OWNERS SHOULD EXPLAIN THEMSELVES AMID CHAOS ON AND OFF PITCH
This is a bleak and uncertain time for Barnsley fans, among the most worrying since the collapse of ITV Digital plunged the club towards administration almost two decades ago.
It is too early to panic about the league table – as poor as one point and one goal from four games is, they survived far worse last season – but the legal action between the ownership groups and plans to play games away from Oakwell in the future are very disturbing. So is the loss of another promising and popular head coach and the club’s performance in the international transfer window which they seem to have spent chasing deals that never happened, while leaving themselves in desperate need of several players and some more experience with a week to do business with English clubs.
Many Barnsley fans are, understandably, very concerned about the future of the club while, perhaps more worryingly, others seem to simply be losing interest in supporting their team.
The club has a diehard fanbase but the lack of trips to Oakwell during the coronavirus crisis and the disappointments on and off the pitch may test the patience of some and reduce the number of season ticket holders next season in difficult financial times.
Questions are rightly being asked about what the owners, who bought the club from Patrick Cryne in late 2017, are in this for. Chien Lee is reportedly one of richest people to own a football club in this country and – although he and co-chairman Paul Conway made it very clear from the first press conference that they would not ‘do anything crazy’ – why he would want to own a club that bounces from the second to third tiers in English football is a real mystery.
They have also invested in clubs in Switzerland and Belgium, the latter during the coronavirus crisis, so clearly have money to spend. But the vision they first sold of steady investment and a gradual climb of the EFL has not been realised.
Three of the four head coaches under these owners – Paul Heckingbottom, Daniel Stendel and Gerhard Struber – all achieved success with the club then began to question the transfer policy and left.
Before these owners arrived, Barnsley had lost one manager or head coach to another club in 20 years – Lee Johnson – but it has happened twice more in their first three years in charge. At what point do the owners – like a person whose last several relationships all end for the same reasons – start to think: ‘it’s not them, it’s me’?
They make noble statements about wanting to work within the financial fair play rules and not overspend like other clubs, while the lack of fans for the foreseeable future is a huge financial blow which no club saw coming and may have major ramifications for English football. But, if they continue with their current transfer policy and expect every coach to work the kind of miracles Struber performed last season, they will never achieve the Championship stability and attempts to compete for the Premier League which is the stated goal.
When asked what the owners’ intentions are last month by the Chronicle, chief executive Dane Murphy said: “Their intentions are to continue to grow the club, make sure it is financially stable and make sure that the club can compete at the highest level in the model and philosophy we are trying to adhere to. We are going to do our best to put the best team on the field and see how far we can push in the Championship.”
Murphy admits he has not been involved in the legal dispute between the two ownership groups or the discussions with other clubs over an alternative to Oakwell. The fans need to hear from someone who has.
Despite interview requests, Conway, the face of the majority ownership group, has not been available – other than for national papers when complaining about the EFL, often fairly – since the victory parade after the promotion last year.
It is surely time to address the fans who have committed to the club in their thousands this season, helping them to keep afloat in trying times by buying season tickets, but are currently seeing very little return on their investment.
NO MORE DAMAGING STATEMENTS
Monday was one of the more bizarre days in Barnsley’s recent forays into the transfer market.
There was an exodus of players associated with head coach Gerhard Struber who was technically still in charge but whose departure almost everyone knew would be announced the next day.
They then signed a striker, something the fans had been crying out for for months, but immediately loaned Jack Aitchison out to a League Two club then they could not announce that it was Stevenage until the following day.
But the strangest part was the statement to confirm Kilian Ludwig’s departure, in which chief executive Dane Murphy praised the German’s performances in last season’s run to survival, which he called ‘divisional retention’
He then added: “Unfortunately his performances were inconsistent this season and the decision was made for him to return to RBZ.”
That comment was released at almost the same time as Ludewig, whose loan from Red Bull Salzburg to Barnsley had been cancelled, was announced as a new loan signing for German giants Schalke 04.
It is a surprising statement for several reasons.
