On May 17th, Barnsley head into battle. It is not just any battle either; it is the lottery-esque Championship playoffs, unpredictable in its nature, with the prospect of tantalising financial gain and a place in England’s most elite division in the player’s sights. The South Yorkshire outfit currently sit sixth and have mathematically secured a place in the playoffs, however their opponents are yet to be confirmed. For a club of their fairly modest size and stature, it is monumental.
The playoff final, held at the iconic Wembley Stadium on 29th May, is worth an approximate £170M, making it the most lucrative fixture in world football and- as anyone who has watched the Championship will concur- Barnsley have more than merited a top six finish. But if you were to predict such fortunes at the start of the season, you would have been dubbed a madman- or, at the very least, been met with some raised eyebrows. It is easy to identify why that may have been the case.
Last campaign, their second-tier status was only ensured via a dramatic, last grasp 2-1 win at Brentford. All seemed set for them to go crashing straight back down before Kenyan winger Clarke Odour found the back of the net in added time, meaning that Charlton Athletic would return to League One instead. For sure, the scenes in the Capital were euphoric, but once the dust settled, questions began to arise about what the future would hold. Over the years, the Tykes have became synonymous with fluctuating, frequently drifting between the Championship and League One, and many believed that this season, their flirtation with the drop zone would continue. Oh, how wrong we were.
Barnsley needed stability. They needed someone at the helm who could press the right notes to get a tune out of the squad. Paul Heckingbottom, Jose Morais and Daniel Stendel had all come and gone with varying degrees of success. The season prior, Gerhard Struber had overturned a seven point deficit to avoid relegation and there was that lingering wonder if he could finally lift the side away from their persistent relegation troubles.
However, back in October, after rumours he may have been replacing the sacked Nigel Pearson at newly relegated Watford, New York Red Bulls activated an undisclosed release clause in the Austrian’s contract that saw him move Stateside. It did not seem like it at the time, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Lo-and-behold Valerien Ismael.
How exactly can you sum up his tenure in South Yorkshire? Simply put, his success at Oakwell is ineffable. He has been a total revelation, and yet when he stepped through the door, he was virtually unknown to English audiences. It would not stay that way for long, though.
Ismael’s impact was instant; Barnsley had not claimed victory from any of their opening six matches but the former Wolfsburg boss won four of his first six and the conversions in style were already evident. Under his tuition, they have deployed a high-octane approach that fatigues opponents, pressing high from the front, causing defensive errors and promptly capitalising. Their intensity spans throughout the pitch evident by their league-best record of winning possession 222 times in the final third. Coming after them are the already-promoted Watford with 210. Not bad company, eh?
With Mads Juel Andersen, Daryl Dike, and Michael Helik all standing well over the 6ft benchmark, their aerial potency is not to be dimmed either. Per game, they win 30.9 aerial duels, which is only bettered by Rotherham, Birmingham City and, of course, Cardiff City- renowned kings of head tennis who employ the 6’4″ Kieffer Moore.
Looking at this, it’s clear they carry an imposing threat from set pieces. In fact, dead ball situations have been an invaluable facet for them this term, with 16 of their 56 goals coming from such situations; no more than one team has been more prolific from set plays. No prizes will be awarded for guessing who that team is.
That is all good and well, but to hold your own in the higher realms of the Championship, you need to have quality in your squad. And Barnsley have quite a lot of it. Helik and Andersen have both earned a wide range of plaudits for their defensive solidity and have struck up a formidable centre-back partnership over the course of the campaign. In addition, they both offer an offensive edge and this has seen them directly contribute to six goals apiece.
Callum Styles and Callum Brittain have impressed in the wing back berths, Dike has been a revelation since joining on loan from Orlando City and Cauley Woodrow, who was last season’s top scorer, has continued his fine form infront of goal.
However, the undisputed crown jewel is club captain Alex Mowatt. Indeed, there is a school of thought that Mowatt is a player destined to ply his trade in the top flight, whether it is with his current employers or elsewhere. The 26-year old recently made the official Team of the Season and in truth, you would have to rummage hard through the bellies of second-tier fanfare to find many adversaries to his inclusion.
