I am jealous of Barnsley Football Club. There’s seven words that should never go together but it’s true. It’s not because Barnsley is the birthplace of cricket legend Dickie Bird or because it’s the home of Britain’s first ever glass recycling bottle bank.
I’m jealous of Barnsley Football Club because they’re a team on the up; they’re a club with a long-term vision that their owners are whole-heartedly committed to despite coping with the inevitable hurdles that come with having the fourth lowest budget in the Championship.
I’m jealous of Barnsley Football Club because that’s the type of modern outlook on football that the Boro need to implement before they’re left behind.
Barnsley are part of an umbrella network of clubs owned by a consortium of shareholders headed by Paul Conway’s Pacific Media Group and Chien Lee, a Chinese-American entrepreneur who made his fortune through multiple private investment companies focused on real estate, sports and hospitality.
Barnsley, AS Nancy in France, Swiss side FC Thun, Esbjerg fB from Denmark and Belgium’s K.V. Oostende all come under the PMG/Lee banner.
PMG/Lee’s first foray into football was through the acquisition of Ligue 1 side OGC Nice in 2016 alongside fellow investors Elliot Hayes and Alex Zheng. Nice finished third in Ligue 1 that season and gave Conway and Lee a taste for European football.
They didn’t find any luck in securing investment in either Hull City, Partick Thistle or Middlesbrough (yes, Chien Lee headed THAT Chinese group Gibbo turned down in 2017) but eventually settled on Barnsley in Decemeber 2017.
The investment group that purchased an 80% stake in Barnsley consisted of Lee, Conway, Grace Hung, Billy Beane of Moneyball fame and Neerav Parekh with James Cryne, son of the late former chairman Patrick Cryne, owning the other 20%.
The new owners found themselves facing an all together different challenge in South Yorkshire than they’d experienced in France. The ink had barely dried on the deal before Paul Heckingbottom, who’d won promotion in 15/16 then led Barnsley to a mid-table finish in 16/17, had quit to take the manager’s job at Leeds and his replacement Jose Morais couldn’t stop the Tykes slipping back into League One.
This is where the first seeds of Barnsley’s now blossoming model were sewn. With Morais being relieved of his brief services, the ownership group were able to appoint a manager that was a much better fit for their ambitions, although to the untrained eye he didn’t exactly come with a glowing resume.
Daniel Stendel had been out of work for over a year since being sacked by Hannover 96 with only 34 senior games as a manager under his belt. However the analytics, which have come to be the backbone of Barnsley’s footballing strategy, showed that Stendel’s Hannover side had pressed effectively high up the pitch and made him the ideal candidate.
Stendel oversaw a season in which Barnsley secured promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking, finishing second and scoring 80 goals along the way in no small part due to a devastating attack spearheaded by future Boro target Kieffer Moore and Cauley Woodrow.
The pressing game also benefited the defence by keeping the ball penned in the opposition’s half of the pitch, with the team only conceding 39 goals, a league best.
However, some of the goodwill the new ownership had fostered through the immediate return to the Championship was scrubbed out when Stendel was sacked early into the campaign and Moore and star defender Ethan Pinnock were sold, in line with club policy of being self-sufficient in the transfer market.
While Barnsley were rock bottom after the first eleven games, seven points from safety, the decision was met with widespread criticism from Barnsley fans.
Stendel had become a hugely popular figure at Oakwell and fans even held a leaving party for him following his dismissal in a local pub with Stendel necking off shots of Tequila. The move was seen as reactionary and another case of foreign investors throwing the baby out with the bath water.
However, as has become the case with the PMG-led consortium, decisions at Barnsley are never made rashly.
Championship survival each year is a huge boon financially for Barnsley but rather than breaking out the UK Relegation Rolodex of ancient, battle-scarred traditional faces, the ownership group appointed Gerhard Struber. The Austrian, like Stendel, had limited experience of managing senior football but his previous team Wolfsberger AC were ranked amongst Europe’s elite in terms of pressing.
While they were still bottom of the league when the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic enforced the suspension of football in England, Barnsley clinched safety in the closing stages of the season through a combination of Clarke Odour’s stoppage time winner against Brentford and Wigan’s controversial points deduction.
Almost a year after Stendel’s sacking, Barnsley were again without a manager as Struber’s success – they were 13th in the form table from January through to the end of the season – led to an opportunity with the energy drink franchise in New York.