Firstly, it seems obvious that the departure of his mentor Struber and the lure of one of the biggest clubs in his home country meant Ludewig wanted to leave rather than simply that the Reds decided to let him go.
An obvious red herring can only serve to increase the distrust a growing number of supporters have towards the club’s hierarchy.
Secondly, it is harsh to single out one player – especially a 20-year-old who had not played senior football before this year – as inconsistent, after just four games. There have been doubts at Oakwell about his performances this season. Ludewig has not been at his best – he failed to clear corners for Reading’s two goals in a September loss then was dropped for the next away league game at Middlesbrough – but he is certainly not alone in that as most of Barnsley’s players have struggled so far.
A year on from the infamous 21-word club statement which failed to thank the sacked Daniel Stendel for earning promotion, this was another strange comment towards a good servant who gave his all for the club.
That is the kind of comment that can start to change the mind of some fans who were willing to support the club’s ownership.
Ludewig, left, is a highly-rated German youth international and has now joined Schalke who, although currently bottom of the Bundesliga after three games, regularly qualify for the Champions League and normally play in front of more than 60,000 fans every week. When Barnsley visit Millwall on October 24, Ludewig could be taking on the likes of Jadon Sancho in a huge derby against Borussia Dortmund.
Murphy often comes across very well but he got that one wrong.
STRENGTHEN UP FRONT, AT FULL-BACK AND IN MIDFIELD BEFORE FRIDAY
When the transfer window opened in late July, it was clear that Barnsley needed to strengthen their wing-backs and sign both a ball-winning midfielder and tall targetman striker to complement what they already had.
Nine weeks, seven competitive games and five signings later, the international window closed on Monday and Barnsley still needed exactly the same – if not more.
There is still a week to go in the English transfer market, but the Reds are attempting to recruit several players while also hunt for a new head coach – a very difficult assignment.
They now have to find those players from Premier League or EFL clubs, probably with the use of loans, instead of shopping in overseas markets as has been their preference in recent years.
Some overseas players might be grateful for the opportunity to play in the Championship – a modern route to the top level – but the managerial situation and league position may have more of an impact when attempting to convince English-based players that Oakwell is place for them to develop.
While the coronavirus has clearly had a huge impact on every business, including Barnsley, comparable clubs such as Luton Town and Rotherham United appear to have bolstered their squads before making better starts to the season. Jacob Brown, right, was far from a finished product when he was sold to Stoke City last month but, since then, the Reds have missed his physicality and mobility up front. He set up nine goals last season and was also a never-say-die battler.
When he was sold, for more than £2million, a club statement promised the money would be re-invested into the playing squad. But, although centre-back Michal Helik arrived on the same day, Barnsley did not make a first team signing in the rest of the international window.
Brown’s sale was followed by the announcement that fans would not return in Oakwell as expected, which may have dented the budget, but investment still needs to be made to equip the new head coach with the right tools to compete. Of the five signings brought in during the international transfer window, two have already left, one is yet to be named in a matchday squad, one was sent off in his first league game and another is a striker yet to score in seven appearances.
Jack Aitchison was the only deadline day signing but immediately left on loan, baffling fans who were desperate for a striker. Helik lasted 42 minutes before a red card on his league debut at Reading then 45 before being substituted in his next match at home to Coventry City. But the Polish centre-back is already in the division’s top ten for winning aerial battles, per game, and top for interceptions. He could have a lot to offer the side if he can match his excellent physical attributes with good decision-making.
Isaac Christie-Davies has not been named in an 18-man squad yet and, although he turns 23 this month, the former Chelsea and Liverpool midfielder has never played in a league match. Dominik Frieser was brought in specifically by Struber and must now be wondering why, after struggling to make an impact so far and seeing a change in head coach.
Kilian Ludewig was another Struber signing and his return on a season-long loan from Red Bull Salzburg was seen by many as one of the best bits of business the Reds could do this summer, but he has now left. That is reminiscent of Danny Drinkwater being poached by Leicester after a good loan spell in January 2013. That was one of the worst transfer windows, with Ricardo Vaz Te’s departure derailing Keith Hill’s side, but this one is in danger of surpassing it.