An architectural midfielder by trade, Mowatt’s creativity and goalscoring has came to the forefront with eight goals and seven assists, all the while possessing a knack of finding the back of the net from range.
Unsurprisingly, rumours have emanated around the skipper’s future and, given his current deal expires in the summer, convincing him to sign the dotted line will be paramount. Doing so could just be their best signing.
Also, it is worth noting that with the exception of Dyke, all of the aforementioned players were at the club before Ismael took over and conducted his revolution, which goes to show what a remarkable job he has done. He has captivated Championship audiences so much that there were unified outcries at the EFL’s decision to elect Norwich’s Daniel Farke as Manager of the Year. Although Farke has done extremely well to guide the highly-tipped Canaries back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, he already had his tools in place. What Ismael has orchestrated is truly groundbreaking.
Since the Frenchman came in, Barnsley had been progressing steadily and, as the winter season approached its conclusion mid-February, they were firmly in the middle of the pack. Without a doubt, that in itself would have gone down as a huge achievement, but nobody could have sensed what was to come.
Rewind your remote ever so slightly to the 14th February. It was Brentford V Barnsley, or, as the masses will call it, Valentine’s Day. Whilst many spent the day enjoying time with their significant other, the real romantic tale came in West London as Ismael’s side sealed a comprehensive 2-0 victory, which would prove to be their springboard. From there, the Yorkshiremen embraced every droplet of momentum, winning 8 of their next 9 matches to propel into the playoffs and, despite the best efforts of Cardiff, Reading and even Middlesbrough, they did not let their guard slip.
As far as Barnsley are concerned, a place in the playoffs is utopia on earth. They are not accustomed to these echelons of the division and the feeling was that their lack of experience may cost them psychologically. But if there is one thing we have learned, it’s not wise to bet against them. Without pressure and expectation, they thrived and truly revelled in their underdog status. Being unfancied can so often serve as an additional motivator for teams, particularly those with a traditional ‘us against the world’ mentality. A perfect summary for Barnsley.
The discipline, the perseverance and composure they maintained to hold on and ensure a top six finish was genuinely indicative of the mentality that Ismael has instilled. It’s a winning mentality, one not suited for football’s primmadonnas or losers, but the steel-built troops that will charge through walls for three points. Ultimately, it has all paid dividends. For the first time in what seems an eternity, Barnsley have a chance of playing Premier League football and they fully deserve it.
As a matter of fact, their last top flight bout came in the 1997/98 season, where they only lasted a year. That was their first- and, to date, only top flight season. However, there is no reason why this won’t change in the not-too-distant-future. Naturally, they will be looking to eclipse that if they go all the way, but a man as level-headed as Ismael will be focusing purely on the present as they look to generate momentum heading into the semi-finals.
In under a weeks time, the curtains will be drawn on the regular league season. This will see Barnsley clash heads with Norwich, who wrapped up promotion weeks ago and will be looking to finish style. The East Anglicans are one of the best outfits to have graced the Championship in recent years, and with the likes of Emi Buendia, Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell strutting their stuff- it will be anything but a stroll in the park. Despite the challenge though, it could provide an invaluable test for what is to follow.
Even if they fail to get promoted, the long-term foundations are already implemented within the club’s texture and, with an average starting XI age of 24.5, they boast the league’s youngest side, showing that a future vision is very prominent. Players such as Dike (20), Styles (21) and Andersen (23) have all emerged as key components in the team, whereas some of the more experienced heads in Mowatt and Woodrow have been equally integral. That is a precise blend to have in your ranks, and one that will bear fruit beyond this term irrespective of their divisional footing.
To even be in this position is nothing short of incredible for Barnsley- perhaps then- in what has been an odd old campaign deprived of normality- they have transpired as the greatest success story.
Wherever you are reading this from- be it Teesside or Tanzania- the rollercoaster ride of Barnsley Football Club is certainly one that you would want to strap yourself into.
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