AFTER previously rejecting the opportunity to join a club whose supporters still speak fondly of a feted side labelled as the ‘Dogs of War’, Marcel Ritzmaier is determined to add a bit of bite to Barnsley’s Championship survival fight.
Merseyside giants Everton – whose belligerent team of the mid-Nineties under the command of Joe Royle is revered to this day – made their pitch for the young Austrian midfielder when he was in his early teens, but his path was ultimately destined for Holland.
Now a second chance in England has beckoned and Ritzmaier, a player brought in for his leadership and experience levels according to someone he knows well in Reds head coach Gerhard Struber, believes it is now the right time.
As for the prospect of an immediate debut in a home derby against the Terriers of Huddersfield, then the former Wolfsberger player is ready. The glint in his eye tells you so.
I spoke to the coach one or two days before Christmas. He called me and this time, I knew it was maybe going to happen.Marcel Ritzmaier
On his new adventure in England, Ritzmaier said: “I had the chance to come to Everton when I was a youth. But then I decided to go to PSV Eindhoven and the Netherlands and that was the right step.
“I was here for two weeks to look around and get a feeling because I was very young – only 14 or 15 years old. It was quite special, but now I am happy to be here.”
Relishing the challenge of helping to propel an improving Barnsley side to safety and confident in his belief that it can be realistically achieved, he continued: “That is also the main reason why I signed here. It is a talented group with a lot of potential and we will do our best to stay in this league.
“It will be a big challenge, but I am positive we can get our target. I will help where I can and I think we are going to make it.”
Alpine scenes may have painted a traditional Christmas picture in his homeland of Austria, but it proved no ordinary festive season for the 26-year-old.
Conscious of the interest from Barnsley and his former boss Struber, Ritzmaier was mentally preparing for pastures new ahead of receiving the best Yuletide gift he could have wished for; a move to the ‘motherland’ of football.
Ritzmaier, whose brother is also a professional with Austrian club FC Jugenburg, continued: “Of course, it is one of the best presents in my lifetime, for sure – to come to England to play football here and enjoy the game. I want to do it well.
“I spoke to the coach one or two days before Christmas. He called me and this time, I knew it was maybe going to happen.
“I was already a little bit prepared in my head and everything. But in the last days, it went really fast.
“He has told me a lot of things about how it works here and I was already prepared when I arrived.
“My brother has wished me a lot of luck and he always has my back. It was good to speak to him as he is two years older than me. It is all good.”
Ritzmaier adds to a growing Austrian contingent at Oakwell alongside compatriots Sami Radlinger and Patrick Schmidt, while German-born full-back Kilian Ludewig – brought in on loan for the rest of the season – is well versed in Austrian football from his time there.
Another notable player from Ritzmaier’s homeland who operates in the Championship is Bristol City forward Andreas Weimann, with a handful of Austrians are also on the books of Premier League clubs.
Watford centre-half Sebastian Prodl, Leicester City full-back Christian Fuchs and Southampton defender Kevin Danso make up the top-flight contingent.
The fact Struber convinced the Oakwell hierarchy to accede to his demands to bring in an seasoned player at 26 – and compromise with their policy of only bringing in young players with future sell-on value – also speaks volumes about how highly the Reds head coach rates Ritzmaier as a player and perhaps a person.
Brought in as a number eight to provide a link between the defence and attack, Ritzmaier is comfortable in Struber’s pattern of play and fluid diamond system.
A player with energy, tenacity and an incisive pass and goal in his locker, Ritzmaier seems tailor-made for Championship.
Although the proof will be in the pudding, more especially given the experiences of the last Austrian midfielder to sign for Barnsley in the shape of Christoph Knasmuller, whose time in South Yorkshire was eminently forgettable.
Yet speak to Struber and his belief in Ritzmaier is unequivocal.
Confident Struber can bring out the best in him, as he did at Wolfsberger, he commented: “Of course. He already did in the last half-year as we were doing well in Austria and I hope we can do well here as well.
“He knows me as a player and a person and the other way is the same. We have a good relationship and know what we can expect off each other and I know what he wants. I am sure I am going to help the team.
“I followed the Premier League, but in the last couple of months, it has been the Championship. I know what I can expect and I am prepared for it.
“I am a left-footed player with good passes who can read the game and put the players in front of the goal.”
For Ritzmaier, the baptism of a debut in a full-blooded Yorkshire derby awaits, although this sort of parochial environment is something that is not new to him.
The midfielder has previous experience of a keen local rivalry, having played for Wolfsberger against a derby rival in Sturm Graz several times – and his record is a fair one apparently.
With Barnsley’s next weekend home game after today being against near-neighbours Sheffield Wednesday, Reds fans could do with a lucky charm or two in the coming weeks.
“Our big derby was against Sturm Graz and it is a good experience because those games are special,” Ritzmaier said.
“The home and away fans are crazy and made a good atmosphere and we have to do it on the pitch as well.
“I won most of the derbies, although I never scored against Sturm Graz.
“Maybe I will score in a derby in the future, maybe on Saturday.”