It is less than three months since Barnsley made national headlines and led sports news bulletins with their extraoardinary escape at Brentford followed by Gerhard Struber’s teary post-match interview which inspired similar feelings in the majority of Reds supporters.
‘I am so proud of my boys’ the Austrian managed to splutter out while clearly overcome with emotion after engineering one of the most remarkable moments in the club’s recent history and earning many admirers in the town and across the footballing world.
It was the end of an unprecedented, year-long never-to-be-repeated campaign, in which the Reds survived in the last minute, but it also seemed the start of something much brighter.
Although there were still concerns from some about the owners’ intentions, Barnsley fans were hoping that, with Struber collecting 40 points from 30 games and many players showing great potential, they would finally watch something other than another rescue mission or bleak battle against the drop.
There seemed to be a chance to push into mid-table, with a young and talented squad which seemingly could only improve – and the owners promised to invest in the squad and learn lessons from the previous summer when they signed too young and too inexperienced.
But, just 75 days later, Struber has left for New York Red Bulls, Kilian Ludewig’s loan has been cancelled – which left them needing as many players as on the first day of the transfer window – and the Reds have just one point and one goal from their first four Championship matches.
Off the pitch, the two ownership groups are engaged in a legal battle, the majority owners have made enquiries about playing football away from Oakwell and fans may not be allowed back into the stadium until 2021.
It is a crisis on almost every level.
The on-field situation can still be salvaged – they have a whopping 42 games and another week in the transfer window, while they have the experience of last season – but dreams of spending a year looking smugly over their shoulders at a relegation fight below them now look far less realistic. They wanted to compete, now they just have to survive – again.
This has happened before, or something close. Struber’s tears in Brentford may be forever tinted with the same regrets for fans as the image of David Flitcroft being thrown into the air by his players as Barnsley and Huddersfield supporters flooded the pitch in 2013. That was followed by a miserable relegation season including his sacking in November.
The 2013/14 campaign was the last time Barnsley failed to win any of their first four league games before this current run and the other similarity is that the Reds have not made the changes they needed to the squad to avoid another scrap – in this case not adding some experience and physicality or replacing the sold Jacob Brown quickly.
This is a very different situation, mainly because the manager has jumped rather than being pushed, but once again joyous scenes following a remarkable ‘great escape’ have been followed by frustration.
Struber himself has not been faultless. He made some strange decisions – dropping goalkeeper Jack Walton on Saturday, bringing on Victor Adeboyejo ahead of Conor Chaplin and Patrick Schmidt and persisting with the underperforming Marcel Ritzmaier.
His comments on Friday about his agent talking to other clubs for months and then claiming the Reds did not match his ambition on Saturday, irked some fans as well as many inside Oakwell. He has clearly been about to leave the club for weeks and that cannot have helped morale in the dressing room when trying to make a good start or made it easy to sign players, who may have been put off by the idea of joining a club just as the manager was set to leave.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he felt his stock was only going to plummet with the resources he had available at Barnsley and decided to move when he had the chance to rejoin an organisation which he knows well.
Had he stayed, he had the coaching ability to at least keep Barnsley in the division again. Overall, he did a magnificent job at Oakwell and will be difficult to replace.
COACH’S EXIT FOLLOWS FAMILIAR PATTERN
Gerhard Struber did a superb job as head coach at Oakwell – a bald-headed, jeans-wearing saviour.
He arrived when Barnsley were towards the end of a 17-match winless run, just short of a club record, and would have had them 12th in the table if the season began when he turned up in November.
While the Reds were saved by Wigan Athletic’s 12-point deduction, their run to safety was still incredible. Struber displayed his tactical nous – with sensational performances such as the 3-0 win at title favourites Fulham and the final day victory at nearby Brentford – as well as his motivational abilities to keep the team believing when nine points adrift with 14 games to play.
His decision to defer his wages during the coronavirus crisis, as well as his emotional speech at Griffin Park, endeared him to many fans on an emotional level, as did his passionate but often amusing behaviour in press conferences.
Once he had achieved success and began to be linked with other jobs – Watford allegedly interviewed him – he had put himself in a position to demand more from those above him at the club.
