PLAY-OFF finals are often decided by the slimmest of margins and Paul Heckingbottom believes Barnsley’s recent visit to Wembley could prove the difference come tomorrow week.
The Reds this week booked their return ticket to the national stadium by beating Walsall in convincing style over two legs in the League One play-off semi-finals.
It means the Championship is potentially just 90 minutes away, a remarkable turn of events considering the south Yorkshire club were bottom of League One as recently as mid-December.
Throw in last month’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success at Wembley and Barnsley’s 2016 is bordering on fairytale status.
Caretaker manager Heckingbottom, however, knows only a happy ending will now do to cap a quite remarkable story and he took heart from the more subdued celebrations that followed Thursday night’s clinching of a place in the play-off final.
“The lads deserve all the credit in the world,” said the Reds boss, fresh from masterminding a 6-1 aggregate triumph over a Saddlers side that had only missed out on automatic promotion by one point.
“It might have been comfortable in some eyes, but they only made it that way by how hard they worked. Everyone contributed, from Adam Davies making that great save to the subs who came on to see the game out.
“The lads were a bit more subdued this time (about reaching Wembley), maybe because we have been there once already this season. But that is good because it shows we still have a job to do.
“Our focus has to shift to the next game and our preparations began straight away.”
Having played at Wembley twice in their entire history before this season, Barnsley’s achievement in doubling that tally of visits in less than two months is remarkable.
It is also well deserved, the turnaround that began under Lee Johnson having been built on in stunning fashion by Heckingbottom.
His 21 league and cup games at the helm have yielded 13 victories. In their last three games, the Reds have put 10 goals past champions Wigan Athletic and a Walsall side that had finished the regular season 10 points better off than themselves.
“The first objective was getting to the play-offs,” said Heckingbottom. “Then getting to Wembley.
“The lads deserve all the credit in the world, as they were the better side over two legs.
“But we played how we wanted to, with intensity. We didn’t want to sit back and try to hit them on the counter.”
Considering the troubles both Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City had endured earlier in the week despite having opened up sizeable first-leg leads, Barnsley could have been forgiven for wondering if a similar fate awaited them in the shadow of the M6.
The talk coming out of the Saddlers’ camp ahead of Thursday’s second leg was that Brighton and Derby County had shown the way in those Championship second legs and that Jon Witney’s men were ready to go one better and make history by overcoming a three-goal deficit.
Barnsley, through, had other ideas. Not only did the Reds take the game to their hosts in a manner that suggested they were in no mood to mess around, but Heckingbottom’s men also grabbed the all-important first goal.
Adam Hammill, such an integral figure in how the club’s season has been transformed from relegation battle to promotion pursuit, did the honours on 18 minutes and from then on there was no doubt who would be going through.
Goals from Ashley Fletcher and Josh Brownhill then underlined Barnsley’s dominance to leave Heckingbottom hugely proud of his players.
“We are a young side, but as we have given them roles and responsibilities, they are learning and getting better,” added the former defender.
As for whether Barnsley’s previous trip to Wembley can be an advantage come May 29, he added: “I do think having been there once already will help, especially as it was in the not too distant past. We know what the venue is like and what to expect. We will be more than ready for it. Definitely.”