Barnsley players who displease Valerien Ismael may be on the receiving end of the sort of withering stare his Crystal Palace team-mates feared in 1998 including goalkeeper Kevin Miller.
“Ish had a stare about him which frightened the life out of some people,” said the goalkeeper who played every game for the Eagles that season then later moved to Barnsley who appointed Ismael as head coach a week ago.
“He’d look at you and you knew he could snap you in half in a tackle if he had to. He was a nice, calm and polite lad most of the time but, if you upset him in training, he had a short fuse and he would put you on your backside.
“Away from games or training, he was very, very quiet and I am surprised he has gone into management because he didn’t speak a lot or get involved a lot.”
Ismael began his playing career in the 1990s with hometown club Strasbourg and the French under 21s alongside Thierry Henry. He made 77 appearances, including a French League Cup final win in which he scored a penalty in the shoot-out, and a UEFA Cup campaign which brought wins over Rangers and Liverpool. Palace signed the centre-back in January 1998 for a club record fee of £2.75m but he could not stop them being relegated from the Premiership.
Bruce Dyer played alongside Ismael before moving to Barnsley, where he still lives. He could almost be describing the Reds’ recent history when he says: “Palace were a yoyo club at that time, and we always had a young team. We never had experience in depth and we sold our best players.
Valerien was a great guy and a solid defender. He did a good job for us and was a good professional. He was very young back then but very, very focused. It was good having him at the club. He was quite a quiet person and didn’t speak that much English, definitely not as much as he does now.”
Miller added: “He was a real footballing centre-half and very athletic, more like a modern defender than most of the players back then. He always wanted the ball. I imagine he is probably still good in training because he was very talented.”
After playing 16 games for the Eagles, Ismael returned to France with Lens later in 1998 then had two more spells at Strasbourg before moving to Germany where he was to spend the next 15 years of his career. He did the league and cup double with both Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich. He played 46 games for Bayern, alongside the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Owen Hargreaves, Miroslav Klose, Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack while he scored at San Siro against AC Milan in the Champions League. He then moved into coaching, with brief spells in charge of the first teams at second tier Nurnberg and top flight Wolfsburg which both ended in his sacking after fewer than 20 matches.
Raphael Honigstein, German football expert, told the Chronicle: “He was an instant cult hero at Werder Bremen. He is very fondly remembered there and also in Munich. Bayern went through a spell where they would buy a lot of centre-backs, mostly from other German teams. He did really well but, ultimately, a problem with his shin curtailed his career.
His German was very good which won him a lot of respect and made him come across as very sophisticated and considerate. He was very well-spoken, urbane and suave and he was model pro.
“As a manager, he only lasted a few months at Wolfsburg. They brought him as the interim coach then they had a hard time finding anyone else so gave him a chance but he was losing too many games, sucking them into a relegation battle and they had to pull the plug on him. The club was rudderless so it is difficult to evaluate him based on that very difficult gig.”
After a very brief spell as manager in Greece – he was in charge of Apollon Smyrnis for one game before leaving due to a dispute with the owners – Ismael spent last season at LASK Linz in the Austrian Bundesliga. He managed them in the Europa League – beating PSV Eindhoven and Sporting Lisbon before losing 5-0 to Manchester United – and looking on course to win the title before a 12-point deduction for training in lockdown.
Simon Clark from The Other Bundesliga podcast, which covers Austrian football, told the Chronicle: “What he achieved before the lockdown was simply outstanding. LASK had a 100 per cent away record in the regular season – the first time that’s ever happened in Austria.
“They ended Red Bull Salzburg’s three and a half year home domestic unbeaten run, with a 3-1 win, and were the first proper title challenger Salzburg have had since 2013. They also enjoyed their greatest ever European campaign.
“But something was missing when they returned to action and ended up slumping to fourth position, which was a real failure after being in a two-horse race for much of the season.
“I don’t feel this was Ismael’s fault.
“But the training scandal, the loss of trust and team spirit, the heavy loss to Manchester United, losing the most realistic chance of winning a trophy for the first time since 1965, and the coronavirus lockdown, saw the cards stacked against him. It was still a real shock when he was sacked because I feel, under different circumstances, LASK would’ve had a genuine chance at winning the title.
“He was very unlucky.”
Ismael’s next job is at Oakwell where Reds fan Dyer hopes he will be successful.
Bruce said: “I would love to speak to him again if I get the chance. We could have a laugh about our days at Palace and also the fact we’ve both ended up in Barnsley more than 20 years later. Who would have thought that? One of my old Palace team-mates from another nation is now the manager of Barnsley.
“I hope he brings some stability to the club and that the club can keep a manager for a long time. I hope he’s the man to do that and push the lads up the table and away from a relegation battle.”