Barnsley F.C. exist in a state of purgatory. Last season they propped up the Championship table, their third relegation from that division in the last nine seasons. In that time, they’ve won promotion from League One twice in the three seasons they’ve spent down there. They expect to be celebrating three-out-of-four next May.
Having appointed and sacked two managers in a chaotic campaign, Barnsley went into the summer break looking for a new boss. Michael Duff represents a change in approach – after six successive managers with no English experience, Duff joins Barnsley after four seasons with Cheltenham Town. His results are beyond question, having led the Gloucestershire outfit to their highest-ever finish in League One last season.
His methods, however, do have their detractors. As a player, Duff was a battle-weary centre-half who eschewed the more technical aspects of the game. Many of the same attributes are represented in his management – he prefers a rigid 5-3-2 shape with long throw-ins as a primary attacking weapon. While his phlegmatic football was effective with Cheltenham, it remains to be seen whether it will work with a bigger fish.
As usual with relegated sides, there has been turnover in the Barnsley squad. Carlton Morris, who scored the most goals for Barnsley last season, and Cauley Woodrow, who was top bagsman for the two seasons before that, have both joined Luton Town. Both will be missed for a team that scored fewer goals than anyone else in the Championship last season. Young full-back Callum Britton also stays in the second tier, moving across the Pennines to Blackburn.
Barnsley have prioritised attacking players in this transfer window, given their terminal issue at that end last season. James Norwood, who has scored 26 goals in 77 games at this level, joins from Ipswich. Nicky Cadden also joins the Tykes, after contributing 11 assists for Forest Green Rovers in their League Two title-winning campaign last season. He will be tasked with providing the service to Norwood and his likely strike partner, Andy Cole’s son Devante.
One factor that makes Argyle’s job harder is that players linked with a transfer away from Oakwell have not yet had their moves confirmed. Barnsley’s board have agreed to sanction a move for Callum Styles if a club comes in for him. His performances for Hungary, who he qualifies to represent through his grandmother, caught the attention of Premier League clubs, but no formal offers have been submitted yet and he remains available for selection. Mads Juel Andersen was named club captain in the summer with Barnsley hoping to retain his services, but there are higher-division clubs who admire the Danish centre-back.
In Styles and Andersen, Barnsley have so far retained a smattering of players who are a bit too good for League One. That is reflected in their pre-season results, where they are unbeaten, notching up a 2-1 victory over Sheffield United and drawing 0-0 with Premier League Nottingham Forest.
Barnsley will be nearer the top of League One than the bottom. Even if Michael Duff is slightly agricultural, he ought to transfer his record of success from Cheltenham to South Yorkshire. They have signed well on paper, as you’d expect for a team with a high League One budget. This, too, is a bad time to play them as they can call on the services of players who may not be with them in September. Argyle would do well to start the season with a home win.