous Mason Bennett following a break with Brittain and Palmer culpable.

The hosts survived a big moment on 50 minutes when Bennett planted a free header straight at Brad Collins and it was the cue for them to take over.

Mowatt’s free-kick was tipped over by Bartosz Bialkowski, who then beat out Woodrow’s half-volley and not long after, the hosts were ahead with Andersen again showing his nuisance value to set up Helik, who blasted in an unstoppable volley from close range.

Another scare from Bennett aside, Barnsley saw the game out soundly, with Morris going close to a third. This looks like a team who are not going away. Let’s see.

Barnsley: Collins; Sollbauer (Sibbick 45), Helik, Andersen; Brittain, Palmer (Halme 45), Mowatt, Styles (J Williams 81); Dike (Adeboyejo 75), Woodrow (Frieser 90), Morris. Unused substitutes: Walton, Kane, Chaplin, Oduor.

Millwall: Bialkowski; Romeo, Hutchinson, Pearce (Bodvarsson 85), Evans; Woods, Thompson (Smith 75), S Williams (Ferguson 85), Malone; J Wallace (Bradshaw 90); Bennett (Burey 85). Unused substitutes: Fielding, McNamara, Mitchell, Tiensia.

Referee: L Doughty (Lancashire).

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