After Barnsley owner Patrick Cryne had persuaded Keith Hill and David Flitcroft to abandon their successful project at Rochdale in the summer he set them just one task: keep the club in the Championship.
As we move into March, the Reds sit in 16th place and being 12 points behind sixth place Birmingham, it means Hill’s side are two points closer to the play-offs than they are to the bottom three. I don’t think that this achievement can be underestimated, although I think many Barnsley fans are threatening to do just that if the team continue to struggle as they have in the last few weeks.
What needs to be remembered is that Hill-Croft worked wonders in the first half of the campaign, quickly gelling together a team that cost very little into a hard working side that also offered plenty of quality in key areas. Although not solely responsible for these areas of quality, three players in particular were a huge part of it. Jacob Butterfield with most shots this season and equal most assists, Danny Drinkwater – equal most assists and Ricardo Vaz Te being the club’s top scorer; and where are they now? The treatment room for the rest of the season, Leicester City and West Ham United respectively.
Add to this the loss of David Perkins to on-going injury worries and the problems get a little bit more severe. I have grouped Perkins away from the initial trio because he hasn’t got the star player ability of them, but he is nonetheless vital to a successful Hill side thanks to his incredible industry. With him and Butterfield out and Drinkwater gone then almost the entirety of the midfield is wiped out.
When a club is operating on such a tight budget, having arguably its three best players and its hardest working one taken out of contention is going to leave a significant flesh wound, one that Hill is doing his best to treat.
He has had to completely re-work his team mid-season which is an unenviable task at any level. This was evidenced on Saturday against Nottingham Forest when the midfield quartet of Michael Tongue, Korey Smith, Paul Digby and Scott Golbourne had played just 22 games for the club between them. The central pairing was then revamped for Tuesday’s clash with Middlesbrough, but the new duo of Stephen Dawson and Nathan Doyle have now started just eleven games between them this season. Clearly it is proving incredibly difficult for Hill to find any consistency in selection.
The signings of Golbourne and Chris Dagnall have been criticised in some sectors, but Hill has stuck to his tried and trusted methods of finding the players with the right “DNA” for his system as he so often puts it. They are bound to need some time to step up to the Championship level, and supporters will have to give them that.
The likes of Craig Davies and Scott Wiseman didn’t look great at the very start of the season, but they have taken their time and now are both pretty much nailed-on starters. Hill can clearly spot a player and his success with his summer signings means he deserves a bit of trust with his January ones.
It seems that Hill-Croft have been a victim of their own mid-season success which got a lot of fans overly excited, but as a fan myself, I think we should thank them for their continued excellent work against the odds and support them in achieving the one goal Mr Cryne set them seven months ago.
Written by Phil Haigh, We Are Going Up’s Barnsley blogger
Phil tweets at @philhaigh_