Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley facing tough battle to get out of League One

A QUICK question. Is League One the new Championship?

Football’s second tier has been top-heavy with historic top-flight teams jockeying for position to return to the division above for too many years to remember.

The third tier is also becoming abundant with clubs who have also sampled life in the big time and believe that their current level is hardly their natural preserve.

And just as ferociously competitive as the Championship too.

RIVALS: Barnsley's Michael Duff and Sheffield Wednesday coach, Darren Moore (right).

In 2022-23, League One will contain seven clubs who have played in the Premier League, including Yorkshire’s two representatives in Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday.

Others have genuine aspirations of consolidating in the second level one day – Plymouth, Peterborough and Oxford.

As Barnsley chief Michael Duff recently observed, League One will be split between those glad to be there and those with grander ambitions and resources.

Historically, Barnsley’s home is in the Championship. In the last four decades, they have spent just seven seasons in the third tier.

Michael Ihiekwe joined Sheffield Wednesday for the 2022-23 season rather than remain at promoted Rotherham United Picture: Leila Coker/PA

But as they grapple with a short-fall of £7-£8m following relegation and leading players leaving, there is a certain amount of financial realignment going on.

The smart money is on it being a season of transition, more especially in the first half of the campaign when Duff builds a side in his own image, finds out which players he can really trust and the spine of Barnsley’s team is rebuilt. It does not happen overnight.

Down the A61 at Hillsborough, there is no such element of time.

League One may have some famous names and big clubs among its cast – Derby County being the latest – but if Wednesday do not return to the Championship this term, it will be an abject failure.

Striker Michael Smith also opted for Hillsborough over Rotherham during the summer. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Last season had a cruel finish for the Owls, but Darren Moore, who impressively picked up the pieces after a dysfunctional period in the club’s history – certainly off the pitch – secured some credit in the bank. It also took another League One ‘superpower’ in Sunderland to end their campaign.

That credit will start to rapidly diminish if Wednesday are not ensconced in the automatic promotion positions – or certainly within direct striking distance – by the time the clocks go back.

This time around they have no excuses.

Their summer recruitment has been statement-making, headlined by the signing of two players who Rotherham United were desperate to keep in Michael Smith and Michael Ihiekwe.

PONew Barnsley head coach Michael Duff has a big job on his hands at Oakwell Picture: Robin Jones/Getty Images

They add to a dressing room rich with senior players who have seen it and done it at this level.

Smith and Ihiekwe were promoted three times from League One with the Millers with Liam Palmer, Will Vaulks, Lee Gregory, David Stockdale, Jack Hunt and Reece James having also gone up from this level before as well.

Wednesday’s home form in 2021-22 was formidable. No EFL side took more points than their outstanding total of 53.

What proved costly in the final analysis was their away form. Eight wins was a modest total.

There were also a proliferation of draws. Dropping late-season points at Bolton and Gillingham hurt the Owls in the run-in as did a 1-1 home draw with Accrington.

Moore will be hoping that the signings of Smith, Ben Heneghan and Vaulks in particular will do something about that in terms of managing some games better.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Sheffield Wednesday and manager Darren Moore will be under pressure to deliver a successful promotion campaign. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA

Snith’s relentless work rate, physical presence and goal threat made him a nightmare for League One defences last term when he was in the form of his life.

At this level, he and Gregory had few peers in the run-in and if they dovetail in the early months of the season and the supply line is good, then Wednesday have the capacity to stock up on points in time for the winter grind.

Heneghan’s defensive numbers last season with AFC Wimbledon in terms of aerial duels won, clearances, blocks and interceptions were as good as anyone’s, if he replicates that, Wednesday should be in a good place.

An injury-free back three of Heneghan, Ihiekwe, named in the PFA League One Team of the Year last term and Dom Iorfa looks pretty sound, while the vastly-experienced Stockdale kept 18 clean sheets last season for Wycombe.

The Owls and Barnsley lock horns on September 3. A couple of days before that when the summer window closes will determine where the Reds are at.

Following the sales of Carlton Morris and Cauley Woodrow, Barnsley are very light up front. James Norwood will take time to build up his fitness and the fact Jack Aitchison has switched from attacking midfield to centre-forward says everything about the current dearth of Duff’s options.

Luca Connell and Josh Benson have shown promise in pre-season in midfield, but doing it when it matters is what it is all about.

It’s also a big season for another midfielder in Herbie Kane if he is to realise his potential. First he must overcome a groin issue.

It is not lost on Reds fans how Alex Mowatt came back from a loan at Oxford – where Kane was last term – to make his name when Barnsley made an instant second-tier return in 2018-19.That was largely because the club made a statement by keeping their leading players from the previous relegation season with the likes of Kieffer Moore, Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock and Adam Davies all excelling.

This time, Woodrow, Morris and Callum Brittain have gone with Callum Styles and Michal Helik expected to follow.

Barnsley look to have too much to do to make a top-six push. If they do, it will probably be down to how they do business in January. For the time being, they must become a team again and make themselves harder to beat and grow into the season.