Barnsley praised for staying switched on for return

IT was on a raw winter's afternoon in early February that chief executive Ben Mansford first felt that Barnsley might be on the cusp of something special.

Champagne moment: Barnsley celebrate their JP Trophy success at Wembley before quickly turning their attentions to securing a play-off place. (Picture: Adam Davy/PA)

Fewer than 72 hours after a physically and emotionally draining night on the Fylde coast that saw the Reds clinch a place in their first cup final in over a century, the club’s players showed themselves to be fresh as daisies when many might have expected them to be partied out.

Champagne scenes had followed the Reds’ penalty shoot-out victory at Fleetwood in a fateful Johnstone’s Paint Trophy northern section final second leg on February 4 with the on-pitch celebrations in marked contrast to some desperate autumnal days when the club were ensconced in the League One relegation zone.

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Head coach Lee Johnson may have left for Bristol City in the aftermath of that night of glory at the Highbury Stadium, but his legacy of securing a JPT final spot and charting the club’s course to a safe mid-table berth was a substantive one.

Not that the Reds players were intent on striding out on easy street. Not a bit of it.

Three days after that Fleetwood game, Barnsley comprehensively dismantled Bury 3-0 to break past the 40-point barrier and move into the top 10 and just five points off the play-off spots.

The wave has been ridden ever since under Paul Heckingbottom, so much so that Barnsley are just 90 minutes away from equalling the feats of Grimsby Town in 1997-98 and clinching a Wembley double of play-off and Football League Trophy glory.

Mansford said: “Bury was the big game for me. You could see that we weren’t settling for mid-table mediocrity and a JPT appearance.

“We turned up and put a shift in when it would have been easy for the boys to think, ‘Ah, we are safe now, we are at Wembley, it will be seen as an all right season and let’s chillax’. But after Bury, you knew that Hecky and Tommy (Wright) had got them up for that. We have not switched off since.

“There was also the Walsall away game, which had really us in the mix, beating a very good team in their own backyard.

“We were starting to think that while things weren’t in our hands, if we continued on our run of form and consistency, we could challenge. But Bury was the one.”

While the fairytale will be completed if Barnsley prevail at Wembley against Millwall, one thing is for sure whatever transpires on Sunday.

Namely, that this will be a season that Reds supporters will remember in decades to come, not just years – with it having few paralells in Football League history, let alone the club’s.

It is not every day that a team rises from the bottom of the table at the end of autumn to a play-off final by season’s end, with perhaps the only similar example being Crystal Palace, who clinched promotion to the Premier League in 2003-04 after being in the relegation zone in mid-December.

Mansford added: “To think we went bottom on November 28 and here we are 90 minutes away from a promotion.

“Crystal Palace did it under Iain Dowie, beating West Ham at the Millennium Stadium, and it would be that similar type of achievement if we did it.

“It’s absolutely wonderful. I am just delighted for the fans as chances are that when you don’t support the superstar teams in the Premier League, days at Wembley don’t come around too often. To be there once is remarkable; for us to be there twice is just brilliant.”

Out of seasonal adversity has come strength, with the bonds brokered this season between players and fans during a near 10-month epic season harking back to a decade ago when Andy Ritchie’s class of 2005-06 secured promotion via the same play-off route, with that number including Heckingbottom.

Then, Barnsley were afforded their own theatre of dreams at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and now hopes abound regarding the prospect of Wembley encore after a mass pilgrimage of 25,000 fans – many of whom were bedecked in flat caps – luxuriated in the glow of cup glory and a town being put on the map for the right reasons on April 3.

It is all a far cry from Mansford’s first two and a half years at Oakwell when the club suffered relegation from the Championship and a season of transition in 2014-15, with two managers in David Flitcroft and Danny Wilson also being dispensed with as the club sought to find its identity again and reconnect with the town, which it now clearly has.

Mansford added: “Barnsley is a town which has had real challenges way beyond football and I cannot profess to know what they all are.

“To give them a bright, young fresh team which is giving everything for the town and get to Wembley twice is just humbling and really exciting.

“It was a tough first year here and we sort of ran out of energy in the end.

“Now, we have a load of young players who are incredibly excited about putting on the red of Barnsley.”