Walking to Oakwell on a Saturday afternoon – with ticket in hand, ready for the Bovril and steak pies at half-time. These are regular routines which Barnsley fans would undertake each week in a non COVID world. The dreams of Premier League football were never in the mind, with sights always set on surviving in the EFL Championship, and slowly pushing up the league. But when fans return, sights could all be set on the Play-Offs – with Barnsley being a part of the most expensive games in world football. A team that once dreamt of the Championship is now dreaming bigger than anyone could have ever thought.
As Barnsley sat in the relegation zone in October 2020 – things were looking bleak for the side. With Austrian manager Gerhard Struber on his way to the MLS to join New York Red Bulls – the side were left without a manager, and fears of another relegation battle were growing. No one could’ve expected Barnsley’s survival last season, which was down to Wigan’s 12-point deduction and a last-gasp winner on the final day vs Brentford. The outlook for any side with recent promotion to the Championship is to last two or three seasons at minimum to become a reputable mid-table side, and Barnsley had just done that.
It would take just two weeks for Barnsley to appoint their new manager, this would be Valerien Ismael – who had former playing experience at Bundesliga side Bayern Munich, as well as managing Austrian side LASK Linz in the UEFA Europa League. After previous success with managerial choices, fans were excited for the future ahead even if some deliberation was made over a Frenchman with no previous experience in England. But now, Ismael is on course for a statue outside Oakwell – with the squad dynamic at an all time high, and play-off dreams getting closer as each week passes by.
Daryl Dike’s EFL Championship Dominance
One of Barnsley’s biggest hits of the transfer window was the signing of 20-year-old forward Daryl Dike on a season-long loan from MLS side Orlando City. With the MLS season suspended due to COVID-19 until April, multiple players opted to play across Europe to get more game time before going back to America ready for the new season – and the American’s electric start to life in the Championship has already got the eyes of England’s top six clubs fixated on the striker.
Just like the appointment of Ismael, Barnsley fans certainly did not expect the youngster to acclimatise to the league in such quick fashion. With three goals in nine games, Orlando City may already be assuming that their loanee may only be returning to pick up his belongings to move to a bigger side in Europe. At 6’2′, and 100kg weight, you could say that Dike is built to play American football, but his parents never allowed the youngster to participate in American football trials, deeming the sport to be unsafe.
Dike only arrived on the last day of the transfer window, getting a work permit after play in an international friendly for the USA just a day before his transfer to Barnsley had been completed. Jordan Williams, one of Dike’s team-mates at the Championship club told the Yorkshire Post after Dike’s game-winning strike against Birmingham on the 6th March, ” Daryl has got a rocket of a right foot. I think he’s similar to Romelu Lukaku. He hasn’t scored many goals yet but he’s only 20 years of age, it’s amazing.”
For Barnsley fans, this may be a quick hello, and a long goodbye – with the American’s loan spell ending on the 21st April, just before the MLS season starts with Orlando City ready to recall their star to play alongside the likes of Alexandre Pato and Nani. But it’s more of a case of how long will he be an Orlando player for – after the BBC reported that a top six club in England had placed a $10m bid on the table. Regardless of this, if Barnsley can do the unthinkable and get promoted to the Premier League, you’d expect the club to exercise their budgets and try to bring back a fan favourite to the club, even if the side already have a $20m release clause on the table within the loan deal.
Carlton Morris – From Flop to Championship Star
Another factor in Barnsley’s exceptional season was the surprise signing of Carlton Morris from Norwich City. Morris has already been on a Yorkshire tour, stopping off at Rotherham United in the 19-20 season, only scoring three goals in 19 matches in League One. When the signing was announced in early January – some fans were filled with joy, and as expected, some with ridicule after other disappointing spells across England.
But Ismael has been able to rejuvenate the strikers career – and give a new ease of life to the 25-year-old who was surely teetering on the edge of becoming an undesirable player who had never scored more than double figures in his career for any club. With five goals in 13 matches – Morris is well on course to break his season scoring record, with his best season being in 2015/16 with Hamilton Academical, scoring eight goals in 32 games.
With a header winning at Bournemouth last Saturday, you can start to feel a sense of excitement across Barnsley fans, and a determination from the players to go out there and get the play-off spot sealed as fast as they can, it’s allowing players like Morris to shine in a team which everyone is working together as a unit rather than it being a one or two man show. If Morris can continue until the end of the season without his form fleeting, then Barnsley have a player on their hands. For years now, Morris has tried hard – but in some of his former club fans eyes, he never worked hard enough, and Ismael has now found the winning formula to get Morris firing on all cylinders.
Will Barnsley’s success story continue?
With ten games left of the season – Barnsley are nearly at the finish line with the clear objective to get into the EFL Championship Play-Offs. But just like in some races, they cannot allow themselves to run off track, or else a positive season could end with some disappointment with their Premier League so close in sight.
FIXTURES LEFT: Wycombe (A), Sheff Wed (H), Reading (A), Luton (A), Middlesbrough (H), Coventry (A), Huddersfield (A), Rotherham (H), Preston (A), Norwich City (H)
Their fixture list is a mixed bag – with six matches left to play away from home, with their last away loss being against Watford on the 19th January. The fixtures which fans will point out as ‘must wins’ will be the likes of Wycombe and local rivals Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham United. With all three of these sides currently sat in the relegation zone – Barnsley can’t afford to slip up, even with a five point gap over seventh placed Bournemouth. In the previous fixtures, the club beat all three sides – but with their Championship statuses now the line, no game is going to be a ‘walk in the park’ for Yorkshire’s best looking side.
As for their toughest matches – the two main standouts are Reading and Middlesbrough. Reading for years, just like Barnsley this season, have dwindled between relegation and the play-off spots. But Veljko Paunovic has got the club playing vibrant attacking football, and the side sit on 61 points – the same as Barnsley with a better goal difference. This is the key match that may allow the likes of Bournemouth and Cardiff City to start believing of play-off dreams with Barnsley do lose. The same could be said about Middlesbrough, who under Neil Warnock have become a much-improved team after last seasons perils – but sights of the play-offs are looking a little less likely for Warnock’s side.
However, if things don’t go their way – the final game of the season sees the club take on the league leaders, and the best side in the Championship by a country mile – Norwich City. By this point, the side will have most likely finished as champions, and had their Premier League return confirmed – so this may be the very best test to see whether Barnsley could play well against Premier League opposition.
As teams like Sheffield United + Wednesday and Rotherham continue to falter, Barnsley have become the new pride of Yorkshire – and are each week getting one step closer to the dream that every fan in England has. With fans provisionally set to return for either the last match of the Championship season, or the EFL play-offs – Oakwell could be rocking with 20,000+ fans for one of the biggest nights in the clubs history. Can they pull it off? Who knows, but that’s what makes the club so special. The element of expectation has always been set low – but these team continue to believe, and whose to stop them reaching the goal of Premier League stardom?