League One play-offs begin at Oakwell on Saturday
13 May ~ When Barnsley entertained Walsall on a chilly Tuesday evening last October the likelihood of the pair meeting again in the play-offs seemed remote to say the least. The Saddlers strolled to a comfortable 2-0 win, consolidating their position as early League One frontrunners and condemning their hosts to another loss in a run that would eventually stretch to a club-record eight consecutive defeats. In late November, a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United saw Lee Johnson’s team slump to the foot of the table with just 18 points from their first 20 games.
Barnsley’s post-Christmas revival is quite a story. In 2016, no team in League One won more games, gained more points, kept more clean sheets or conceded fewer goals. It took them from the relegation places to the final play-off spot – sealed with an impressive 4-1 win at champions Wigan. Walsall also won comfortably on the final day – 5-0 at Port Vale – but Burton’s goalless draw at Doncaster was enough to secure runners-up spot by a single point.
Yet for two sides that spent much of the season at opposite ends of the table Walsall and Barnsley had remarkably similar seasons. Both saw managers poached by Championship clubs part way through the season – Dean Smith left for Brentford in November, Johnson for Bristol City in February – and both clubs promoted from within, Paul Heckingbottom taking over at Oakwell and Jon Whitney succeeding Smith either side of the brief and disastrous appointment of Sean O’Driscoll.
Both have also relied on youth, the Tykes regularly fielding a team with an average age of just 21, while in Tom Bradshaw and Sam Winnall each boasts one of the most coveted strikers in the division. There’s no doubt that Barnsley are exactly the kind of team that other sides fear in the play-offs – the dark horse that makes a late run (and runs don’t come much later than being in the bottom four at Christmas) then carry that momentum into the post-season.
But if Barnsley’s story is all about the last five months, then Walsall’s is all about the last five years. With one of the smallest playing budgets in the league, the club has implemented a laudable long-term blueprint, establishing the same fluid passing style at every level of the club while attempting to attract a new generation of fans through promotions that effectively make season tickets free for under-18s.
Promotion – and parity with Aston Villa, Wolves and Birmingham – would be just reward for a club that has become a standard-bearer for building success “the right way”. But at the moment fans are simply looking forward to watching the best Walsall team in recent memory extend a season that has already exceeded all expectation. Tom Lines