Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday: Bambo Diaby on how bitter-sweet times at Barnsley FC inspire him to always keep going

If anyone knows never to give in during a relegation battle, it is Sheffield Wednesday's Bambo Diaby.

The centre-back was a Barnsley player during the Covid-19-interrupted season of 2019-20.

When the pandemic put the campaign on hold in March, there seemed little point in the bottom-placed Reds coming back. Even after three consecutive February wins they were seven points adrift of safety – effectively eight with goal difference – and nine games left.

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Diaby actually did not come back, heading home to Spain once lockdown was lifted as he awaited the verdict on a drugs charge which would see him banned from football for two years.

But watching his side scramble to safety by winning their final two matches was an inspiration that has stayed with him.

As the clock hit 90 minutes in Griffin Park’s final league game, Brentford were heading to the Premier League, Barnsley to League One, only for Clark Oduor – now with Bradford City – to score his first goal for the club in stoppage time.

The Yorkshire Post's Leon Wobschall called it "one of the greatest 'Great Escapes' of all time."

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Sheffield Wednesday are hoping for a less dramatic finale at Sunderland, where a point will keep them safe and only Plymouth Argyle (at home to Hull City) and Birmingham City (Norwich City at home) wins can deny them if they do not get it.

MAN IN THE MASK: Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Bambo DiabyMAN IN THE MASK: Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Bambo Diaby
MAN IN THE MASK: Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Bambo Diaby

But looking over the season as a whole, it would certainly join the pantheon of great escapes.

With three draws and 10 defeats, the Owls' first 13 games were more than unlucky, they were record-breakingly bad. Never had they picked up so few points at the start of a league season; no team had in the Championship.

Xisco Munoz was sacked after 10 games, but even after 16 they had just six points, 13 fewer than Plymouth, 16 behind Birmingham and 10 off now-relegated Huddersfield Town in 21st.

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MR MOTIVATOR: Sheffield Wednesday manager Danny RohlMR MOTIVATOR: Sheffield Wednesday manager Danny Rohl
MR MOTIVATOR: Sheffield Wednesday manager Danny Rohl

But what he saw at Barnsley added to the mental mix for Diaby, a religious man so family-driven he refuses to have his initial on his shirt, and a team player whose job as unofficial translator (he is learning a ninth language) has been praised for rebuilding all-important squad togetherness after a summer overhaul saw an entirely British group get a big injection of foreign influence.

"You can't go into any games thinking you're going to lose, it's the wrong way," he says.

"All the difficult situations make you stronger and stronger so when you come into this situation, as soon as you get the chance, you have to try to learn from them.

"Initially (when 2019-20 went on hold) I was training with Barnsley because the ban wasn't (confirmed) until the next season (it was backdated to January 2020) but after the lockdown I went to spend some time with my family in Spain.

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GREATEST ESCAPE: Clarke Oduor on the phone after saving Barnsley from relegation at Brentford's Griffin Park in July 2020GREATEST ESCAPE: Clarke Oduor on the phone after saving Barnsley from relegation at Brentford's Griffin Park in July 2020
GREATEST ESCAPE: Clarke Oduor on the phone after saving Barnsley from relegation at Brentford's Griffin Park in July 2020

"That time helped us (Barnsley). Especially it gave more time to the manager to think about what we were doing wrong. That's probably why we had success."

If Gerhard Struber was able to rescue things at Barnsley, there is little doubt Wednesday's revival is down to a new manager. The elephant in the room is now everyone has noticed how good Danny Rohl is, his 38th Owls game could be his last without meaningful promises from chairman Dejphon Chansiri.

That is for next week. For now it is about praising Rohl, just turned 35.

"I'm learning more with Danny," says Diaby. "He's younger and he has a lot of dedication. He's a real professional, he wants to win, he always passes this desire on to us in meetings and everything.

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"Before every game, if he is talking, it makes you excited to go onto the pitch. You’re like, 'Okay, stop, let me go!' He knows which path to take to motivate us."

Not that motivation is something Diaby – set to play in a mask after breaking his nose at Blackburn Rovers a fortnight ago – is ever short of.

He lives alone, away from his wife and children, and unless he has friends or relatives spends his downtime on physical work in his garage.

He needed that dedication after pleading guilty to use of a prohibited substance when traces of Higenamine were found in a urine sample in November 2019.

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"I started to work in Spain on my body but especially my mind so I was ready to jump back into the Championship," says Diaby, who resumed his career at Preston North End and joined the Owls in August. "The motor of the body is the mind.

"I needed to keep focused on what I wanted and do everything I could, but I knew I'd have to wait to be successful. I had special people around me and that's why I got back into the game.

"When I was young I was saying I wanted to play football to help my family so I promised myself that I would come back hungry, to grow because at that moment they were looking at me. That pressure on myself was a motivation to make my family proud, that's the best thing.

"That's why on my shirt I never put 'B Diaby' (his team-mate Momo is 'M Diaby’) because 'B Diaby' is me, Bambo. I want all my family to be able to wear that shirt and say, 'That's me.’ It's our name.

"I want to make my family proud and I want to go as far as I can."

And that means ploughing on when the going gets tough.

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