Stoke City v Barnsley FC - How Michael Sollbauer became Reds’ defensive linchpin
WHEN analysing January transfers across Yorkshire’s clubs, the decision by Barnsley to bring in Michael Sollbauer looks to be the shrewdest piece of business of the lot.
Reds head coach Gerhard Struber quietly felt he was getting two players instead of one when the Wolfsberger defender signed on the dotted line and his faith has been justified thus far.
The defensive qualities and organisational skills of Sollbauer, who he worked with in his native Austria, have added an important senior dimension to a backline that was crying out for someone with experience and nous to guide them along.
Struber will have also known he was getting a big voice in the dressing room and someone who younger players could instantly look up to off the pitch.
After a couple of shaky games early on, Sollbauer shook off the rust and has proved to be the key figure that Struber hoped he would be.
The centre-half, who turned 30 during lockdown, is at the heartbeat of a backline that has kept six clean sheets in their past eight matches.
Prior to his arrival, Barnsley had mustered three shut-outs in 29 league games. The numbers speak for themselves.
Now, Barnsley face their biggest challenge in a definitive week, starting at Stoke. It will help having people like Sollbauer in their corner.
Just as Struber refers to his squad as ‘my boys’, Sollbauer feels like a bit of a father figure on the pitch. He speaks of ‘my team’ and ‘my backline’.
If he has one message to his team-mates, it is a relatively simple one. Go out and enjoy it and he speaks from experience. That word again.
Sollbauer told The Yorkshire Post: “Years before, I was with my old club (Wolfsberger) and we had relegation fights and we had hard battles and we spoke a lot of times in the dressing room, but my team was more experienced and it helped us a lot.
“In the end, it was always four or five points for safety. But I think it helped me a lot and also for this situation, where I can help the team with my experience to tell them we have to fight and believe.
“I have told them to enjoy it. It is a lot of pressure on all of us, of course. But if you enjoy playing football, it will be positive.
“Now, my team, especially after these three games, are feeling it is enjoyable to play now.
“Of course, we want to show a good performance and there is a lot of pressure and everyone is saying: ‘we have to do this’, ‘we have to.’ But three games before, we had to take points, so nothing really changes.
“We go with a lot of confidence and try to show our best game.”
A return of five wins in seven matches has shaken up the survival fight. Barnsley have wind in their sails, with former Premier League clubs such as Stoke, Middlesbrough and Hull City having reasons to feel a sense of trepidation.
Players have bought into the philosophy of Struber and togetherness has grown. Young players who found the Championship daunting at the outset are now finding their wings and contributions are arriving across the board.
Barnsley’s battle has a touch of ‘us against the world’ about it. Sages will note the similarities during their ‘Great Escape’ season of 2012-13 and while it would be presumptuous to openly predict that the Reds will emulate that sensational achievement, they are going about things the right way.
Should it not be enough and the Oakwell outfit do go down, they will go down fighting. Not that a glorious failure is being contemplated by anyone at Oakwell, certainly not Sollbauer – who came to England to be a Championship player.
He added: “I am now 30 years old, but it is the Championship and even at empty stadiums, it is a high level for me. We have a big chance to rise as a team and I am full of trust in my team that we can survive.
“The most important thing for a team who are bottom of the league besides the qualities of each other are team work and spirit. After a few months here, I think it has grown more together and we need to be one group.
“It is easy to say, but hard to achieve. Now, everybody has the right mind to work for Gerhard and the whole squad is doing a great job to stay together – not only the 11 starters.
“With the five changes, it is an advantage for every team and in the Blackburn game, the substitutes did a great job for the team. This is what I like – a team who works together and it could be a really important thing.”
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