Danny Wilson has been appointed manager of Barnsley. The 53-year-old returns to the club he played for at the end of his career, and the club which gave him his first managerial job in 1994. He was to spend four years at the South Yorkshire side, before leaving to go to Sheffield Wednesday in 1998. Fifteen years, and a number of promotion and relegation battles later, Wilson is back at Oakwell. Now he is faced with one of his biggest challenges in his career: to keep Barnsley in the second division.
Wilson will be the club’s sixth manager in the space of four years. Barnsley are the longest-serving club in the Championship, but they have always had tendencies to get rid of the manager, favouring short-term survival over long-term stability. Last season, Keith Hill was sacked after a defeat to Blackburn saw them go bottom of the table. Hill’s assistant, David Flitcroft, took the job full-time. He immediately galvanized the squad, and guided Barnsley to survival against the odds. Flitcroft did a remarkable job, and you would think he deserves a knighthood for that season alone. However, after a 3-0 loss to Birmingham in November this season, Flitcroft too, was sacked.
The one concerning thing which comes out of his first press conference, is that the club have not announced the length of the contract. If he was given a reasonably long contract, you would expect the board would be eager to make it public. This would reassure fans and create a sense of stability around the club. However, they did not disclose this information, which suggests that the deal will run until the end of the season. Notably, the club’s chief executive Ben Mansford said at one point: “I hope he’ll be with us for a long time, because that means he’ll have been successful.” Although this is not a particularly telling statement on the face of it, in some ways it sums up Barnsley’s mentality of sacking managers quickly. It makes you wonder whether Wilson will stay with the club, if and when they do go down, and this uncertainty will not be of benefit to the players.
Defensively, Barnsley have been woeful. They conceded sixty-four goals in Flitcroft’s thirty-eight games in charge, and this needs to improve. In previous seasons, clubs like Bristol City, Doncaster and Scunthorpe have finished bottom of the Championship, despite having scored more goals than a lot of teams in the relegation battle. The problems for those clubs were that they were too weak at the back, could not hold onto results, and ended up shipping in around eighty goals. Barnsley’s season is having a similar feel, in that they have not been competent enough in defence.
The Tykes have been a club which generally look to wheel and deal with free agents and exploit the loan market, rather than invest too much in the squad. And, with attendances little over 10,000, it is difficult to see Wilson being given much backing in the transfer market come January. This is not necessarily a disaster.
You might say that spending money on the defence will help, equally important is the organisation and structure of it, as much as personnel. If you normally stay up and watch the Football League Show, almost every Saturday night you will see Barnsley’s defence failing to deal with a simple through ball. The type of goals they have conceded have not required the best Italian defence to avoid, it has been seemingly due to a lack of basic preparation.
Wilson’s experience in this area could benefit the team. In the Premiership, Sheffield Wednesday conceded just forty-two goals during Wilson’s first season, and no side outside the top four conceded less goals than them. Bristol City’s defensive record improved every season for four years under his guidance. Although Wilson’s defensive record with teams began to deteriorate as his career went on, he will have learnt from the dangers of having a leaky defence at MK Dons and Swindon, where he experienced relegation. Wilson should understand the importance of getting the basics right at the back. This is a side of management which Flitcroft arguably struggled in, perhaps due to naivety and inexperience.