FOR Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday supporters, 2013 has so far been nothing less than an annus mirabilis.
The prize for both remains tantalisingly close, namely Championship safety – and fans of each can rest assured they will be celebrating come season’s end if they can maintain their stunning statistics since New Year’s Day.
The phrase ‘out of adversity comes strength’ is applicable for both these South Yorkshire neighbours, each entrenched in the bottom three after the league programme on January 1.
For the record, Wednesday were third from bottom with 25 points from 26 games with the Reds propping up the rest on 21 points after both started the New Year with defeats, to Burnley and Peterborough United respectively.
What has taken place since has made the division sit up and take serious notice, with the Owls doubling their points tally and a bit more besides in 15 matches since, with the Hillsborough outfit up to the comparatively giddy heights of 14th on 53 points after Tuesday’s last-gasp win at Millwall.
Dave Jones’s troops, the form side of the Championship in the past six matches, have won eight Championship games so far in 2013 – a record bettered only by promotion-chasing Watford – and head into Saturday’s derby at Leeds United with genuine hope they can secure a top-10 finish.
While Wednesday, now a point above Leeds after trailing them by 14 points at Christmas, have already smashed through the 50-point barrier, which seemed a million miles away at the start of January, Barnsley’s achievement is no less laudable.
A captivating revolution under David Flitcroft has seen them also accrue 28 points in 15 matches to match exactly the Owls’ promotion form in terms of points plundered since January 1 with the same number of wins.
While the victories have flowed for both, what has also been abundant is character, as was manifest on Tuesday when each dug deep to great effect.
Hero for Wednesday was substitute Chris McGuire, who started to erase memories of a tough campaign with a dramatic winner in the 2-1 success at the New Den, with the unlikely Reds’ savour being stalwart Stephen Foster.
The 32-year-old chose the perfect time to net just his second goal this term, namely the sixth-minute of stoppage-time, to secure a draw for Barnsley, now just one point off the ‘half-century’ after putting leaders Cardiff City’s promotion party on hold in a 1-1 draw in the principality.
Flitcroft has used an array of gushing adjectives to describe his squad’s togetherness and collective desire since taking the reins at Oakwell – which he has likened to a strong family unit – with ‘breathtaking’ the latest thrown in their direction.
On the secret of the upturn at Barnsley – unbeaten in six outings against teams in the top seven of the Championship in 2013 – goal hero Foster told the Yorkshire Post: “It is all about confidence. When you get a few good results, like we did, you start believing in yourselves a little bit more.
“We really believe in ourselves now and we have given ourselves a great chance of survival.
“People talk about the Leeds game as a big one in our turnaround and we did put in an exceptional performance and the game came at the right time for us and the crowd have been right behind us since. But thankfully, that form has continued since.
“We have always had a great team spirit in the camp and we have no ‘big-timers’ and the lads really get on well. We’re all pulling in the same direction and that has been seen in our performances.
“We all have the same goals and have been willing to sacrifice things for the team’s benefit. Sometimes, some lads like myself have been out of the team, but we have not sulked and kept ourselves ready for when we are called upon to help the team out.”
Both the Reds and Owls have proved greater than the sum of their parts, with unsung heroes permeating throughout their ranks.
Character and resolve have been displayed in abundance by the likes of Barnsley forwards Chris Dagnall and Marlon Harewood, who have stepped up to the plate after tortuous openings to the season. Not to mention captain Luke Steele – out of the picture early on with his first seasonal appearance not arriving until November 3.
A host of others, from Scott Wiseman, heckled by Barnsley supporters earlier this term and seemingly destined for a January move to Blackpool before an Oakwell renaissance, to Tom Kennedy and Bobby Hassell – a regular for the past month after being used sparingly before that – have also contributed to the cause.
The situation is almost identical at Hillsborough, with the near-neighbours finding solutions to alarming seasonal openings largely from within their own ranks.
Here, the likes of David Prutton and Giles Coke, out of favour and farmed out to Scunthorpe United and Swindon Town respectively earlier this season and Kieron Lee, who made just one Championship start before Christmas, have come in from the cold and have made – and are continuing to make – important contributions.
The latest to have an impact being Maguire, who notched his first goal in Owls’ colours on Tuesday evening, with Jones full of praise not just for his goalscoring contribution, but his attitude after waiting patiently for his chance in an injury-disrupted 2012-13.
Jones said: “Everyone on the periphery of things has been doing well and hanging in there; it has been hard for them.
“Chrissy has worked his socks off in training and he was going to go out on loan to give him games, but he got injured. He then got playing in the under-21s and was training hard and the goal at Millwall put it all into the past for him. It is brilliant for his confidence.”
Refusing to get carried away by his side’s comparatively lofty status in the table, Jones, whose side shrugged off the absence of recent regulars Coke, Reda Johnson and weekend hero Jermaine Johnson to chisel out a massive result at Millwall, added: “We are not safe yet. We will keep pushing and driving and making sure we do not let all the hard work what we have been doing over the past 25 games go to waste.”