When the 2020-21 Championship fixture list was released last August, Barnsley against Reading on Easter Friday was not one that would have jumped out to supporters of both teams, let alone followers of the rest of the division.
Neither club was expected to pull up too many trees this season – Reading had laboured their way to a mid-table finish last year while Barnsley survived relegation in the dying seconds of the final game.
Questions were asked when the Royals changed managers just a fortnight before the start of the new campaign, while there were similar doubts about the Tykes when popular manager Gerhard Struber departed for New York Red Bulls in October, leaving the club winless from their first four games.
But both clubs have surprised everyone. Reading won seven of their first eight games and that has acted as a strong foundation for the rest of the campaign. Meanwhile, Barnsley have recovered from a poor start and have recently gone on an even better run – they won nine out of 10 matches before a loss to Sheffield Wednesday last time out.
As we prepare for the final eight fixtures, beginning with the two teams meeting at Oakwell, the pair currently occupy spots in the playoffs.
That is the beauty of the Championship. Every year it throws up surprises and the table rarely pans out as predicted.
It is stories like Barnsley’s that I would ordinarily be willing to end with promotion to the Premier League. It really would be an incredible turnaround after they were minutes away from dropping into League One season, and it is always nice to see ‘different’ clubs go up rather than some of the familiar faces in the playoff mix.
It is also very easy to get on board with the Barnsley project. They have not broken the bank to get where they are, instead adopting a low-cost data driven approach in true Moneyball style – former Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is a shareholder in South Yorkshire.
The club’s policy of not paying money for any player over the age of 24 has led to Barnsley being the youngest team in the Championship, making them energetic, hungry and fearless.
I’m hesitant to say that if Reading are not the team to go up via the playoffs, I would like it to be Barnsley. They are my preferred alternative, but I remember making a similar statement about Huddersfield Town four years ago and the footballing gods took it slightly too literally and promoted the Terriers at Reading’s expense in the cruellest possible way.
So to Friday. It is easy to call it the ‘biggest game of the season’, but that seems to have been a label applied to almost all of Reading’s games over the last few months.
It is certainly feels like a defining fixture, amplified by the presence of the Sky Sports cameras, and it will be a fascinating contest that I can’t wait to watch. But it is not an all-or-nothing showdown. A defeat does not end Reading’s playoff hopes and a win is not a sign we’ll finish in the top six.
That is important to remember whatever emotions the result brings up.
By Olly Allen