With their outlook keeping them prepared for this eventuality at all times, Barnsley had already identified Struber’s successor. Valérien Ismaël, the former Bayern Munich defender, was out of work after COVID-related controversy at LASK but had made a major impression during the club’s Europa League run.
According to Barnsley’s chief executive Dane Murphy, under Ismaël’s leadership, LASK had been the “second best pressing team in the world” the previous season. Whatever that means, it’s certainly working for Barnsley this season.
While their style of playing hasn’t been the easiest on the eye, Wayne Rooney labelled them the “most direct team I’ve ever seen” and the infamous head tennis war against Birmingham did no help for Championship stereotypes, it has been effective.
When Ismaël arrived at the end of October, the Tyke’s were fourth bottom with four points and without a win from the opening seven games. They now sit in fifth on 68 points, eyeing promotion to the top flight for only the second time in their 134 year history.
So, what’s the secret then? Have Chien Lee and Paul Conway finally loosened the purse strings and made it rain, using their network of clubs to funnel European superstars into Barnsley? No, they were the lowest spenders in the Championship last season and the second lowest this year.
Is Valérien Ismaël the next coming of Pep Guardiola? No, not if his brief stints at 1. FC Nürnberg, VfL Wolfsburg and Apollon Smyrnis are anything to go by.
Quite simply, Barnsley have stuck to their guns and are reaping the rewards of a well-established club philosophy and infrastructure.
They’ve managed to do this with a squad where the average age of the players is 23 and half years old and their oldest player is 30-year old centre half Michael Sollbauer. The biggest signings under the PMG/Lee banner have been midfielders Luke Thomas (£1.26m) and Herbie Kane (£1.2m) and a recent squad against Stoke featured 13 players who were products of EFL teams.
American striker Daryl Dike, whose 7 goals in 13 games in the Championship has Man United paying close attention to the goings on at Oakwell, was loaned in from Orlando City because as Murphy put it recently in The Athletic “his data in our algorithm, in our models, was through the roof”.
This way of signing players isn’t foolproof, as Neil Warnock has pointed out on more than one occasion this season when asked about Boro’s own recruiting team, but is aided by the fact that Barnsley are set up for a consistent style of playing that doesn’t change from managerial appointment to managerial appointment.
This allows their staff to narrow down and focus in on a select group of players with the skills and tools to fit into The Barnsley Way seamlessly.
Does this all mean that I wish Steve Gibson had accepted Chien Lee’s takeover bid in 2017? Not one bit. For every success story of foreign investment into English football clubs, there’s multiple horror stories of foreign owners who quickly become bored with their new shiny toy or Jack The Lad knobheads from Essex who think buying a club is cool and trendy. I’m looking at you Sunderland.
As was shown in the recent publication of last season’s accounts, what Steve Gibson has and continues to do for this club is unparalleled.
Being so wedded to a culture and philosophy also comes with its downfalls. While Brentford have been media darlings over the past few years, they still haven’t played in the Premier League. If they bottle promotion again this year, will the fact that their transfer model shies away from the kind of experienced, tried and tested Championship players that usually help push teams over the line be to blame?
There’s also the matter of time and patience. It’s easy to hold these modern approaches up when they’re going well but despite Milton Keynes recently breaking the English record for most consecutive passes before a goal (56), they lost that game against Gillingham and are 13th in League One. If fans were in stadiums, would Russell Martin still be in a job?
And for all the stats and data, there’s also an incredible slice of good fortune involved in these things. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation about Barnsley without Wigan’s points deduction last season and they’ve certainly benefited from a weak Championship this term.
However, if Barnsley had been relegated last season or if they do slip out of the play-off race this year, what their approach guarantees is sustainability and that’s what makes it so appealing even if it makes me feel sick every time I think about how the romanticism of football is being drowned out by an overreliance on data and the business world language straight from the audition tapes for The Apprentice.
Next season under Neil Warnock could well be a thrill ride for Boro fans, one last adventure for the old gunslinger before he rides off into the sunset, but what happens after that? Where do we go?
Are we in for another cycle of flying from one extreme to another and filling the squad with players who don’t quite fit into the next manager’s plans? Will we be having the same conversation about sustainability we’ve been having for years?
We don’t know what to expect from our football club but Barnsley fans do and that’s why I’m jealous.
Photo Credits: Barnsley F.C., BBC, PA, The Chronicle