MAKE A 3RD SUCCESSIVE GOOD APPOINTMENT
The most reassuring aspect of this generally bleak situation is that only four league matches have been played.
The Reds still have 42 games in which to move up the table and refind the form and confidence which saw them achieve miracles at the end of last season. But clearly the next week – with interviews for the head coach role underway and seven days left in the English transfer window – could determine what kind of season they have.
After the two-week international break, Barnsley begin a spell of seven games in 22 days which will test their squad physically and mentally and may also show whether they are in for another season of struggle. After hosting early leaders Bristol City, they visit Stoke City who mauled them 4-0 in July before buying striker Jacob Brown in September.
The Reds then visit Millwall and host QPR – fixtures they won within a week to kickstart the survival under Struber in December – before hosting one of the promotion favourites Watford then making tricky trips to Cardiff and Derby.
If they do not have a coach who makes a difference, they could find themselves cut adrift by the time they lurch into another mind-bogglingly busy eight-game month in December. The current owners receive plenty of criticism, and some of it is justified, but they have a good recent record of appointing the right head coach. Jose Morais was a disaster but, since they focused on recruiting coaches who fit the pressing and counter-attacking style they want to play, they have found Daniel Stendel to get them into the Championship and Gerhard Struber to keep them there.
The Reds now need to make it a hat-trick with another shrewd appointment of someone who can get the best out of a talented but incomplete squad. The trick then will be for the board to keep that coach happy and avoid the frustrations of Stendel, Struber and Paul Heckingbottom. But for now, they just need someone who can make an immediate impact with very little time on the training ground in this gruelling season.
START SCORING GOALS AGAIN
Cauley Woodrow has 36 goals for Barnsley in 84 games which are impressive numbers at any level, especially for someone who has often been used as an attacking midfielder in the last year.
Sam Winnall, Barnsley’s previous long-term goal machine, netted 31 in the same amount of matches and those were at League One level. No player has scored more goals in a Championship season for the Reds than Woodrow’s 14 last season since Craig Hignett in 1999/2000. Should Woodrow stay for the season – and the Reds surely need him to – then he could overtake Winnall’s 48 goals and become Barnsley’s top-scorer since Bruce Dyer, who left in 2003.\
Saturday’s penalty at Middlesbrough ended Woodrow’s 13-game goalless run in league matches, the longest of his career, since the winner at Hull City in February more than seven months previously. He has admitted he has found playing during the coronavirus crisis and in empty stadiums strange but he will have to rediscover his top form as, without him, there are very few consistent goal-scorers at Oakwell.
Conor Chaplin became one of a very small number of Reds to reach double figures for Championship goals last season and, on form with the right players around him, he terrifies defenders. But he has not netted in 11 games and has just two in 23 Championship fixtures since January.
Patrick Schmidt has three goals in 32 Championship games, only two of which have been starts as he seems to get very few opportunities despite scoring in the cup at Middlesbrough after some epic late winners last season. Summer signing Dominik Frieser is yet to get off the mark in four starts and three substitute appearances. Victor Adeboyejo made his Championship debut off the bench on Saturday, and has now scored twice in his last 50 league appearances.
It is deeply worrying if Barnsley are looking to someone who netted twice in 38 games for League One and League Two clubs on loan last season to end their Championship scoring woes.
As for their midfielders, Luke Thomas has not scored in 42 league games, while Alex Mowatt has not struck in 23. Aapo Halme is arguably their most potent threat, behind Chaplin and Woodrow, but he is a substitute centre-back.
Of the 11 who started in Middlesbrough, only four had scored in the Championship before, with Thomas and Callum Styles having one goal between them at that level.
Perhaps if they remain at Oakwell beyond this transfer window – as the club insists they will – the main scoring threats will have fewer distractions and can rediscover their previous form.
Some attackers may also benefit from working with a new coach who tries them in different ways and can motivate them better than Struber, under whom Woodrow in particular looked exhausted and out of ideas at times.