Max Senft, Barnsley’s first team coach and a former professional poker player, believes the Reds are ‘a good bet’ to stay up this season despite admitting he and Gerhard Struber were dealt a difficult hand when they arrived in November. 

The 30-year-old Austrian spent his early 20s travelling around the world winning hundreds of thousands in poker tournaments, including more than half a million dollars for finishing 11th in the World Championship in Las Vegas in 2014. He then stopped at the age of 25 and decided to pursue his childhood dream of working in professional football, climbing up from youth coaching to some of the biggest clubs in his country before moving to Oakwell last year.  

Senft told the Chronicle: “It is not the normal history of a football coach. I studied economics and I was playing poker. I had a pretty good time and was pretty successful. I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot, about keeping your emotions controlled and thinking logically. I played online but I also travelled around the world for tournaments in most of the big cities in Europe and also Vegas. 

“But I always knew that there needed to be something more social in my life so I decided to try to move into football which was the constant passion in my life from when I was a boy.  I decided to put everything on the line to become a football coach. I have always been someone who thinks a bit crazy or out of the box. I am very glad that I had the circumstances to be able to do this. I hardly play poker anymore, I might play two or three times a year with friends.” 

Senft – who admits he ‘did not have the talent’ to become a professional footballer – worked for various clubs in the Austrian fifth, fourth and second divisions, as head coach and assistant. He became assistant coach at Austria Vienna, the best-supported and most historically successful club in the country.  Then he met Struber.  

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“Last season, Gerhard was writing his diploma for the UEFA Pro Licence and his topic was something I have given lectures about.  We were put in touch, we met for a coffee and we had a very good chat. We kept in touch and, when the season finished and my contract was running out at Austria Vienna, he took over at Wolfsberger and brought me in as coach.  Then we both came to Barnsley.” 

Struber and Senft arrived at Oakwell in November when the Reds were on a 16-match winless run in all competitions and bottom of the Championship, five points from safety after picking up nine points from 16 matches.  They remain bottom and the gap to safety has grown to seven points in the five months under Struber despite him overseeing seven of the eight league victories this season and collecting 25 of the 34 points.  

Asked to use a poker expression and describe the hand they were dealt when taking over the Reds, Senft said: “It was a difficult one but a very good challenge.  In poker, you say that you don’t play your cards, you play your opponents.  We had a very good feeling from the beginning that we would achieve our goal, and we still do.”

Senft cannot bet on football but believes a bet on Barnsley to stay up will be successful. He said: “Probably the bookmakers would give us good odds so it would be a very good bet.  Everybody wants to get back on the pitch and, obviously, we have a very strong belief that – if the season finishes – we will achieve the goal of staying in the league.” 

Senft is very much enjoying his time in the Championship, saying: “I would never have thought that I would be coaching in one of the biggest leagues in the world in England, which is the home of football. English football has been a crazy and good experience, the stadiums, the crowds, the media coverage – everything is huge in England. I enjoy that the football is very direct so it is great for the fans.  

"I decided right away that I wanted to live in the centre of Barnsley and grasp a feeling of the people and to be near the stadium.  It is different to Austria, for example the food was a big change for me. But, I have learned to love different food and, this week, I have made myself porridge. My love for porridge started in Barnsley and I have brought it to Austria.  The weather is a bit different and the people are different but, from my experience in Barnsley, everybody is so friendly and we had a very warm welcome. 

“The first time when I picked up my girlfriend from Manchester Airport, I met a man who was waiting there who was a Barnsley season ticket holder for 40 or 50 years.  We had a very funny chat and it was one of my first impressions of Barnsley which was very nice.” 

Senft is now at home in Vienna, waiting for the coronavirus crisis to pass and hopeful that the Reds will play the final nine games of their season. He said: “Mostly I am on the phone with Gerhard and Adam (Murray), talking about how things might go on in the future but this is changing day to day.  “With a laptop you can watch games from the past but it is completely different to standing on the pitch, smelling the grass and interacting with the boys. The same goes for hearing our crowd in games and getting the adrenaline in your veins.  We miss it a lot.”