Sports Editor of the Barnsley Chronicle, Doug O'Kane, previews Friday night's game!
The last time Barnsley beat Reading at Oakwell in a league game was in August 1996, and I think we all know what happened in the rest of that season.
There will still be an awful long way to go this season if the Reds were to beat the Royals at home for the first time in eight attempts across a quarter of a century – other than a cup victory in 1998 – but it would certainly put them in an excellent position to make the play-offs with seven matches left.
To even be writing that sentence feels surreal.
Not because the Reds don’t deserve to be fifth, they absolutely do after an excellent season, but because the turnaround has been so astonishing.
A year ago we had just begun the first lockdown and Barnsley were second-bottom, seven points from safety with nine games to play.
While the remarkable final four days of last season culminated in the ‘great escape' at Brentford and led fans to hope of a mid-table finish in 2021 rather than another battle against the drop, only the most optimistic of supporters would have anticipated a play-off charge. That looked especially unlikely during a winless seven-game start to the season, the joint longest wait for a first league win in a century, which included the 2-0 loss at Reading in September.
It is likely that the Royals will face a very different Reds side today than the one that missed several chances to take the lead in Berkshire then had both debutant Michal Helik and Mads Andersen sent off before conceding poor goals from two set pieces.
That was one of seven wins from the first eight games of the season for Reading, who at one point led the division by seven points and were 15 points and 17 places clear of Barnsley.
Gerhard Struber moved on a fortnight later and was replaced by Valerien Ismael whose extraordinary impact, along with the togetherness of the squad forged last season and the Reds’ excellent recent recruitment, have been the key factors in this marvellous campaign.
Now Veljko Paunovic’s side find themselves travelling to Oakwell knowing that defeat could see them slip out of the top six while they have, in theory, the most difficult run-in of all the promotion contenders with five of the top nine to play in their last eight games.
Victory is probably more of an absolute necessity for the visitors than the hosts this Good Friday evening but it would certainly be very welcome for Barnsley who want to quickly move on from the derby loss to Sheffield Wednesday before the international break and collect the first of the four wins Ismael says they need to finish in the play-off places.
Back in 1996, Darren Sheridan opened the scoring with a long-range strike then Andy Liddell bagged a brace in a 3-0 win over Reading. Those names, along with their team-mates from that season, are written large in Barnsley’s folklore as the only side ever to reach the top flight.
Could they be joined by this current side? We’ll find out in the next eight weeks.