Ahead of the new Championship season, Ross Bramble looks at how Barnsley’s ‘incredible’ business in the transfer window so far could help them challenge their rivals in the fiercely-competitive league.
Considering the rapture and acclaim afforded to Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town in particular, it’s easy to forget that last season’s Championship campaign was a truly special one for less glamorous sides, too. Preston, Burton and Cardiff all out-performed their pre-season expectations, but one of the greatest stories lost in the shuffle was that of Barnsley.
Barnsley’s mere presence in the Championship was an incredible story even of itself – the Tykes had been bottom of the League One table in December 2015, but surged into the play-off places with an extraordinary late-season charge.
They even managed to pick up the EFL Trophy along the way, punctuating an incredible story that was overshadowed at the time by the incredulity of Leicester City’s Premier League win.
The idea that League One’s December basement boys could end up in the Championship was utterly ludicrous. When the Tykes secured their promotion with a 3-1 Wembley win over Millwall, beneath the celebrations and plaudits seemed to be an air of acceptance that promotion had come too soon.
They were seen as a small fish in a big pond, and along with Burton, appeared in most people’s predicted bottom three.
Fast forward a season and Barnsley had defied the odds once again. The side finished seven points clear of the relegation zone, and actually flirted with the Championship play-off places for the opening half of the season. Barnsley were impressing teams, scouts and pundits far and wide – no surprise then, that the January transfer window saw them lose their three best players.
James Bree and Conor Hourihane were snaffled by an Aston Villa side reinventing itself under the guidance of Steve Bruce, and Sam Winnall was sold to promotion-chasing Sheffield Wednesday. The Tykes never quite looked the same thereafter, and perhaps it is no surprise that the side slipped down the Championship standings once the window had closed.
With next season’s Championship shaping up to be one of the most tightly-fought and evenly-contested in years, clubs with smaller budgets are in for a fight to keep their heads above water. For Barnsley, then, the summer transfer window takes on renewed importance; replacing their lost core on a meagre budget compared to that of their rivals was never going to be an easy task.
That said, Barnsley, never one to be deterred by long odds, have done an incredible job so far. At time of writing, the Tykes have acquired arguably League One’s right-back of the year in Jason McCarthy, the always-impressive Cameron McGeehan, former promotion-winner Lloyd Isgrove and the highly-rated Chelsea youngster Ike Ugbo, among others.
Given the sparsity of their resources, Barnsley have run of the most quietly brilliant transfer windows in England so far this season, on paper at least. The triple loss of Winnall, Bree and Hourihane were heavy blows to the Barnsley machine, as evidenced by the impact of their absence in the second half of last season. McCarthy and McGeehan in particular, though, are beautifully astute replacements.
The question now of course is whether Barnsley’s business is enough to keep the side out of trouble as the beginning of a highly competitive, money-heavy campaign approaches. Barnsley will need to hope their new core can settle quickly, and that Tom Bradshaw can bear the burden as the Tykes’ main striker.
But if there’s one thing we know about Barnsley, it’s that they love a good challenge.
Follow Ross on Twitter at @rossbramble