We spoke with Martin Devaney following the conclusion of our U23s Professional Development League campaign.
The young Reds finished the season with just one defeat in 16 games and racked up 29 points during that period, compared to 10 in the first 12 fixtures.
While results weren’t perhaps as positive as Devaney would have liked during a challenging opening few weeks of the campaign, he insists that displays from his team were encouraging; it was all a matter of confidence.
“I don’t think it was a season of two halves; we didn’t get the results we wanted but, in the four games that we lost back-to-back against Sheffield United, Burnley, Birmingham and Leeds United, I thought in three of the four we played really well,” began the U23s coach.
“The performances were great, but we just conceded goals at the wrong times; I felt that we were the better team and played the better football. At the start of the season, getting to grips with the press just took a while and, at times, it was square pegs in round holes.
“So, it took time and we worked hard on the training ground and in the classroom with analysis, there was a lot of individual stuff to try and improve the players, technically and to help them understand their roles and responsibilities.
“The performances were good, but the results weren’t there and that’s what you get in development football. But we went to Sheffield Wednesday, which was a tough ask, and won 2-1 – there were some great goals from Louis Wardle and Victor Adeboyejo. So, that was a turning point but, more so the Leeds game. To beat them 2-0 in the manner that we did, so convincingly, took us to after Christmas and we never looked back.
“Before the game, I asked the players to show that we’re a Barnsley team with that Barnsley grit, working for the badge as a team and as an individual. I’ve used that motto since then and it’s worked well. We showed that we were good in everything we did and we were a collective; it was a great team result and it was really pleasing.”
The U23s twice came from 3-1 behind in the dying stages to claim a share of the spoils against Hull City and Bolton Wanderers, showing fighting spirit despite the odds being seemingly stacked against them.
It’s an indication of the attitude within a squad that has been transformed from one devoid of confidence to one that never gives in.
“You have to show that character,” continued Devaney. “Myself, as a coach and a player, I always saw myself as a challenger.
“As a Club, we see ourselves as challengers and the lads have done that this year even though, at times, we were perhaps favourites to win the game, we set ourselves the mentality of challengers. We demanded that of one another and did really well.
“The Hull game, to be 3-1 down and comeback showed everything that we’re about, everything that we’ve worked on off the pitch. It’s been a slow process with building blocks to change the mentality, but they showed their togetherness and it all came out in the last five minutes to score two goals and it was really pleasing.”
Not only has there been a transitional period in terms of results, but Devaney has had numerous disruptions to his squad selection over the course of the campaign – many of which have been positive.
The Barnsley academy is blessed with talent at all age groups, all of whom are capable of making a step up to an older category with minimal fuss. From the current batch of U18s players, Henry Kendrick has been a regular in the U23s, while Jordan Helliwell and Jasper Moon have also featured heavily.
In addition, Will Calligan, Kieran Feeney, Harry Gagen, Rudi Pache and Tommy Willard have been utilised by Devaney and have performed exemplary when called upon, while the emergence of U16s prodigies Aiden Marsh and Sam Nicholson suggests the future is bright at Oakwell.
“Adam [Murray] and Tom [Harban] have done a great job with them – it’s been quite a smooth transition when they’ve come in to the under 23s and the players have done really well,” continued the 38-year-old.
“We didn’t expect Henry to play this many games for us at the start of the season, but he’s shown a real consistency in his game and his kicking has got better. But I’m pleased with all the boys; we’ve created a really close-knit circle in there and it’s a good place to come in and train every day.
“We’ve had endless trialists in and tried to manage that right with Bobby to try and limit it to one or two, when you get more than that, in terms of how we want to play and implement the philosophy, it can be really difficult.
“Lads come in maybe two days before and, to take on how we want to play is different to other teams. So we’ve managed that really well this year – we’ve used a lot of trialists, but overall it’s been good.”
The main focus at this level is the players’ development and helping them progress towards a potential first team role in the future.
There has been a marked improvement in performances as the season has gone on, but Devaney cannot single out one player in particular that has stood out – insisting that it has been a collective effort.
“I’d like to think all of the players have progressed,” he asserted. “If you look at the performances, have they improved at under 23s? Yes. Have we created an identity within the under 23s that we have been asked to do? Yes. Have the players improved in terms of their mentality from not accepting failures and wanting to win games – or certainly not lose games? Yes. I feel, certainly, that they’ve all improved.
“We’re trying to do the best for them, and we’ve always got their best interests at heart. That’s the sort of environment we’ve created and it’s been a really enjoyable year. It was a bit of a testing time with the four defeats, but we’ve got 39 points and created an identity.
“We know, here, that if you’re good enough you’ll get your opportunity and we’ve seen that with a lot of the boys this season in the first team who have been used and done really well.
“The boys have to always be pushing themselves and never be happy with where they are; that’s a clear message from all of the coaches. Don’t be happy in the under 18s – you want to be in the under 23s. Don’t be happy in the under 23s – you want to be in the first team, or certainly training with the first team.”
Daniel Stendel’s arrival at Oakwell last summer has seen the Club implement a new philosophy that has transcended from the first team to all age groups.
There is a confidence to play this style of football amongst the players, who have embraced it with open arms and it has also been a learning curve for the coaching staff, too.
“As a coach over the last four years, I’ve seen various managers and various styles,” admitted Devaney. “I feel I’m more of an attacking coach, so it’s been really pleasing to be on the front foot and looking to break lines and score goals.
“We don’t want to have a negative mindset; we’re positive and that’s how we want to be as an academy, and I think we’ve shown that this year all through the academy squads.
“There’s no reason why we can’t continue this run next season. I think we need to recruit four or five players in certain positions, and if we can do that then, hopefully, we can have a good season again.
“Ideally, in the summer, three or four boys will be pushed up to train with the first team like last year. At the time, it left my numbers small, but it’s great to see the lads doing so well. You look at Jacob Brown and Ben Williams doing well, and that’s what our academy is about – to get players out there on Oakwell.
“It’s great that the gaffer gives them that opportunity, so when I’m talking to my lads they know there’s a pathway and, if they’re good enough in training and games, they get their chance because the gaffer has shown this year that he’s put faith in those boys, and they’ve done exceptionally well.”