If the build-up to Saturday’s Championship play-off final between Coventry City and Luton Town was a bit heavy on the “If it’s not us, I’m glad it’s them” vibe, Monday’s League One decider has all the bitterness and rancour season-defining derby game could ask for.
Sheffield Wednesday finished the regular season with 96 points, the highest mark ever for a club not promoted automatically. Two of their six defeats, though, came against Barnsley, their opponents at Wembley on Monday.
And whereas Wednesday staged a remarkable comeback from 4-0 down after the first leg of their play-off semi-final against Peterborough United, the Reds’ more controlled and calculated two-legged success over Bolton Wanderers spoke of a far less erratic outfit than Darren Moore’s Owls.
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Wednesday would have been on their holidays long before now had it not been for a run of form sparked by a 4-2 loss at Oakwell in March which ended a club-record 23-game unbeaten streak. After clawing their way from two down in that clash only to concede twice more late on, Wednesday then went to bottom-of-the-table Forest Green Rovers and turned in one of the most limp performances the club had seen since relegation from the Championship in 2021.
That 1-0 defeat, which remains Forest Green’s only win under Duncan Ferguson in 18 attempts, was followed by draws with Cheltenham Town, Lincoln City and Oxford United, none of whom finished above 11th in the league, and a further defeat at 15th-placed Burton Albion was soon in the offing. For all the points Wednesday accrued in the chase of Plymouth Argyle and Ipswich Town, they left behind far too many against lesser opponents in March and April to claim to have been worthy of direct promotion.
The Reds were unbeaten in 12 after that March win over Wednesday but defeats at Exeter City and Burton soon followed to expunge any outside hopes of a top-two finish. And perhaps that suited them, since their place in the play-offs was in no doubt and the final half-a-dozen games of the campaign basically became a pre-season schedule ahead of their home-and-away clashes with Bolton.
Michael Duff’s side had more than enough about them to hold off the Wanderers after Liam Kitching had scored the vital goal in the second leg to give the Reds a 2-1 aggregate lead and now they will be hopeful of repeating their 2016 League One final win over Millwall to return to the second tier at the first time of asking.
The proximity of their opponents means that this one has a bit more needle. The 13 miles that separates the two stadiums is huge compared to the thin divides experienced between colleagues and family members in lots of cases. There is feeling here, don’t you worry about it. Check your socials for evidence.
Just this Friday, Barnsley were announcing that they took their umbrage to the EFL over seat allocations after Wednesday sold out their initial 37,989 tickets and were subsequently handed 6,000 more in sections the Reds had failed to sell out. While Barnsley cited security concerns, following on from ugly scenes at their 2016 clash with Millwall at the National Stadium, Wednesday’s 40,000-plus turnout at the Championship decider against Hull City that same summer passed without a hitch.
The various arguments over supporter bases which have dominated the news in South Yorkshire over the past week will finally give way to an actual game of football at 3pm, and it could barely be bigger.
Wednesday – two years into their latest third-tier visit – are a club more used to being in the top two divisions but who have been through hard times since they were 90 minutes from the Premier League seven years back.
Barnsley – just 24 months removed from being Championship semi-finalists at a time when they were being held up as the model for all mid-sized clubs to follow – need to find a way back into the second tier while the iron is hot.
There are more than local bragging rights at stake.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change