The Reds were bottom in November but are heading to Wembley for a second time
28 May ~ On the evening of November 28, 2015 Barnsley reached rock bottom. They were propping up League One, on a losing streak of eight games and with nowhere to go after sacking a bagful of managers when a miracle happened. Totally out of character, Oakwell's directors stuck with under-pressure coach Lee Johnson.
Six months on and the Reds have won a Wembley final (the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in front of 60,000) and squeezed into the play-offs with an emphatic final-day victory away to champions Wigan. And all this despite losing manager Johnson to Bristol City in February, leaving his Barnsley-born assistant Paul Heckingbottom in charge.
So what price promotion in the play-off final? The pessimist in me says the run has to come to an end sometime and perhaps it's now as we face the final hurdle. The opposition from The Den have a reputation for robust play and they could unsettle this young Barnsley side, especially as they will be roared on by more fans, with Reds supporters facing a second expensive 380-mile round trip in seven weeks.
None of us would be surprised if Millwall won. But the optimist points to the fact that since Christmas the Reds have claimed more points than any other side in the top four divisions and our recent away form is eye catching (played 12, won nine).
Winger Adam Hammill is the major offensive threat and our revival coincided with his arrival after a troubled spell at Huddersfield. Expect the Lions to clatter into him pretty early. Fortunately, Barnsley are not a one-man band.
Excellent partnerships abound, including forward Sam Winnall (24 goals) and Conor Hourihane (11 goals and 21 assists) and a strong central defensive axis of Alfie Mawson and Marc Roberts. Add in a couple of loanees in Lloyd Isgrove (Southampton) and Ashley Fletcher (Manchester United) and the Reds have, at times, looked too good for this division.
Millwall also have attacking quality in the shape of Lee Gregory and Steve Morison (39 goals between them) and have a simpler gameplan. It's a tough call, but I'd make them slight favourites.
Whatever the outcome, there will be another 60,000-plus crowd at Wembley, and with a couple of League One clubs averaging nearly 20,000 this season, anyone who thinks B-sides would do anything for English football at this level, other than diminish it, needs to get a grip. Richard Darn
Photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photography: Oakwell, home to Barnsley