Barnsley have certainly turned on the style in recent weeks and in doing so, have deservedly started turning heads in the Sky Bet Championship.
Victory over Wycombe Wanderers earlier this week made it nine wins from the last 10 Championship games for Valérien Ismaël’s side, whose incredible run of form of late has propelled the young South Yorkshire side up to fifth place, with just nine games left to play.
Since Ismaël took charge of Barnsley - who were winless in their opening seven games this season - only league-leaders Norwich City have won more points, and they’re doing it with the youngest team in the division, too. With an average starting age of 24 years and 132 days, it’s no surprise that these young Tykes are making the headlines.
One player at the heart of it all is 20-year-old Callum Styles. Thirty-nine games in all competitions for Barnsley this season, the youngster has transformed into an invaluable member of the squad and was recently rewarded with February's EFL Young Player of the Month Award for his performances.
“February was a very good month for me personally and the team, especially to go unbeaten throughout the whole month,” Styles said, speaking exclusively to the EFL upon receiving his award.
“We were on a seven-game winning streak at one point, so February was a month where we picked up a lot of momentum and to get the award for my performances as well is a massive achievement for me.
“The games are coming thick and fast this season and all we can focus on is the next game, because the next game is literally right around the corner every time you finish your last one! It’s important for us to recover after each game, but as long as we’re winning, the fact that they’re coming this fast is good for us because it only helps with our momentum and hopefully helps us to keep getting results.”
Barnsley’s success this season can be traced back to their famous win at Brentford on the final day of the 2019/20 campaign, where a last-minute winner for the Reds at Griffin Park not only spoiled the Bees’ automatic promotion hopes, but also secured their own Championship status for this season.
“I feel that last match of the season last year gave us huge hope going into this season,” Styles continued.
“If we can survive last season and play like we did at the end to stay in the division, we knew there were only going to be more positive times to come.”
Styles, a scorer that day, embodies that transformation, and as first goals for your club go, they don't come much bigger.
“For me to get my first goal for the club there in such a huge game was amazing, since then we’ve just pushed on and carried on those sorts of performances. It was different to how I’d imagined scoring my first goal of course, there were no fans in the stadium at the time, but that’s something that we’re getting used to. It’s definitely disappointing that they can’t see us playing how we’re playing and haven’t been able to see us go on this winning streak that we’ve been on. That game at the end of last season against Brentford would have just erupted the stadium, but we created our own atmosphere because it was such a big occasion for us and I’ll never forget it.”
A central midfielder by trade, Styles has taken on a dynamic left wing-back role for Barnsley this season, adding consistency and belief to the drive and determination he already possessed. Not afraid to push forward, as shown with his five goals and two assists this season, the youngster has proved solid defensively too, contributing to his side’s three clean sheets in February and two so far in March.
“The new position is a bit different to what I’m used to, but it’s given me a different look on the game, I’m not so central, I can see things from the wide areas of the pitch, and I’ve taken it in my stride. I’ve been contributing goals and assists, so it’s certainly been a positive position for me which is all I can ask for.
“I’ve always had goals in my game, but I feel like this is the season that I’ve come to life a little bit where scoring goals is concerned. I’ve been given the opportunity to go forward and get in those positions and when in the right positions you have to deliver at this level. Fortunately I have and I’ve got a few decent goals to my name.
“When I was younger the defensive side of the game used to go over my head a little bit, it was never as strong as the rest of my game but that’s something that I’ve obviously had to work hard on. The Championship is a really strong division with some amazing players, and I’ve had to be at the top of my game all the time, so I needed to improve the defensive aspect of my game which I feel I’ve done."
After being released from Burnley at the age of 16, Styles signed for Bury in 2016, where he made his professional debut and in doing so became the first player born in the new millennium to make an appearance in the EFL. He made a number of appearances in both Sky Bet League Two and League One, before signing for the South Yorkshire club and making the step up to Championship football.
“It’s certainly very different to League One and League Two in terms of the step up,” Styles admitted, when asked about playing in the Championship.
“But I always believed in my own ability to make the step up. I knew I’d feel comfortable when I was ready so it was just about waiting for the right time and take it when that opportunity came. With me being so young, playing in League One and League Two was such an important experience for me because I played with and against experienced players in another competitive division.
“I’ve always said that there’s nothing better than playing first team football for a young player like me. In every game you learn something new. Each game has different scenarios and you come up against different teams with different types of players, so as long as you’re playing competitive football, I think you’re always learning. In competitive football you have to adapt quickly, that’s a skill you have to learn, you need to be quick to solve problems and the more games you play the more experience you get so it goes hand in hand.”
Known for their ‘direct’ approach and targeted pressing, Ismaël’s side have got people talking. Just 10 months after appearing to be relegation certainties, they are now on the cusp of securing a Play-Off spot, and it’s there for the taking.
“I don’t think anyone outside of our squad would have expected us to be where we are in the table right now, I’m not sure anyone would have predicted us to go on the run we’ve been on either,” Styles said.
“But within the team we’ve always had the belief that we can compete towards the top end of the Championship and we do believe that we should be competing up there. Of course we look at the table, or I do anyway, and we hear what people are saying about us as Barnsley Football Club, but we just have to stay really focused and not get carried away.”
Having recorded just 10 points in their opening 10 games of the 2020/21 campaign, it wasn’t the best of starts at Oakwell however, but Ismaël’s hungry and determined set of players are starting to flourish, and Styles has highlighted Barnsley’s youthfulness as a main strength within the squad, in what has been a relentless campaign so far.
“The youth in our squad gives us a bit of an extra drive. We’re hungry, we’re young and we really want to prove to people that we can compete at the top, but not only that, we want to prove to ourselves that we can do it as well. It gives us the drive to give everything in every game that we play and I think you sometimes get that from a squad of young players.
“All the manager asks for is 100% from everyone all the time, he wants a high work-rate and wants us to run more than our opponents. When he came in he just took things back to basics and I think that’s where we’ve really improved.
“He’s given me confidence on the pitch and believed in me. He gives me the freedom to express myself on the pitch, in the position that I’m in it enables me to go forward which I like to do, but I’ve also improved the defensive side of my game and that’s down to him.”
The players' focus may always be on the next game, but belief within this squad is growing. A remarkable run catalysed by their closely fought 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup earlier this season, followed by victory over Brentford who were 21 games unbeaten at the time has given this side - and the fans - genuine belief that they can compete at the top of the Championship. And with just nine games remaining, it’s all to play for.
“It’s got to be an aim because of where we are in the table,” Styles concluded.
“But we can’t get carried away because so much can change sos quickly in the Championship. We need to focus on the next game and see where it leads us. If we keep a winning run going of course we can make the Play-Offs, we’ve proved that we are capable but we just need to see where the next few games takes us. We want to win every game that we can and every time we step out onto the pitch we want to get three points, no matter who it’s against.”
Barnsley face Sheffield Wednesday in a South Yorkshire derby this weekend, and with the Tykes just three points off Brentford in fourth place, Ismaël’s side will be looking for three more points to make it 10 wins from their last 11.
Callum Styles was speaking to the EFL in March following his Young Player of the Month Award.