The Terriers were 12th with eight wins and eight defeats from 20 games, 24 goals scored and 27 conceded. The Reds’ eight wins and eight defeats from 20 games featured 23 goals for, 26 against.
Both positions were a pleasant surprise, the duo having narrowly survived relegation five months earlier but, under Carlos Corberan and Valerien Ismael, each club was clear what it was doing now.
When Ismael took charge, seven games into 2020-21, Barnsley were winless. After putting so much energy into their dramatic last-day escape, Gerhard Struber looked spent and disenchanted not to have been backed more in the transfer market. It was no surprise he left for New York Red Bulls.
When the season started I was fully expecting, to use that over-worn football excuse, a “season of transition” at Huddersfield. After staying up with a game to spare they had a rethink.
It seemed harsh sacking Danny Cowley after saving them from the footballing disaster of back-to-back relegations but they wanted a new direction.
Head of football operations Leigh Bromby said they had gone for a coach “very strong on the need for a team to have a strength of identity. He believes in a high-energy, high-intensity, attacking style of play. Like us, he has a real belief in young players.”
The talk was of getting back to the David Wagnerian “no limits” mentality and “doing more with less”.
It looked like a step backwards to take two forwards but the bedding-in process was just three scoreless defeats before the wins started coming.
In October, chairman Phil Hodgkinson underscored his ambition, saying: “After the first 10 games, at no point during the rest of the season are we looking over our shoulder nervously. And instil your philosophy.”
Things are still nervous for Huddersfield. Barnsley fans are nervous, too – for the pessimists, will something unexpected go wrong having done so well to get into the play-off positions, for the optimists, will they get a ticket for the semi-finals with only limited capacities?
It shows how quickly football moves and how fickle we can be about it that as New York’s courtship of Struber played out rather too publicly in October, we were again questioning Barnsley’s ambition.
Six months on, they are being hailed as a model club. On Christmas Eve when Corberan and his coaching staff signed new contracts until 2024, it seemed a smart move before clubs with bigger bank accounts started fluttering their eyelids at them, too. Now calls for the Spaniard to go are growing.
Huddersfield seem to at best be standing still and, when you stand still in football, others move past you.
Last season they finished 18th with 51 points but the football was not great. With five games of this season left, they are 19th on 44. Pre-Christmas, the football was sometimes great. Not now.
Corberan’s new contract was vindication of his methods, of the – if you do not want to read another annoying 21st Century football buzzword, look away now – “philosophy”. Of 22 matches since, Huddersfield have won just three, the first less than five days after the new deal.
But it is more than that.
What cost Cowley was the sense he was too pragmatic, prepared to sign old-stagers and grind games out when Hodgkinson and Bromby wanted progressive football played by fresh, ideally academy-reared, youngsters.
Ryan Schofield, a 21-year-old Huddersfield fan whose time as first-choice goalkeeper effectively began on December 16, was emblematic.
Academy product Rarmani Edmonds-Green started five consecutive games in February/March.
Maybe if Josh Koroma and Carel Eiting – bought and loaned respectively, but young and fresh – had not suffered serious mid-winter injuries things might have looked different but, since Christmas, the football and the thinking has been more Cowleyesque, only without the results.
In January, 21-year-old forwards Sorba Thomas and Danny Grant were signed for the future but free agents Richard Keogh (34), Yaya Sanogo (28) and Oumar Niasse (30) on contracts until the end of the season – and an injury to Niasse since means he will not take to the field – are not what was in the brochure.
Demeaco Duhaney, Romoney Crichlow, Aaron Rowe and Kieran Phillips have been tried without convincing Corberan they are ready yet, which is fair enough – the first team is not an extension of the club’s charity foundation.
Lewis O’Brien is a key player, as he was under Cowley.
The football is a long way from 1980s Wimbledon, but a lot closer to 2019-20 Cowley than the exciting, vibrant, risky but rewarding football the club seemed hooked on before Christmas.
Barnsley know what they are doing.
Lots of people – a high percentage of whom have probably not seen more than a few clips of it – do not like their direct, no-nonsense approach but the Reds could not care less.
Not many Barnsley fans are complaining, and it is they who matter. “Philosophies”, “identities” and “projects” do not always have to be about trying to play like Manchester City, just a clear idea people buy into.
Huddersfield decided on theirs last summer, set off down that path and, having apparently lost their nerve, are fighting a fourth relegation battle in as many seasons. If it comes, victory will be hollow.
As they do not have the visions of grandeur that have been the undoing of others, big compensation packages for an entire sacked coaching staff seem unlikely.
If realistically backed, Corberan is the right man for the job Huddersfield want – but the 2020 Corberan, not the 2021 Corberan.
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