The Reds were 21st in the table and without a win from six league matches when the Frenchman succeeded Gerhard Struber on October 23 to embark upon what was widely expected to be another battle for mere survival.
But, the Oakwell club, who only avoided relegation on the final day of 2020-21 following the most dramatic of victories over Brentford, have been the division’s surprise package this term, emerging as an absolute revelation under their current head coach.
A top-six finish was secured late last month, but Saturday’s 2-2 home draw with champions Norwich saw Barnsley clinch fifth position, setting up a play-off semi-final showdown with Swansea City.
Asked if such an achievement seemed likely when he took the reins, Ismael replied: “No, I have to be honest.
“But my mentality, I am a winner, and I never take a job thinking ‘I just want to reach the minimum.’
“When you see where we started and what happened last season, there’s been a commitment from the players on the pitch.
“It was clear that the first step was to make sure that we reached safety this season as quickly as possible.
“But, after January, the feeling came after [the signings] of Carlton Morris and Daryl Dike that we could do something special. The quality in the players raised, the players found their own greatness and they [showed they] are more ready to compete at the top level.”
Saturday’s final-day draw with Norwich saw the Reds outplay a team who won the division at a canter for 45 minutes and take a 2-1 lead into the interval courtesy of goals from Cauley Woodrow and Conor Chaplin before being pegged back in the second period.
And Ismael insisted post-match that it came as no surprise to him that his players caused the champions so many problems.
“Yes we take encouragement for sure, but it is not a surprise,” he added. “We knew that we can compete at that level against the top teams. We did it against Chelsea [in the FA Cup], we did it against Norwich in the cup and in Norwich in the first league game.
“It is great to see the guys with the belief that we can compete and show such a performance. I am relieved by the attitude and the desire – and we scored some nice goals.”
Barnsley: Collins; Sibbick (Kitching 82), Helik, Andersen; Brittain, Moon (Williams 66), Palmer, Styles; Chaplin (Frieser 55), Woodrow (Dike 55), Morris (Adeboyejo 55). Unused substitutes: Walton, Oduor, Halme, Sollbauer.
Norwich City: Krul; Aarons, Omobamidele, Hanley, Giannoulis; Tettey (Sorensen 87), McLean (Idah 52); Buendia, Francis, Cantwell (Hernandez 87); Hugill (Dowell 72). Unused substitutes: Nyland, Placheta, Quintilla, Stiepermann, Mumba.
Referee: J Smith (Lincolnshire).
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