With the festive period upon us, there seems no better time to look back at how the season has gone for the Tykes so far.
It’s fair to say that Keith Hill didn’t enjoy the warmest of welcomes to life at Barnsley FC. His predecessor, Mark Robins, was a popular character at Oakwell, and had provided the club with its highest finish in years in his first full season in charge.
Unfortunately for Robins, a disagreement about a transfer budget, policies and everything else that comes with managing a Championship club came to a head with those in charge in South Yorkshire, and the former Manchester United striker found that, rather than anticipating chancing his arm in the Championship again, he had more pressing issues at the dole office.
The appointment of Hill was odd in itself. Only four days after declaring that he wasn’t interested in the post, the Lancastrian and his assistant David Flitcroft, the other essential ingredient in the name ‘Hillcroft’, were hot-tailing across the Pennines, leaving Rochdale for the considerably bigger challenge of Barnsley and the Championship.
The Tykes have always been something of an unfashionable club, and have only spent one season of their entire history in the English top flight, back in 1997/98 under the stewardship of Danny Wilson.
Whisper it quietly, but comparisons can already be drawn between that legendary Barnsley team, and the one that Hill is assembling at modern-day Oakwell. Although the Tykes have stuttered in their last two Championship games, the seven matches before that saw them pick up five victories, and provided Barnsley fans with a sense of optimism that has been missing in the town for a number of years.
This isn’t a Barnsley team that is filled with money. Signings in the summer saw Rob Edwards and Matty Done follow Hillcroft from Rochdale, and both have done well to make the step up in divisions. Danny Drinkwater has added both flair and steel in the midfield since joining on loan from Manchester United, but it is worth remembering that he spent time at League One Huddersfield last season too. Arguably his best signing, Craig Davies, came in from Chesterfield on a free transfer, and Hill has made it clear that he didn’t have to battle for his signature with any other Championship managers. Thankfully for Hill and Barnsley, Davies has already repaid the faith shown in him, and has already notched an impressive eight goals this term.
To revisit the comparisons to Wilson’s promotion team, the squad is made up of players who will obviously run through brick walls for each other.
As mentioned, his transition into Barnsley manager wasn’t a smooth one. Poor early season form saw the fans turn on him quickly as a number of established first team favourites found themselves out of the team at the expense of Hill’s signings, but now that his philosophy and style of play has been accepted and embraced by the players, the fans have been able to see what he is trying to build at the club, and his approval ratings are currently sky rocketing.
Hill and Flitcroft have brought a sense of togetherness to the squad that has been missing from Barnsley for a number of years. Stuck in a rut and battling the constant threat of relegation since making the step back up into the Championship seven years ago, Tykes fans would be forgiven for getting a little ahead of themselves when looking at the league table and realising that the club has every chance of sitting in the top half of the league going into the new year.
To revisit the comparisons to Wilson’s promotion team, the squad is made up of players who, while not necessarily being classed as superstars outside of the club, will obviously run through brick walls for each other.
He has Jacob Butterfield in the centre of midfield, a young man with the world at his feet, and the eye for a spectacular goal. It would be wrong to heap pressure on him, but this Barnsley supporter can see clear similarities between Butterfield and the talismanic Neil Redfearn, a club legend whose goals from midfield had more than an overwhelming influence on that Barnsley team being promoted. It is interesting that Hill’s biggest challenge over the next few months will be to persuade Butterfield to sign a new contract, as his expires in the summer, and a number of Premiership clubs have already reportedly shown an interest.
He may adorn the side of the pitch in a jacket more likely to be seen on your dad than Jose Mourinho, but he has revolutionised a Barnsley squad through sheer hard work.
While Jim O’Brien may have Scottish roots, rather than the Trinidadian ties that Clint Marcelle boasted, Barnsley have a tricky winger on their books that is capable of giving any Championship full-back nightmares, while Luke Steele has matured immeasurably in recent weeks and months, leading to shouts for him to be called up to the England squad. Go back in time by 14 years, and you are talking about a young English goalkeeper called David Watson. It is generally accepted that only injury kept Watson away from representing his country, perhaps Steele can go one better in terms of Barnsley goalkeepers and their national team.
Pleasingly for Barnsley fans, Hill isn’t one to rest up on his laurels either. Following the team’s 4-3 victory over Peterborough last month, in which they let slip a three goal lead, he had almost nothing positive to say in his post-match interview. Rather than praising three wonderful strikes by Barnsley players, he was more interested in chastising the team for letting slip such a large lead. It is this mentality that will endear him to the Tykes’ faithful more than anything. For many years, okay has been good enough for the fans, but it seems that those days are now behind the club, and only the best will do.
Keith Hill may look like he has just strolled off the set of Last of the Summer Wine. He may adorn the side of the pitch in a jacket more likely to be seen on your dad than Jose Mourinho, but he has revolutionised a Barnsley squad through sheer hard work and good, old-fashioned tactics.
It may not quite be just like watching Brazil just yet, Barnsley’s popular chant when they were promoted back in 1997, but if the Hillcroft revolution continues at its current pace, then don’t be surprised to hear those famous words on the Football League show in the near future.
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