How Barnsley FC can take heart from Huddersfield Town’s play-off triumph in their quest for the Premier League

HERE’S a question to ponder: Does form really matter going into the Championship play-offs?

Barnsley head coach Valerien Ismael reacts to the win at Huddersfield Town (Picture: Tony Johnson)

The experiences of the past three winners of football’s richest ‘winners-takes-all’ match in Fulham (twice) and Aston Villa suggest that it does.

By contrast, the form of the previous two victors, both from Yorkshire in Huddersfield Town (2016-17) and Hull City (2015-16), indicate that it does not.

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The county’s latest participant in the end-of-season lottery at second-tier level in Barnsley might be tempted to take solace in the latter argument – whatever the public pronouncements of head coach Valerien Ismael are.

Concerned: Reds head coach Valerien Ismael. Picture: Tony Johnson

After his side’s last two matches, a weekend defeat at Preston and a very fortuitous home victory over relegation-haunted Rotherham United, which ultimately clinched a top-six finish, the Reds head coach chose to issue a clear warning to his side.

In terms of refocusing minds for when the season is ‘live’ again, it is surely no bad thing either.

Since the last international break, Barnsley’s form levels have undeniably dipped.

Alongside lacklustre performances against North End and the Millers, they produced arguably the worst display of the Ismael era at Coventry on April 18 and were low key in the win over a poor Middlesbrough side eight days earlier.

Huddersfield Town chairman Dean Hoyle with the trophy after his team won the the Sky Bet Championship play-off final at Wembley Stadium back in 2017 (Picture: PA)

Equally, given all they have achieved at a rate of knots under Ismael and the energy they have expended, both physically and mentally, a drop-off at times is understandable. Especially with their play-off ticket now assured.

On the flip side, it is worth pointing out that Barnsley did produce in-character showings in dominant wins at Luton Town and Huddersfield Town when the heat was on in their fight with Reading to clinch a top-six berth.

Ismael said: “We have to be at 100 per cent and have to give everything. Against Rotherham, we got the job done and it was important to win. But inside me and the players, we were not really happy with the performance or feeling.

“I promise you if we play like that in the play-offs, we will not have any chance of winning.

“We need that feeling we had after the Huddersfield game that we are back and this is our way.

“Getting in the play-offs is a massive achievement. But the feeling from everyone at the club is that yes, we have reached this, but we want more. Let’s keep pushing and the mentality and desire is to move forward and not be satisfied and stay hungry.”

Ismael’s point that his side need to be at 100 per cent in terms of intensity and aggression to secure wins carries weight and his side’s displays against the likes of Brentford and Bournemouth – in the second half at least – and Huddersfield were emphatic.

But equally, when push comes to shove, Ismael’s Barnsley side have proved to be a results team and been pretty successful at it. They have won 15 games by single-goal margins in 2020-21.

They could reach the Premier League with a draw and two penalty shoot-out wins in the play-offs. Just as Huddersfield did.

As with Barnsley now, Town’s form heading into the play-offs was not scintillating in 2016-17.

Like with the Reds, Huddersfield’s place was assured with two matches to go and they lost their final two league matches in comprehensive fashion. They were at home in the first leg of their semi-final. Just as Barnsley will be with goal difference ensuring that they will finish no higher than fifth even if they win their final game of the regular season at home to champions Norwich City on Saturday.

That might just suit Barnsley in any case, given the fact that their stand-out performances this year have all arrived on the road at the likes of Bournemouth and Brentford. A season-defining second-leg away from Oakwell may not be a bad thing. Just as David Wagner fully embraced the underdog tag ahead of Huddersfield embarking on the play-off quest four years ago and spoke of the historical context of what his club had achieved in getting to the end-of-season competition, so Ismael will do the same and put pressure on others.

The side who secured promotion via the play-off route in the previous season of 2015-16 in Steve Bruce’s Hull also proved that form at the end of the regular campaign counts for little. The Tigers lost their penultimate match of the season to relegated Bolton. It represented Wanderers’ first win in 14 matches. Hull quickly regrouped and were celebrating at Wembley at Sheffield Wednesday’s expense.

The season after, Huddersfield lost three of their last four matches at the end of the regular season and won just two of their last seven ahead of the play-offs.

Ultimately, it did not matter a jot. We all know what happened next. Cue Christopher Schindler.