With 23 days to go until the biggest of kick-offs, it’s time to start acquainting ourselves with our 23 Championship opponents – beginning with one of the six Yorkshire teams we’ll face in the second tier.
Ground: Oakwell (since 1888, capacity 23,287)
Second tier seasons: 77 (+1 top flight)
Major honours: FA Cup (1911/12)
Last season: 21st in Championship
They may have benefitted from Wigan’s points deduction, but Barnsley’s survival wasn’t without drama of their own scripting. After game 44, they looked all but gone. Defeat at Leeds left the Tykes needing to win their last two fixtures – at home to seemingly play-off bound Nottingham Forest then away to promotion-chasing Brentford – and hoping that results elsewhere would go in their favour. But they did it – and they did it in blockbuster fashion, Clarke Oduor’s 91st minute winner sparking scenes that encapsulated the batshit bonkers nature of the Championship.
The South Yorkshire side were up against it for their return to the second tier – a season in which, after an opening day victory over Fulham, they went 17 matches without a win and found themselves adrift at the bottom by mid-November. That’s when Daniel Stendel was sacked – a decision so unpopular among fans that they held a leaving do for their former boss – and Gerhard Struber took over. Having steadied the ship and steered it to safety, all at Oakwell will be keen to avoid such choppy waters this time around.
The gaffer: Gerhard Struber
Appointed: November 2019
Previously managed: Wolfsberger AC, Liefering, SV Kuchl (all Austria)
Played for: Red Bull Salzburg (2 spells), SC Leogang, SV Friedburg, FC Hallein 04, SV Schwanenstadt, LASK, BSV Bad Bleiberg (all Austria)
Barnsley league record: P30, W11, D7, L12
Since Paul Heckingbottom left for Leeds in 2018, Barnsley have turned to the continent for their managers – of which Struber became the third in barely 18 months. The 43-year-old Austrian didn’t go straight into full-time coaching upon retiring from playing in 2008, instead balancing jobs in software and insurance with various youth team roles at Red Bull Salzburg – where he did the double as a player – until shifting his focus fully back to football in 2014. He’s proved a popular appointment at Oakwell and was visibly brimming with pride after the final whistle at Griffin Park.
Hopefully you’ve had time to take stock of your great escape by now! Can you just sum up the impact Gerhard Struber has had? I think its hard to emphasise how much of an impact he has had. I did a Q&A for another website earlier in the season and said that you could have Guardiola or Klopp in charge and it wouldn’t save us because the job was a poisoned chalice, but he has done remarkably well to turn things around. Don’t get me wrong, ultimately only Wigan have kept us up, but we were dead and buried when he came in. He has made us harder to beat and cut out the silly defensive mistakes. I think we have suffered attacking-wise, but at the end of the day if you don’t concede, you don’t lose, and I think that was particularly vital after lockdown.
For those who might not be familiar, would you describe your brand of football under Struber? It is a very high-pressing game, but that has been the philosophy for a while including under his predecessor Daniel Stendel and is how we got out of League One with a club record points total. A lot of fans were worried how it would work in the Championship against better quality players and I think early on we struggled as teams countered us very well.
Over the course of the season, though, this philosophy saw us perform better against the better clubs in the division (we did the double over Fulham and won at Brentford, went unbeaten against West Brom and Swansea, and beat Nottingham Forest) as we played better when teams attacked us. Therefore, we struggled against teams near the bottom who sat back waiting for us to break them down (one point v Luton, two points v Wigan, one point v Charlton, Birmingham did the double over us, and Stoke did the double over us and scored eight goals).
After becoming something of a yo-yo club in recent years and given the way you ended last season, are you confident of pushing on and re-establishing yourselves as a Championship outfit going forward? That HAS to be the next step. Prior to going down in 2014, we had spent seven successive seasons in the Championship, but I think a lot of mismanagement behind the scenes has contributed to us bouncing around recently. Don’t get me wrong, we need to be self-sustainable and there are a LOT of clubs currently struggling to survive, but we need to tweak our model slightly to establish ourselves.
Last summer, the board made the ridiculous statement that we had just had the best transfer window in the club’s history despite ripping up the team which had won us promotion (we had the best defensive record in League One yet sold the two centre-halves and goalkeeper and replaced them with players who did not even know the country, never mind the league). We have this policy whereby we almost stubbornly refuse to sign anybody over the age of 24/25 as everybody we sign MUST be able to be sold on for a profit.
We relented ever so slightly on this in January when we looked down and out and the board allowed Struber to bring in 30-year-old centre back Michael Sollbauer, who arguably went on to become our best player in the second half of the season and played a massive part in us becoming much more solid at the back. Yes, you need good young players in your squad, but you also need one or two old heads to get you through the difficult games. As I’ve said before, there will always be an asterisk against this season because we were NOT the fourth worst team; we were the third worst and the board need to remember that and learn the lessons from last summer. Whether they will… I’m not convinced.
Player-wise, who were your personal standouts last season and who should people look out for? Captain Alex Mowatt always ran his blood to water and has that touch of class. Cauley Woodrow had a great pre-lockdown season, scoring 15 goals, although he looked very disinterested when we returned, which makes many think he has a summer move lined up. [Fellow forward] Conor Chaplin also impressed, becoming the first Red to score a second tier hat-trick for eight years, whilst the signing of Sollbauer was a master-stroke!
We also have a lot of good young players coming through. [Midfielder] Callum Styles looks like the next big star and was very impressive when given his chance post-lockdown.
Finally, what would you say are your key needs this transfer window? We need to strengthen across the squad really – like I have said, we were still the third worst team in the division. We need a new goalkeeper at least as back-up – Jack Walton, another good young lad, broke in post-lockdown and was impressive, but I’m not convinced about Brad Collins as back-up. Another centre-back would be ideal as would a couple of full-backs as the Williams lads [Jordan and Ben] did not convince. Midfield doesn’t look too bad, although we could do with another winger. And we definitely need a striker regardless of whether Woodrow stays or not.
When we last met
Our 2020/21 meetings with Banrlsey will actually only be our seventh and eighth ever. After sharing a division in the 2002/03 and 2003/04 seasons, it would be 15 years before we next went head to head – when Randell Williams’ thumping half-volley from 20 yards secured all three points at Adams Park and keep us in touch with the League One play-offs in our first season back in the third tier. By contrast, the reverse fixture at Oakwell – in which Adam El-Abd saw red for hair-pulling – saw our second loss of a horrible, 12-match winless run.
Did you know…?
Barnsley hold the record for the most seasons spent in the second tier of English football. Their total of 77 includes 33 consecutively from the formation of the Second Division in 1898 to their first relegation in 1932.