League One Play-Offs: Barnsley Complete Their Transformation
After two seasons away, Barnsley secured promotion back to the Football League Championship with a three-one win against Millwall at Wembley yesterday afternoon. There was an element of surprise about this result. After all, Millwall had only been relegated at the end of the season before and had finished the League One season in fourth place in the table, having secured their play-off spot with more than a little room to spare despite having had a rocky period in the build-up to Christmas which saw the club drop to tenth place in the table. Barnsley, on the other hand, had been through a season of two very distinct halves, during the club went from anticipating a second relegation in four years to a most unlikely of promotion bids.
Between the end of September and the middle of November last year, Barnsley were in the worst form of any club in the entire Football League. Over the course of this period, they lost eight successive league matches and were knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Altrincham, and it is unsurprising, in the hair-trigger world of football management, that there was considerable speculation from the start of November that the then-incumbent Lee Johnson might not be at the club for that much longer. Indeed, it was suggested that Johnson had only secured himself a little more time because of the run that he’d manage to put together earlier last year, when, upon being appointed as the club’s manager, he took the club from two places above the League One relegation places to a comfortable mid-table finish.
How small can the margins between victory and defeat in the Football League be? On Boxing Day, Barnsley’s home match against Bury was postponed on account of a waterlogged pitch. By the time the match was rearranged, the club was a very different place to be around. When the two clubs did finally play each other on the seventh of February, Barnsley swatted Bury aside by three goals to nil. It was their seventh win in a row since Christmas and lifted the team to eleventh place in the table. On Boxing Day, they’d been in twenty-first place in the table, in a relegation position and with no particular signs showing of how Johnson might be able to turn things around.
A change in form hadn’t been the only change at the club over this period of time, though. The day before the rescheduled match against Bury and two and a half weeks before the first anniversary of his arrival at Oakwell, Lee Johnson left Barnsley after having been successfully courted by Championship club Bristol City. That Johnson should have been tempted by overtures emanating from a club that he spent six years with as a player perhaps shouldn’t have been too surprising, but it didn’t alter the fact that this departure left the club in a bit of a hole, with coach Paul Heckingbottom taking over in a caretaker position until the end of the season.
It’s now widely anticipated that Heckingbottom will be offered the Barnsley manager’s job on a permanent basis, and this is hardly surprising. Not only did he continue Johnson’s good work and carry the club into the play-off places on goal difference above Scunthorpe United, but he also led the team out at Wembley in March for a dramatic three-two win against Oxford United in the final of the Football League Trophy. In the league, meanwhile, a four-one win at division champions Wigan Athletic on the last day of the season was enough to secure sixth place in the table, and the play-off semi-finals brought a two-legged win against Walsall, who had finished the season just outside of the automatic promotion places.
For Millwall, meanwhile, the end of this season must be starting to feel a little like Groundhog Day. Defeat on the pitch at Wembley was one thing, but the disorder that occurred in the stands was a wearyingly familiar return to type for a section of the club’s support that wouldn’t even really be considered the club’s support by many. Let’s be absolutely clear on this. Millwall Football Club has worked extremely hard on attempting to ensure that the club’s reputation is as clean as it can be. There is little blame to be attached to the club itself for the incidents that occurred at Wembley yesterday afternoon and, as we have mentioned on these pages before, there are few other clubs in the entire Football League who have carried out as much positive work in their local community as this one has.
There is, however, clearly an issue with part-time followers who continue to pitch up for big matches with some curious ideas about “honour” and “fighting for Millwall”, and who spread their poison around the club. It seems pointless to attempt to seek to appeal to their better nature or similar. It is, however, clear that there remains a number people who choose to affiliate themselves with the club who will pitch up for these big events – as they did for the 2013 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Wigan Athletic – paying little attention to anything bar fighting anybody that they feel like fighting. Tighter regulation of ticket sales for these matches might be an answer, of sorts, as might the police actually doing their jobs, forensically checking the extensive film footage of the day, and actually acting upon it. There remains, however, no particularly good reason why the vast majority of Millwall supporters should be penalised for the actions of this disruptive few, though.
On the pitch, meanwhile, the match was effectively over within twenty minutes, with goals from Ashley Fletcher and Adam Hammill – the second of which, a splendid curling shot from just outside of the penalty area, was a goal truly worthy of its setting. Mark Beevers pulled a goal back for Millwall eleven minutes from half-time but, while the play continued to swing from one end of the pitch to another, it always felt as though Millwall were chasing something of a lost cause, especially after Conor Hourihane headed a third goal with a little more than fifteen minutes left to play. From there on, Barnsley closed down the game with considerable comfort. A return to the Football League Championship awaits for Barnsley, then, and the aim for their first season back at this level should probably be some degree of consolidation after one that has, for all the excitement that it eventually brought, was probably not good for their supporters’ blood pressure. Paul Heckingbottom deserves his chance, but he also deserves to be borne with should results not necessarily go their way early next season.
For Millwall, meanwhile, a familiar post-mortem awaits. We can only speculate over the extent to which the behaviour of the likes of those that pitched up at Wembley both yesterday and three years ago, but it seems impossible to believe that it doesn’t. How many commercial deals are scuppered by businesses seeing the name “Millwall” and getting cold feet? How many people are put off buying season tickets by the club’s reputation? It’s a problem that the club appears more than aware of, but the biggest problem that the club has with all of this is that which the rest of us have with it as well. They don’t care. Perhaps this is the logical conclusion of no-one liking them, but it doesn’t change the suspicion that they’re throttling the football club that they claim to care so much about that they’ll start fights with strangers over it.