The Thursday Preview: Barnsley Vs Sheffield Wednesday
For obvious reasons, the match of the weekend is probably West Brom’s trip to Newcastle, or at least that’s what the media will tell us. Rather than toeing the line, I think I’ll leave that to others and focus instead on a game of true Championship grit which will almost certainly be every bit as entertaining: Mark Robin’s up-and-at-’em Barnsley at home to Sheffield Wednesday, led for the first time by Alan Irvine. With the average Championship manager’s tenure now lasting around 18 months, there are always new beginnings to comment on, but a winter’s South Yorkshire derby, played out in front of a sell out and under a moody Barnsley sky, perhaps justifies the attention. Indeed, the beeb think so: Clem will be at the game for The Championship on Saturday.
Now in their fourth consecutive year at this level, Barnsley have taken a while to reacquaint themselves with this their natural habitat. Final standings of 20th, 18th and 20th under Simon Davey in the last three seasons suggests that the Reds have been doing little but making up the numbers until now, offering only that Cup run, a few mazy dribbles from Jamal Campbell-Ryce and unfathomable attendances that fluctuate massively from week to week. The hasty appointment of Mark Robins 5 league games into the season may have put a change to that. The wins have been punctuated by draws and defeats, most recently by successive losses against Coventry and Scunthorpe in the Cup, but an air of optimism has transcended Oakwell and such is the level of belief that cheeky talk of the play-offs has passed many Red lips.
There will no doubt be many sceptics, particularly since the Tykes have recently lulled and money is scarce. A squad comprising established first-teamers Steven Foster, Darren Moore and Hugo Colace has been boosted by the loan signings of Ryan Shotton and Carl Dickinson from Stoke and Hull’s dainty wingback Nathan Doyle has joined permanently after being borrowed, but it’s unlikely that Robins will benefit from a sizeable budget. Pragmatically, it seems, Robins has decided to base his team’s game around a high tempo, packing the side full of height and ordering his charges to attack with pace. Having worked well for the Reds when they were in the mire, it remains to be seen whether this approach, full of boundless running, will be enough to sustain a crack at the top 6.
Barnsley have won just one in six, but a high-charged dee-dar derby might just provide a tonic. Wednesday themselves are scraping the barrel and are three months without a win. Many will point to Irvine’s more-than-successful fight against relegation when he took the Preston job in 2007-2008, but this time round he won’t have the financial clout to effect changes. Indeed, whereas Irvine inherited a reasonable squad at Deepdale and was able to sign Chris Brown and Richard Chaplow for combined fees of around £1.2m to aid survival, it is plain to see that he will have to work that bit harder at Wednesday. A pedestrian squad is illuminated only by the natural abilities of Jermaine Johnson and Marcus Tudgay, but the latter’s presence in particular is by no means guaranteed in the second half of the season at Hillsborough. Irvine’s statement that he is under no pressure to sell appears fabricated when in the same breath he discloses how the pot is empty and that there’s no money to sign fans’ favourite Luke Varney, so it’s likely that Wednesdayites will have to make do with what they’ve got along with a few loan signings.
Irvine might have hoped for an easier first game, but however clichéd, the old adage that “if you can’t get yourself up for a derby, then you never will”, is true enough in this context. The Owls showed that they are capable enough of raising their game in their previous league match, a spirited 2-2 draw against the Geordies, so there is some light. With games against relegation rivals Peterborough, Scunthorpe and Plymouth upcoming after back-to-back trips to Barnsley and Blackpool, Irvine will probably be looking at his first two games as barometers, focusing primarily on getting team selection right and giving his team shape and substance. As such, I reckon that Barnsley’s ‘Boggy’ and co will take the points tomorrow.