How Barnsley bounced straight back up to the Championship

SUMMERS were not meant to be like this, especially at Barnsley.

Band of brothers: Cauley Woodrow and company celebrate his goal for Barnsley against Coventry City.

In terms of analysing the Reds’ successful return to the Championship – just 360 days after making an inglorious exit – the seeds were truly sown in a close season where silence proved to be golden and there was a reassuring sense of calm, order and serenity.

Refreshingly, this could not have contrasted more with the frenetic summers of 2016 and 2017.

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More especially in ’17 when Barnsley were forced to effectively build a new side shorn of the promotion heroes of 2015-16 and the stress levels were high behind the scenes. Just ask Paul Heckingbottom.

Seventeen players were ushered in during that summer. Too many ahead of a 2017-18 season which culminated in a somewhat inevitable relegation.

Critically, lessons were learned and the fruits have joyously arrived.

Just three senior players came through the door in the last summer window – key ones at that in Kenny Dougall, Cauley Woodrow and Mike Bahre. Less is sometimes more.

But it was the Reds’ resolve in hanging onto the ‘family silver’ and keeping the core of their squad together – and backing up their words with deeds – which laid the foundations for a 2018-19 season which will rank up there with the very best at Oakwell.

Not that it was straightforward. Initially, leading players were unsettled and the interest that the Reds fielded from rival clubs was very real.

Intent was tested but the determination not to sell did not waver in the corridors of power, where there was a quiet belief that the bulk of the side brought together in the summer of 2017 could grow together and prosper.

That much has emphatically been proved true with five players being named in the PFA’s League One Team of the Year proving recent affirmation.

Yet the players still needed someone to follow and buy into – and that is where Herr Stendel came in.

After the disorientation of the 79-day Jose Morais era, Daniel Stendel’s arrival brought enlightenment, togetherness, clarity and coherence.

The groundwork was laid in pre-season and Barnsley simply never looked back.

Stendel’s limited English ensured that he did not engage with the press until the season got underway and he remained a bit of a ‘mystery’ figure.

It proved no bad thing. Away from prying eyes and the media, his messages were not lost in translation with the people who matter, his players.

His impact was succinctly summed up by captain Adam Davies ahead of the season. “The intensity has gone up 1,000 per cent,” he said in an unequivocal utterance which spoke volumes about the Stendel revolution.

Those early days were long but enjoyable and the rewards were not long in coming after a pre-season in which Barnsley’s energy and ferocity was impossible to ignore after a ‘gegenpressing’ makeover from Stendel.

It culminated in an opening-day evisceration of Oxford United at Oakwell which truly took the breath away.

One swallow may not make a summer and making assumptions in early-season can arrive with a health warning but there was an inescapable feeling that Barnsley were onto something.

So it spectacularly proved with the tone set from the off. Four clean league sheets arrived at the start of the season with the Reds ultimately enjoying their best opening to a campaign since 1946-47 under Angus Seed.

The fervent belief in the corridors of power of Oakwell that what Barnsley had in the building would be more than a match for the very best in League One was crystallised in those early months – with the likes of Kieffer Moore, Ethan Pinnock, Liam Lindsay and Brad Potts possessing the regal air of Championship players serving a season ‘on loan’ at third-tier level.

It was perhaps the glorious renaissance of Alex Mowatt and Cameron McGeehan – two players for whom 2018-19 assumed seminal importance in terms of their footballing careers which were approaching a crossroads – which showcased the fact that Barnsley were on the cusp of a special season.

Mowatt had spent the previous campaign on loan at mid-table Oxford with his early dash at Leeds United in danger of becoming a distant memory.

A stellar act in his breakthough years at Luton, McGeehan spent the second half of 2017-18 on loan at Scunthorpe where he had often found himself on the substitutes’ bench.

While form is temporary, class is permanent. Both stepped up with aplomb with the presence of Dougall – until his unfortunate mid-autumn injury at Shrewsbury – affording Barnsley an embarrassment of midfield riches which were the envy of the division.

But for all of Barnsley’s successes across the pitch this season, surviving some adversity has played its part.

McGeehan’s rise ensured the Reds were no worse off without early-season shining light Dougall.

The belated entrance to the stage of Woodrow – he did not make his first league start until November 17 due to a hamstring tear – provided Barnsley with fuel during those hard winter months which separate the real promotion contenders from the impersonators.

His presence assumed heightened importance following Moore’s likely season-ending head injury at Gillingham on February 9.

Barnsley have stayed splendidly on message since Christmas and their promotion is a tribute to their wonderful consistency from back to front – one league defeat in 25 games and no league losses at Oakwell all season is outstanding testament to that.

Yet this is ultimately a success which owes plenty to steadfastness shown last summer and an avowed determination to ensure that their stay in League One would be as short as possible.