Ahead of Saturday’s Sky Bet League One clash with Scunthorpe United we caught up with a player who represented both clubs with distinction - the prolific Sam Winnall!
The 27-year-old striker joined Barnsley in the summer of 2014 upon the Reds’ relegation to League One, leaving Scunthorpe after a season where he plundered 23 goals for the Iron.
Joining the club at the same time as Conor Hourihane, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers trainee would go on to have a similar, lasting impact on the fortunes of Barnsley FC. Their often described ‘telepathic’ connection on the pitch was key, and their goals and assists and hard graft helped the Reds to promotion back to the Championship in 2016.
The Sheffield Wednesday man admits that whilst there aren’t many teammates of his left at Oakwell that he still follows the club from afar, wishing the Reds well.
“I still keep an eye out for most of the clubs I’ve played at,” he told us.
“It’s always nice to see former clubs have a bit of success. Not just for the players who I played with or the fans. But for the staff too, those behind-the-scenes who I know work tirelessly for the club without getting the same level of credit or rewards. So I always think it’s nice when they get the success they deserve.
“Most of the lads that I played with at Barnsley have left now but there’s still a few there such as Davo (Adam Davies) and Izzy (Lloyd Isgrove)! But so far, from what I’ve seen this season, the current squad there have more than enough to challenge for promotion, and the way they have started shows that they are well up for the challenge.”
With last season’s relegation and the appointment of a new Head Coach on Grove Street, that great start is even more impressive and this is something that isn’t lost on Sam.
He believes it’s vital that a new Head Coach or Manager gets his new squad onside quickly, telling us that the players’ relationship with their gaffer should never be underestimated, pointing to the way the class of 2016 responded to former Head Coach Paul Heckingbottom.
He explained, saying: “That relationship, it’s huge, you can see that from how well our squad did under Hecky.
"That’s not to say we didn’t get on well with Danny Wilson or Lee Johnson because both were good coaches. But under Hecky everyone loved and respected him and wanted to win for him.
“So I think that’s a big reason as to why we were so successful. So if the boys have taken to the new gaffer in the same way, which it seems it has then I’m sure it will be a recipe for success.”
With the Reds heading to North Lincolnshire on Saturday to tackle another one of Sam’s former clubs, he was quick to acknowledge the opportunity given to him at Scunthorpe.
His solitary season at Glanford Park saw him top the goalscoring charts, scoring 23 goals as the Iron finished runners-up in League Two and sealed promotion back to League One at the first attempt.
Winnall told us about the appreciation he has for Scunthorpe and gave his opinion on Saturday’s fixture.
“Leaving Wolves and being out of contract was a scary time for me as a youngster so I’m really thankful to Scunthorpe United for giving me a chance to kick-start my career.
“It was a great season for me on a personal and team level and one I will never forget. I don’t know where I’d be playing now if it wasn’t for ‘Scunny’ giving me a chance so I will always be grateful to the club.
“It’s hard to say how Scunthorpe will react to the two defeats because sometimes when teams have had bad losses they have a good reaction. But Glanford Park is never an easy place to go so I’m sure it will be a tough game regardless.
“With all due respect to ‘Scunny’ though, I think Barnsley will be too strong for them on this occasion. Especially with the confidence that’s running through the Reds team at the moment. But I think it should be a good game between two clubs I will always be fond of.”
Barnsley brought Winnall to Oakwell in July of 2014 and the move was met with raised eyebrows in some quarters, considering the Reds had been relegated and the Iron promoted.
However, Sam says he has no regrets about turning down other clubs, nor leaving Glanford Park for South Yorkshire to work under Danny Wilson.
He told us the club made it clear he would be an important part of the plans moving forward, and it was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
“At the time, Scunthorpe had just been promoted and Barnsley had just come down from the Championship. Barnsley were really keen and did a lot to prove they wanted me to come to the club, they sold it to me.
“So when the chance arose, I turned down other offers and decided to join Barnsley and looking back it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career.
“I think my strengths as a player are my desire and determination to score goals and to win. I think that endeared me to Reds fans. For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved scoring goals more than anything else and I’ve always had that addiction to hitting the net.
“I have such high standards of myself and if I don’t score in a game I’m disappointed. So I suppose that desire to score has always given me an edge in front of goal.”
In his two-and-a-half years with the Reds, Winnall went on to net 48 goals in 116 Barnsley appearances, and when we asked him about the best moments and goals he enjoyed whilst here, his answers were quite obvious.
There were goals in Yorkshire derbies; the winner at Sheffield United, a goal against Bradford City at Oakwell. Some goals were outstanding long-range efforts such as the screamer at Oldham Athletic and Goal of the Season contender away at Notts County.
But the obvious answers were probably ones that every Reds fan would agree with..
