We welcome Swansea City to Oakwell on Monday evening for our Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final first leg.
What a journey it has been this season. What a journey it has been since our miraculous great escape and dramatic last gasp win at Brentford back in July.
Who would have thought – or even dreamt – as we left Griffin Park, that we would be embarking upon this end of season finale?
“I wouldn’t have thought we’d be going past May 8 and the end of the season, I’m not going to lie,” said Conor Chaplin, smiling as he reflected on a remarkable campaign. “The way the last season finished and after the first few games this season, I definitely didn’t see this happening.”
It has been a truly amazing nine months for Barnsley, who have more than exceeded expectations with a lofty fifth place finish and accumulated a staggering 78 points.
A 2-2 draw against champions Norwich City to end the regulation season has given Chaplin and co plenty of confidence heading into our meeting with the Swans, where 4,500 Reds fans will be in attendance at Oakwell for the first time in 437 days.
“The morale in the group is really good and everyone is excited – everyone can’t wait for Monday,” continued the dynamic forward. “We’re just really looking forward to it now.
“I really can’t wait. I’m so excited for the fans to be in and for the fans, themselves. They’ve missed out on a brilliant season through no fault of their own.
“It would have been unbelievable to have them for the rest of the season but obviously it wasn’t allowed. I can’t wait form them to be here and for Oakwell to have their voice inside it again.”
There have been so many moments that stand out this term – crucial goals, important saves, key wins – but there are some that have been more pivotal than others.
Chaplin recalls our sensational run of form at the start of February and our stunning comeback on the south coast in March as defining factors to help Barnsley reach this point.
“I think when we went on the run of seven games – that bred so much confidence into the team – and, for me, the Bournemouth game away was a big turning point,” he insisted. “To go to a team like that with players like that and turning it around in the second half to win the game was massive for the team.
“Those two moments stick out in particular, but in general I think when the manager came in you could see what he wanted. The style changed, the mentality changed and, for me, that was pivotal.”
We kicked off that winning streak with an impressive 2-0 victory over Brentford, where Chaplin was on the scoresheet in west London in what was one of our best performances of the campaign.
Over the course of the season, we have excelled against the Championship’s better sides, which is an indication of the quality within this talented group of players.
“Bournemouth and Brentford are two teams in the play-offs and two of the best teams in the league, and we fancy ourselves on any day against anyone in the division,” discussed Chaplin.
“We’re a confident group of lads, we believe in what we’re doing, we believe in how we play, we believe how we can get the best out of each other and I think that’s crucial to know your strengths.”
However, our previous encounters against Monday’s opponents haven’t quite gone to plan this season, with two defeats either side of the New Year.
Despite that record against Swansea, Chaplin is confident that the Reds have learnt from those losses and have also improved markedly since.
“First and foremost, we’re definitely not the same team we were in those games,” asserted the 24-year-old. “The two league games we played were two or three weeks apart and we’ve come on leaps and bounds since then.
“We signed people in January, which has helped the team massively and the strength in depth is incredible at the club at the moment. The belief and confidence in the team is at a new level to what it was at that time.
“Also, it’s a new competition – it’s not the Championship anymore. It’s the play-offs and that’s something we can’t wait to get started.
“We focus on ourselves and have to learn from those games. You’ve seen in games where teams have tried to match us up and Swansea were probably the first team to do that and, since then, we’ve won those games as well and overcome that side of it.
“You obviously have to learn from losses otherwise what’s the point in them?”
This isn’t Chaplin’s first play-off campaign, having reached this stage of the League Two season with Portsmouth back in 2016.
He was, unfortunately, on the losing side then, but he looks at the history of teams who have gone on to secure promotion and points out that, on several occasions, it’s the underdogs who prevail.
“In the play-offs over the last few years, what comes to mind for me is the teams that have gone up that no one would expect to go up,” reasoned Chaplin.
“There’s always that possibility. There’s so many I can think of off the top of my head – when I was in League Two, Wimbledon went up. Wycombe went up through the play-offs last year, Northampton went up last year, Huddersfield a few years ago.
“The list is endless with that and it’s no coincidence in the play-offs because anything can happen.”