In their 134-year history, only John Percy (59 per cent) could beat Valerien Ismael’s 57 per cent win ratio and most of his victories came during World War One. They were, to say the least, different times.
In 2021, being such a successful Oakwell manager means being a short-lived one. It is a precarious life as a “stepping stone” club but so far Barnsley are making it work for them.
Having first shown an interest in former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder and ex-Huddersfield Town coach David Wagner, West Bromwich Albion are set to turn to Ismael to keep their yo-yo existence boing boinging for another year.
Barnsley knew the moment they appointed Ismael losing him to a richer club was likely if he turned out to be as good as they thought. He was probably better.
So the Reds put a £2m buyout clause into his contract and will now work down the shortlist of coaches they think can fit seamlessly into their “model”.
It looks like the man who oversaw that model, chief executive Dane Murphy, will be poached too, by Nottingham Forest. Given its success, his could be an even bigger loss.
Not that the demanding Ismael will be easy to replace. In late October he took over a team still to win that season and led them to fifth in the Championship with a direct style a million miles away from Danny Wilson’s in the 1990s. Some – including at first West Brom – turned their noses up at it, but no one at the only game fans could attend at Oakwell last season – the play-off semi-final against Swansea City – seemed to mind. The players and their coach were given a standing ovation after a 1-0 defeat.
We can say with absolute certainty the homework has already been done but post-Brexit regulations make it more difficult to mine the seams which brought Ismael, predecessor Gerhard Struber and Wagner to Yorkshire. Sheffield United wanted Alexander Blessin – the Oostende coach with a similar CV – this summer but red tape did not allow it.
Being sold a vision of Barnsley as a platform to show they have what it takes attracted ambitious, talented Ismael and Struber and the exciting young players they worked with in the first place.
To a football supporter, their club is the most important in the world but with so few exceptions you can count them on one hand, all are stepping stones.
If Manchester United and Chelsea lost Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, and Liverpool could not stop Philippe Coutinho leaving for Barcelona or Georginio Wijnaldum for Paris Saint-Germain, what hope for the rest?
But if Doncaster Rovers could improve before Grant McCann and Darren Moore left to manage better-resourced clubs, if Rotherham United could enjoy players like Will Vaulks and Will Hoskins before making a profit, if Sheffield United could sign Champions League midfielder Sander Berge knowing he would not be at Bramall Lane anywhere near long enough to get a testimonial, they can still grow.
In time we might even see Raphinha’s move to Leeds United as having been a stepping stone. Fans are not so naive as to think the Brazilian was as desperate to pull on the white shirt as homegrown Kalvin Phillips.
Barnsley know what they are, accept it and work hard to turn it to their advantage.
Seeing where things could have gone under Ismael would have been great, but on planet football it is not the reality.