In some ways, the Reds had changed their recruitment strategy to accommodate Struber.
He was able to sign players he knew in January and the early part of the summer – not just those identified by the recruitment team – and break not only Barnsley’s no loan rule but also their usual policy of never signing players over 25.
But he soon began making very similar comments to his predecessors Paul Heckingbottom, who left within two months of the current owners taking over, and Daniel Stendel, who was sacked a year ago this week.
All three became frustrated with the club’s recruitment policy and the regular sales of star players who were often not replaced. This led to problems behind the scenes and eventually their exits, either to other clubs or, in Stendel’s case, a sacking amid claims that he had been trying to engineer a move to a rival club.
It is a familiar pattern – a coach has success, demands changes which he does not fully get and then leaves. It must stop if Barnsley are to be anything more than a yoyo club between the Championship and League One while churning through managers at the rate of one a year which is highly unlikely to bring stability or long-term success.
GOALS DRIED UP FOR STRUBER’S SOLID SIDE
Cauley Woodrow’s consolation penalty in Middlesbrough on Saturday got Barnsley off the mark for goals in the Championship this season. But, if they do not score within five minutes of their home game against Bristol City on October 17, they will set a new club record for the longest wait for the first open play goal of the season.
They have scored eight goals in their last 15 Championship appearances since February – with each of them being netted by a different player, meaning no one has more than one Barnsley league goal in eight months.
Barnsley are in the top ten in the Championship for shots so far this season, but last for shots on target with six in four games.
Struber did an excellent job of tightening up the Reds’ defence, halving the number of goals they were conceding when he took over and overseeing 11 clean sheets in his last 21 games. But that may have come at the cost of an attacking threat and cutting edge at the other end, along with other factors such as the loss of form of Conor Chaplin and Woodrow as well as the sale of the unreplaced Jacob Brown.
Woodrow and Chaplin scored half the goals last season so when they go off form, the Reds have a big problem. They both have one goal in their last 14 league appearances. The only player in the Championship who has had more shots per game than Woodrow this season is ex-Red Adam Armstrong but many have been from long range and wayward.
MLS NO LONGER A HOLIDAY OR DEAD END
Football in America used to be a laughing stock, a sunny retirement home for ageing stars in a nation where ‘soccer’ was barely of any interest to the majority.
The idea of an English second tier side losing their manager to an American team will still baffle some.
But – although the standard is still extremely mixed – crowds, wages and quality have swelled in recent decades. MLS has won respect by producing top talents such as Alphonso Davies, now a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich, and Leeds star Jack Harrison, while Newcastle paid Atlanta United £30million for Miguel Almiron.
Struber will have the chance to work with young talents and impose his style in an organisation he knows well, having spent many years as a player and youth coach at another Red Bull club in Salzburg.
MLS is also not a dead end, as proved by Reading manager Veljko Paunovic whose previous job was with Chicago Fire and now he has won his first four Championship games including against Barnsley.
COACH DEVELOPED STARS, UP TO A POINT
Gerhard Struber undoubtedly developed players during his time at Barnsley.
He gave debuts to Clarke Oduor, Romal Palmer and Matty Wolfe while he also handed both Callum Styles and Elliot Simoes their first Championship starts. His shock decisions to make Jack Walton number one and turn Jordan Williams into a third centre-back paid off. Some, if not all of those players, will become stars for the Reds and will have benefited from working with Struber and the confidence he gave them by trusting them to play in the Championship.
The caveat to add is that he also seemed to lose faith in some of those players. He dropped Oduor once the Kenyan had proved himself to be a top talent and barely played him again despite his relegation-saving goal at Brentford, often preferring Marcel Ritzmaier at left wing-back. Walton was also surprisingly benched on Saturday despite solid performances.
The rapid improvement Struber made in Conor Chaplin’s game, with seven goals in Struber’s first seven fixtures, also waned dramatically and the striker has been in and out of the starting 11 through most of 2020. Young players will always have ups and downs but, under Struber and in his very particular style, it seemed hard to recover from the downs.