“I would be lying if I said I thought this would be as successful as it has been. Did I believe that he would achieve the goal of taking us to the next step? I did. Did I think we would get to where we are now as quickly as we have? I’d be lying if I said I did. But I'm not questioning anything that has been undertaken for us to get here."
Barnsley CEO Dane Murphy is looking back at one of his finest decisions at the helm of the club. When Gerhard Struber, the head coach who had led them to a great escape last season, left the Yorkshire outfit for the New York Red Bulls in October, the club were on the edge of the relegation zone having accumulated just one point from their opening four games. The side who had avoided League One last season with a last-gasp goal against Brentford were in for another relegation scrap.
Using their wide collection of data and sticking true to their philosophy of developing young talent while playing good football, the club identified former Bayern Munich and Crystal Palace defender Valerien Ismael as their key managerial target. Just over four months later, the Tykes have worked their way into seventh place in the Championship on the back of six straight wins, and they have a real shot at making it into the Premier League for the first time since 1998, even if Murphy isn’t getting carried away quite yet.
“I’m staying away from all the P words, play-offs, promotion and Premier League,” he tells The Sportsman. “I’m not even touching those right now, I am following my head coach’s lead and saying ‘one game at a time’ - one by one that is how we are going to approach it.
“Now, as a club you have to prepare and we would be hypocritical if we didn’t prepare for any eventuality. But right now, on the field, we are taking this one game at a time. It would be very fun for everyone involved, especially the community, if Barnsley were able to take the step, but again, I’m avoiding the P words at all costs.”
So out of all of the candidates available in October, what made Ismael the standout choice? His CV spoke for itself having led LASK to their best start in the history of the Austrian Bundesliga and taken the club to the knockout stages of the Europa League, but it was the data behind the results that fit Barnsley’s desired style of play.
“Valerien was at the top of our list because we at the club have recognised that the style of play, the counter-pressing, the high pressing, gegenpressing if you will, is the main element behind what we are trying to achieve with our group,” Murphy explains. “In Ismael’s team, LASK Linz, the season before, they were the second best in Europe at executing that style of off-the-ball management and we were happy just to know that he would receive us and take us into consideration.”
The statistical data provided the basis for the decision, and once they had met Ismael for the first time they were certain he was the right man for the job.
“The thing that attracted us to Valerien is that we had a very clear message in what we want to achieve as a club and he came back right at us with the most clarity, the strongest conviction in what he wanted to achieve and he wanted to approach his work. We thought we may have some stiff competition for Valerien after the season he had prior, and I know there were other teams interested in him that he had spoken to. But he made it clear to us that his dream is to come to England and establish himself and show this style of play could work in England as well, and he's done that. It has worked out for all parties involved.”
Since Ismael arrived at the club, only the top two, Norwich and Brentford, have accumulated more points, which is a staggering achievement for a side who would have been relegated last term had it not been for Wigan Athletic’s points deduction. With the youngest squad in the Championship, at an average age of just 23.6, the players have taken to the French boss and hung on his every word.
“The good thing is that with the young players there's a malleability, they have an open mind and [want to be as] successful as they can in a short period of time to grow,” Murphy explains. “Because of the way Valerien is as a person, because he is so positive in his beliefs and his self-confidence in the things that need to be achieved as a group to have success, it's very hard to question. Yeah, the results came and now everyone has bought in, but even before the results came, people bought in.
“It helps that he is 6ft 5 and built like a Mack Truck, you aren’t gonna question him face to face! But that being said the guy has such a wealth of knowledge of the game from not only his playing career but his managerial career, he's seen it all, done it all. It's very difficult for a young player or a young staff member to question anything he's doing because of his belief and his self-confidence, and also the wealth of knowledge he's gained throughout his career.”
Former MLS player Murphy, aged just 34, has been impressed at every turn by the head coach he appointed in October who has revitalised a young but talented Barnsley side into one of the most exciting teams in the Championship.
“Just because you are in a position of leadership does not mean you are a good leader. I believe that whole-heartedly. He has a strength in his leadership that is unquestionable in a way. No matter where you come from in the world, what language you speak, you look at him and the message he is delivering, and you think - ‘Right, I am going to follow this guy, I am going to go into battle with him.’ So yeah, we are lucky to have him.”
Ismael signed a three-year contract when he joined the club late last year, but Murphy is under no illusions as to the talent he has on his books at Oakwell.
‘With Valerien, honestly, the sky's the limit,” he smiles. “I mean, the guy has been here less than a year, he has taken the league by storm. He has everyone believing not just in Barnsley, but outside the club. The guy is, in all facets of life, so well-rounded. He is a great father, great husband, he misses his family, he has sacrificed being away from his family and his friends to come here. But he has never wavered. He just has this belief in what he is trying to achieve, day-in day-out, week-in week-out, and he never wavers from it. So to put any sort of ceiling on Valerien in the next five years is unfair to him.”