erhaps the most mystifying Felix Magath tale is the one concerning Brede Hangeland’s thigh and cream cheese. He also purportedly had Fulham players doing sprints on Surrey Hills the day before matches and Valérien Ismaël, who won the double under Magath at Bayern Munich, has another peach of a story to add to the collection. “We got back to the training ground in the morning after a draw and the first thing he said was: ‘OK, we go straight to the pitch’, for a normal session,” he says. “It was 4am … it was a very big surprise because you are upset, tired, and you just want to go home.”
So, what on earth was Magath like after a defeat? “At the time we won almost all the games, which was a good thing … that is why I only have good memories of the season,” Ismaël says, smiling. For someone who played at the highest level, alongside Oliver Kahn and against Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the former defender must have a mountain of anecdotes but, beyond declaring Zé Roberto the best player he had the pleasure of calling a teammate, they must wait, because Ismael is making his mark at Barnsley. The 45-year-old, who guided the Austrian club Lask to the last 16 of the Europa League last season before coming unstuck against Manchester United, is the conductor of one of the Championship’s most entertaining sides. “It’s not boring when you see our games,” he says, to put it succinctly.
Ismaël, who also won the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen as a player and was Crystal Palace’s £2.75m record signing in 1998, is an imposing figure who can comfortably command the room, but he knows management has changed since the days of Magath’s hellish pre-season – “a boot camp, like you prepare for a war” – or even compared with when he cut his teeth coaching German second teams, at Hannover then Wolfsburg. “All the time, you have to adapt your communication, your management, with your staff, fans, sponsors – it is completely different job to 10 years ago.”
Until defeat by Bournemouth last Friday, only Brentford had accumulated more points than Barnsley since Ismael’s arrival at the end of October. In Callum Styles, the 20-year-old former Bury midfielder, they have one of the Football League’s most exciting prospects at the heart of a youthful side – at 26 Cauley Woodrow was the second-oldest player last time out – but Ismaël believes they can come of age under his front-foot philosophy. “We don’t have maybe the big roster or the big quality like other teams, but we have our principles and this gives confidence to our players.”
Last year the English Football League made it policy that clubs must interview at least one black, Asian and minority ethnic candidate for managerial vacancies and, after a virtual job interview – “you have to adapt,” he says, grinning – Barnsley named Ismaël, born in Strasbourg to a Guadeloupean father and a French mother, as Gerhard Struber’s successor. He is one of five BAME managers in England’s top four tiers – six if Liam Rosenior, part of the interim coaching staff at Derby, is included. “It’s very important to get a chance but after you have to do your job to get the results.”
Before Barnsley kick off against Wycombe on Wednesday hoping to record a sixth win in 10 matches, players and staff from both teams will take the knee in a stand against racial discrimination. Ismael believes it is a powerful gesture and was “shocked” by events at Millwall last Saturday. On Tuesday Paris Saint-Germain’s match against Istanbul Basaksehir was suspended amid allegations of racism. “We have to fight against this. We have the possibility with football, the most popular sport in the world, to take a position and I think it’s very important to respect this position. We have to respect each other and stay together to fight against the enemy. We have this responsibility to give our message [against racism].”
For a manager who bemoans Barnsley’s recent profligacy by saying the “same music” has haunted them, it is apt that Ismaël, whose family remains in Munich, has taken more than a passing interest in a local band. The sound of a bugler playing The Last Post first moved him before victory at Derby last month and again at Oakwell a fortnight later, so when Barnsley Brass appealed for support to refurbish creaking tubas, he pledged £200. “I read this comment on social media and that is why, in this Covid time, a very tough time for everybody, I wanted to show togetherness – what we need at this moment – and to try to help. It’s important to support where we can.”
Last season Barnsley miraculously stayed up on the final day but, if they are able to retain key assets such as Styles, and summer signings such as Callum Brittain continue to flourish alongside forwards Conor Chaplin and Woodrow, they have reason to believe they can climb the table. Expectations in south Yorkshire may not be quite as high as in Bavaria – “you have to win, to win, to win” – but 17th-placed Barnsley are looking up under Ismael. “The performances have been very good, but now we have to work on the last details,” he says. “We create a lot of [goalscoring] situations in any game, whoever the opponent is, and now we have to finish the job.”