On Monday morning, about seven hours before reporting to Oakwell for the first leg of the Championship play-offs, Valérien Ismaël and his Barnsley players will be on the adjacent training pitch, running through set pieces for the best part of an hour, as they have done before most games – home and away – in this most magical of seasons. “We’ve done well from set pieces this year [only Cardiff have scored more league goals from dead balls], and maybe that’s made the difference,” says the captain, Alex Mowatt.
Standing in the way of Barnsley and a Wembley final are Swansea, the only team to do the double over Ismaël’s side. Barnsley, who are thought to have a bottom-three budget, ran Chelsea close in the FA Cup in February and Ismaël believes that narrow defeat proved a “game-changer” in fuelling the squad’s belief about what was possible – they won nine of their following 10 games, drawing the other. “We could see that we can compete with top players,” says the forward Dominik Frieser. “It was a key moment that ‘we could go to the Premier League’.”
The thought of Barnsley polishing free-kick and corner routines on matchday provides a snapshot of life under Ismaël, whose stock is rising by the game. When he took over in October, the club had three points from six matches. His predecessor, Gerhard Struber, spoke of “base camps” and “climbing the mountain” after avoiding relegation on the final day of last season but after eclipsing the initial 51-point “safety season” target via a seven-game winning streak, Barnsley shifted their objectives heading into March. Ismaël asked his players to suggest a new aim in their WhatsApp group before a meeting the following day. “We reached our goals ‘too fast’,” says Frieser, laughing. “Hopefully we can reach a few more.”
Barnsley, according to WhoScored, play an average of 83 long balls per game, more than any other side in the division, a direct approach that has bristled with some opposition managers. “We want to play in their half, so we get the ball forward as quick as we can, and then we’ll play our football in their half,” says Mowatt. “We can be horrible to play against sometimes. We defend from the front. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of off the ball running but you get your rewards from that. Yes, we do play a lot more long balls than last season, but look at the difference in where we have finished [21st to fifth].”
Barnsley shy away from loans unless there is an option to buy, which they had with Fulham for Cauley Woodrow and have with Daryl Dike, a 20-year-old striker who has been a revelation since arriving from Orlando City in February (he has scored nine goals from 13 shots on target), preferring to nurture their own talent. Sixteen months ago Dike was juggling studying finance with playing for the University of Virginia. The 6ft 2in Oklahoma-born striker has added brawn and height, ingredients the hierarchy felt necessary to kick on. The arrival of Carlton Morris, farmed out on loan eight times while at Norwich, for whom he made a single substitute appearance, is typical of the way Barnsley search for ‘undervalued’ players.
Dike was on a three-man shortlist compiled by Barnsley’s American chief executive, Dane Murphy. “[He] sent me Dike clips and I recognised straight away that it’s a player for us,” says Ismaël. “They told me it could be a tight situation with him because the transfer window closed on the Monday and on the Sunday he played for the [United States] national team. He needed to play to get the [work permit] points to have the possibility to come to England. We took a big risk but the feeling was that Dike was the right player for us.”
Almost all roads lead back to their astute data-driven model, used to recruit players and staff, including Ismaël, whose high-pressing style at LASK Linz in Austria tallied as the second-most effective in Europe. A scenario whereby the club purchase a player who does not tally well in their algorithms but is admired by the manager is almost unheard of. At 30, the defender Michael Sollbauer is comfortably the club’s oldest player, with Frieser next at 27.
Mowatt was signed from Leeds as a replacement for Conor Hourihane, now on loan at Swansea from Aston Villa, in 2017. The tenacious and tricky Callum Styles, who has excelled at left wing-back, was earmarked as Mowatt’s long-term successor upon signing from Bury as a teenager 12 months later but the pair have instead blossomed together. Mowatt is out of contract at the end of the season and not the only one attracting interest.
Ismaël will inevitably have won admirers too. “The first game that the gaffer came in, we won 3-0 [against Queens Park Rangers] and everyone bought into him straight away,” says Mowatt. “He is a big presence and he is scary at times … but he has only lost his head once or twice. He wants to win every single game. He is the same in training as well.”
Barnsley have exceeded all expectations but are not finished yet. “It has been an unbelievable turnaround but we want to go all the way,” says Mowatt. The striker Victor Adeboyejo puts it succinctly. “Everyone loves an underdog story,” he says, with a broad grin.