“These matches don’t matter results-wise. I have said that from the beginning. The fitness levels are the most important thing.”
These are not my reflections on pre-season fixtures but the thoughts of Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert in the wake of their 4-1 friendly defeat to FC Groningen last weekend.
Preparing the players physically for the gruelling nine-month campaign is the primary focus for managers over the summer. Positive results are a bonus.
The fitness aspect is what matters, and Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday can be pretty satisfied with their workout on Saturday afternoon.
It is important new signings settle in quickly over pre-season as managers will be judged on their recruitment drive.
Things are slowly coming together for Barnsley, despite the departures of top performers such as Luke Steele and Chris O’Grady following their relegation to League One. Six of Danny Wilson’s nine new recruits started at Oakwell, with Conor Hourihane and Sam Winnall impressing. Seven would have featured but James Bailey was withdrawn from the warm-up match just before kick-off after picking up an injury.
For Wednesday, Tom Lees, making his first appearance since arriving for an undisclosed fee from Leeds United, delivered an assured display at centre-half. Owls head coach Stuart Gray said: “I thought Tom showed his qualities. His reading of the game was good and his distribution was excellent. He slotted in very, very well.
“Tom is 23 but he’s got plenty of experience under his belt. I could hear him organising the back four and pulling people around.
“He has got an old head on young shoulders. He is very calm and I didn’t think he put a foot wrong.”
Hourihane created the opening goal on the half-hour mark, floating in a lovely free-kick into the six-yard box which was expertly turned in by Danny Rose. Wednesday, who didn’t register a shot on target until the 39th minute, switched off from the set-play and Barnsley duly punished their sloppy defending.
Gray said: “I thought the first half was a little like an end-of-season game. I don’t think there was hardly a tackle in sight. There was no intensity in it. At least we gave it a go in the second half.”
Just after the restart, Hourihane blazed over after good play out wide by Winnall.
That was a big let-off for the visitors and Kieran Lee, fit-again following a groin problem, equalised to compound the Reds’ misery, drilling a right-foot shot past Owls old boy Adam Davies after he spilled Gary Madine’s long-range effort.
Encouragingly for Barnsley, Winnall and Rose worked well in tandem up front. Winnall was a handy attacking outlet with his clever runs off the ball while Rose made a nuisance of himself, harrassing Wednesday’s backline.
Rose ought to have grabbed a second but he some how directed a header wide after an inviting cross from Joe Dudgeon.
Speaking after his maiden Barnsley outing, Hull City loanee Dudgeon said: “I really enjoyed it. We’ve got a great set of lads here.
“As soon as Barnsley showed interest in me, I wanted to make it happen. They have shown faith in me and I want to repay them.
“It should be an enjoyable season. I think we want to be playing free-flowing football. Hopefully it will pay off.”
In the final quarter of the friendly, either side could have edged it, but Davies superbly kept out Chris Maguire’s left-foot drive while it took last-ditch defending at the other end to prevent Winnall’s double effort from going in.
The fact, is, pre-season is an opportunity for managers to experiment with their tactics and personnel, fine-tuning one or two things. It could be a long throw-in or an innovative corner routine - anything they believe may make the difference come May next year.
Wednesday lined up with a 4-3-3 formation against Barnsley. It is conceivable they will play that system at Brighton and Hove Albion on the opening day. The Owls chief fielded a youthful side on Saturday, handing starts to Matt Young, Rafa Floro, Rhys McCabe and Paul Corry. It would be a surprise if any of that quartet make the cut for the big kick-off.
Gray explained why he left out Chris Kirkland, Liam Palmer, Sam Hutchinson, Giles Coke and Michail Antonio.
“I couldn’t run the risk of anyone else getting injured,” said Gray, who was delighted Lee and Keiren Westwood came through the clash unscathed. “Those guys have had a lot of minutes in pre-season.
“I want to go into the Brighton game knowing I have a nucleus of a squad that’s going to be fit and healthy. I haven’t got the biggest of squads so it was a case of resting them.”
With half a dozen players on the sidelines due to injury, Gray is acutely aware his squad lacks strength in depth in all areas, apart from the goalkeeping department.
“We’ve got potentially seven games in 21 days so the squad will be at full stretch,” he said. “We are going to get injuries and suspensions.”
Goals: Rose 30, for Barnsley; Lee 48, for Wednesday.
Barnsley: Davies, Brown, Nyatanga, Cranie, Dudgeon (M’voto 70); Jennings (Noble-Lazarus 64) Abbott, Hourihane (McHale 86), Berry (Digby 64); Winnall, Rose (Boakye-Yiadom 79). Subs not used: Dibble, McKnight.
Wednesday: Westwood; Young, Zayatte, Lees, Floro; McCabe, Corry, Lee, Maghoma (Nuhiu 64), Maguire (Croasdale 79), Madine (Dieseruvwe 72). Subs not used: Kirkland, Palmer, Coke, Loovens, Mattock, Antonio, Hutchinson, Wildsmith.
Attendance: 5,193 (1,855).