“The best goal I scored was by far the second against Walsall. Not just because of the actual goal but because of the magnitude of the occasion. Oakwell was packed for the playoff semi final and the atmosphere was unbelievable, the best I’d seen at the stadium.
"And when I scored the goal to put us 3-0 up, it kind of put one foot in the final for us and we knew that without being over-confident. The crowd went crazy singing my name and I remember getting goosebumps. So that goal will always be the best during my time at Barnsley.
“I was lucky to have many great moments during my time at the club but in terms of the greatest memory, I think it has to be the Johnstones Paint Trophy win.
“It was my first time playing at Wembley and all my friends and family were there to witness it.
“Walking up the famous steps to pick up the trophy will always be one of my favourite moments in my life, not just my football career.”
Now at Hillsborough with local rivals Sheffield Wednesday, Winnall left Barnsley under a cloud back in January of 2017.
It was a transfer that didn’t go down well with Reds supporters for numerous reasons but the Wolverhampton native feels that without knowing the facts behind such a deal, the fans were always likely to turn on him.
As he explained: “There’s so much that went on behind the scenes that fans didn’t see or weren’t told about so it’s hard to explain the full situation really, and I’m not going to go into all the details because we move on.
“But at the time, I had six months left on my contract and in my mind the club gave me no choice but to leave as they didn’t make it clear they wanted to keep me. And Wednesday were the club at the time showing me they wanted me more than any other club.
“The year before, Leeds United had several bids rejected for me but staying at Barnsley that year was the right decision because I experienced some of the best times of my life during that season.”
"That’s who I am as a player; I wear my heart on my sleeve."
It wasn’t too long before Sam returned to Oakwell, with the Owls.
The date was April Fools Day in 2017 and Wednesday were chasing the playoffs whilst the Reds were mid-table and seemingly had little to play for.
But in a derby fixture, there’s pride at stake and with the added ‘Winnall’ factor thrown in, the game was always likely to be played in a white-hot atmosphere.
The striker did what he does best, bagging another Oakwell goal but this time against the Reds, capitalising on a defensive mistake before running 60 yards down the touchline, passing Barnsley fans in the East Stand, celebrating wildly.
Sam explained the celebration, telling us: “I think that goal was pure emotion. I’d been given a lot of stick in the months building up to the game on social media and in person to my face at times.
“I went into the game thinking if I do score, I don’t have to hold back for anyone.
“And then obviously the toy pig was thrown onto the pitch early on (which I actually found quite funny afterwards in fairness). So when I did score I couldn’t help but release all the emotion that had built up inside me and went mental.
“Every goal I score I’m over the moon with, so I think it would have been impossible to stay cool in that situation given the abuse I’d received. But that’s who I am as a player, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I probably didn’t realise the backlash I would receive from it though!”
Having failed to cement a regular place at Hillsborough under Carlos Carvahal the charismatic forward was snapped up by Derby County in a loan deal at the start of last season.
Proving an instant hit with Rams supporters, just as he’d been with Owls fans too, he was an important member of Gary Rowett’s first team squad in their assault on the playoffs, until he suffered an ACL injury against Brentford in February this year which prematurely ended his season.
Sam told us about the reasoning surrounding that move, his plans moving forward and gave us an update on his rehab.
“Competition up top is high at Wednesday with the amount of quality strikers we’ve got and the old management had clear favourites too. But I’m not one to be happy on a bench. When I’m available, I want to play every minute of every game.
“And I don’t think that was possible under the old management at the club. So when the chance came to go out on loan I was very keen on the idea. But the Wednesday fans have been amazing with me ever since I’ve joined, even when I was out on loan they’ve always wished me well and wanted me to succeed, I hope when I’m back fit I can repay that faith they’ve shown in me with goals.
“I was loving my time at Derby though until the injury. There is never a good time to have an injury like this one but that felt extra hard as I was playing well and we were flying high in the table.
“But sometimes you have to play the cards your dealt and I’ve had to be mentally strong and work hard to come back even better than I was before. But I’m on course to come back at the initial stage we predicted and I’m feeling stronger as every day passes, so I’ll soon be back scoring tap-ins!”
A divisive, controversial character, perhaps. But one of the most prolific strikers in Barnsley FC’s recent history and a key cog in a Red machine that achieved a promotion back to the second tier and a cup final victory at Wembley.
Before we ended our chat with Sam Winnall we asked him if he’d ever play for the Reds again, and with a cheeky grin he didn’t rule it out..
“I suppose you can never say never in football! Would I get my name in the programme, or be just ‘A Footballer’ again?
“But no, I’m sure if that ever happened it would divide opinion, but my attitude will always be the same.
“Wherever I go, I just want to score goals.”