Barnsley v Millwall - Tunnel-vision helps make Valerien Ismael’s family sacrifices worthwhile

AN intense, serious professional far away from family and friends who lives in a modest apartment a few minutes from his place of work in Yorkshire.

Barnsley head coach, Valerien Ismael. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

A private, humble man whose ‘downtime’ is invariably spent watching football on his TV when he is not imparting his knowledge to his players on the nearby training ground – where he is obsessive to the nth degree about the finer technical aspects of the game and getting things right as he sees fit through painstaking repetition.

In this case, the subject matter is Valerien Ismael and not Leeds United’s Marcelo Bielsa, also a former centre-half like the Barnsley head coach.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Today, Ismael stands on the brink of achieving something remarkable – just 238 days into his Oakwell tenure. Not that he will be interested in admiring the view if that transpires. It is just not in the nature of this driven, relentless character.

A 15th league win this afternoon would take Barnsley past the magic 50-point mark for the season in just the Frenchman’s 25th Championship game in charge. In the process, it would surpass the club’s points total for 2019-20 with a third of the campaign still to go.

Should Ismael’s side secure that milestone, do not expect his rituals to change.

In the evening, he will speak with his German wife Karolina – who has remained at the family home in Munich with the couple’s two young daughters, Lupita and Cataleya.

Then, the preparation will begin on next opponents QPR, the team who Ismael faced in his first match in charge on October 27 when Barnsley were out of the bottom three on goal difference and had not won a league game.

Barnsley celebrate Callum Styles's first-half goal against Stoke City on Wednesday. Picture: Tony Johnson

Now, the Reds are eighth and a point behind Cardiff, in sixth.

The easing of lockdown will see the Ismaels spend more regular time together with sacrifices having been made to enable the 45-year-old to continue his career in England. The decision was a family one.

Ismael said: “For sure, it is a tough time as I have not seen my family for many weeks. But through the schedule, I try to take the positives to say: ‘okay, I can stay focused on the job and concentrate on the guys and improve everything in the staff between games and be 100 per cent there.’ So far, it is a good way.

“Phone calls and video calls are the only way to stay in touch to create some rituals.

Barnsley head coach Valerien Ismael: Transformed fortunes. Picture: PA

“I try to stay fit to relax. But at the moment, it is looking at a lot of football. Championship, Premier League, Champions League, Europa League. Stay focused in the tunnel and the motivation is to get the job done.”

To discover what makes Ismael tick as a coach, you must first head away from the usual nerve centres of European football.

In France, that means to Strasbourg and Lens, and not to Marseille, Paris or to the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes cities of Lyon and Saint-Etienne.

Finishing school in Germany may have arrived at Bayern Munich, the biggest German club in the nation and one nicknamed ‘FC Hollywood’, but his time before that in the north at Werder Bremen was just as consequential, if not more so.

ON THE RISE: Barnsley's Cauley Woodrow takes on Stoke City's John Obi Mikel at Oakwell on Wednesday night. Picture: Tony Johnson

Born to a French mother and Guadeloupean father in the border city of Strasbourg, Ismael’s two spells as a player in his home city saw the club win the UEFA Intertoto Cup, Coupe de la Ligue and Coupe de France.

Earlier, he won the Under-18 national title in a squad where strong bonds were forged for life with a close bunch of teenagers, including the likes of Oliver Dacourt and Martin Djetou.

They all played for the badge. The message he now preaches to his Barnsley boys about self-belief, fight and togetherness is guided by his time back home.

At Bremen, Ismael was then part of an eclectic group of players who stunned German football by lifting the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal in 2003-04.

Success came through a high-pressing and counter-pressing style which left its mark on him. Team-mates included gifted compatriot Yohan Micoud and Brazilian striker Aílton.

Ismael’s winning mentality would be crystallised at Bayern, a club where second is nothing.

The playing cast included a World Cup winner in Bixente Lizarazu and future winners in Oliver Kahn, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger. It was a ‘Who’s Who’ of world football.

It was a time when he learned about coping with pressure and mental strength.

Lessons were also stored from an ill-fated spell at Crystal Palace in the late Nineties.

Ismael acknowledged: “It was a tough time for me; the first time away from home (at Palace), a new language and I was young.

“It was very difficult because the team were struggling in the Premier League but I wanted to try my chance because I love English football and it was a big dream to play in the Premier League but I do not think I was really prepared.

“I needed more time and was young, but it was a good experience to play English football. I knew I could have the possibility to come back as manager and enjoy it more.”

He certainly is doing. The person who now works here is strong-willed, inspirational and carries a certain aura, according to Reds chief executive Dane Murphy.

“More than anything it is his self-belief,” said Murphy.

“There is a self-assurance and security with who he is and what he is trying to do which allows him to be successful.”

That self-assurance does not come at the expense of humility either in this complex individual.

Ismael is a stickler for high standards – players must fetch any balls which fall down the banking at the end of every daily training session – but also values man-management.

Chats to Toby Sibbick and Jordan Williams went a long way during difficult spells for both earlier in the winter for instance.

He is aware of his surroundings as well.

When Barnsley Brass made an appeal for funds to pay for the repair of four tubas, Ismael stumped up £200 after reading about it on social media.

There is plenty to like about Valerien Ismael. The man and the coach.

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click HERE to subscribe.