Barnsley v West Bromwich Albion: Reds look to ‘step up’ as Valerien Ismael makes Oakwell return

Fourteen months after he joined Barnsley, Valerien Ismael will finally lead his team out in front of a healthy crowd at Oakwell tonight.

He will of course, though, be in the opposition dugout after his feat in taking Barnsley to the play-offs last season – played out largely behind closed doors – was rewarded with the job of trying to take West Bromwich Albion back to the Premier League.

Only once in his time as manager of Barnsley did Ismael lead the home team out in front of fans at Oakwell, the Championship play-off semi-final first leg against Swansea City when 4,000 fans were allowed in as coronavirus restrictions gradually eased.

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It will be strange then for many Reds fans present tonight to actually clap eyes on Ismael, a man whose eight-month reign at the club brought unexpected and fleeting success.

Barnsley defender Mads Andersen - far right. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“I think he’ll get a good reception,” says Barnsley defender Mads Andersen. “But you never know.”

He should. Ismael gave those exiled Barnsley fans something they feared they might never get again, a brief flirtation with the Premier League after transforming perennial relegation candidates into promotion hopefuls.

Indeed, coming as it did after Gerhard Struber’s miraculous ‘great escape’ the season before, and prior to this troubled campaign in which a rescue act of similar proportions is required, the Ismael months seem more and more like an aberration.

“I have a lot of very happy memories from it,” says Andersen. “When you look back at it now they are great memories.

Striker Cauley Woodrow chats with new Barnsley boss, Poya Asbahgi Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“Valerien was very, very important for me. I improved a lot as a player and as a person, I felt more consistent in my performances which is important for a defender.

“I’m happy for the season, or three-quarters of a season, we had together.

Asked what it was Ismael did that was so special for this group of players, Andersen gave an answer that should give Barnsley fans hope that this current squad can rise again.

“He had a big contribution but it was about giving the players the confidence to do it,” said the Danish defender of the Frenchman’s empowering of players.

INSPIRING: Former Barnsley head coach Valerien Ismael. Picture: Tony Johnson

“So it’s really us on the pitch doing the best we can, and everybody improved a lot and took a step up.”

How desperately that largely same group of players need to take a step up again.

Ismael’s departure, while inevitable given how well he had done in such a short space of time, is a moment Barnsley have never really recovered from.

Markus Schopp came in and effectively tried to fix what wasn’t broken; eschewing Ismael’s direct style in favour of a passing game. For long periods of Schopp’s troubled reign, Barnsley looked caught between the two, resulting in them winning just one of his 15 Championship games in charge before he was finally dismissed.

“I don’t want to talk bad about Markus Schopp, it’s in the past, I want to focus on the present,” continued Andersen, who has full faith that 36-year-old Poya Asbaghi, the new man in the dugout, has the requisite powers to claw back the eight-point deficit to fourth-bottom and drag Barnsley to safety.

Asbaghi hasn’t won a game out of his first four in charge but Andersen is bullish that a turnaround in fortunes is not far off.

“The new gaffer has come in with a new plan and I feel confident we will get the wins,” says the 23-year-old.

“He has a very clear plan, his communication is very good, he’s always talking to us and showing us videos of what went wrong, what we can do better, but also where we’re good.

“What I’ve noticed is he’s never quiet, he’s always talking with a player, always doing something, and players are knowing more and more about his style. That’s a huge thing for us.”

Injury meant Andersen only played one game under Schopp, the Austrian’s last, but his return to the defence has helped them concede just three goals in the last three games – an improvement on what had gone before.

They are greenshoots of recovery, signs that Barnsley are responding to Asbaghi, even if it is another voice to listen to, another direction to be taken.

“Coaches have different ways of approaching things, if you compare Markus Schopp and Valerien they had a different way of doing things and you have to adapt as a footballer,” he says. “It can be hard but there’s no excuses, you cannot blame it, you’ve just got to work hard and do your best to understand what they want to do.

“I still believe we can beat anybody, that’s the mindset we go into these games with.”

Doing so against the returning Ismael tonight would be a good start.

Last six games: Barnsley LLLDDL; West Brom DLDDWW.

Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).

Last time: Barnsley 1 West Brom 1; Championship; December 26, 2019.