Valerien Ismael started as a goalkeeper in junior football and planned to be a PE teacher as he did not think he would have the quality to play professionally. But he eventually became lifelong friends with Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry while reaching the top level of club football, where he aims to return with Barnsley.
Since being appointed in October last year, the Reds head coach has been immersed in his job at Oakwell – lifting them from fourth-bottom in the Championship to fifth after 40 games – and has spoken very little about his glittering career as a player including a stint at Bayern Munich.
But he opened up to the Chronicle about how playing for his boyhood club, moving ‘too early’ to Premier League Crystal Palace, winning back-to-back doubles in Germany, his early managerial failures and last season’s success in Austria have led to his extraordinary impact at Oakwell.
Born in Strasbourg in 1975, Ismael began to play football at the age of six, following his father who was in the French army and a semi-professional player. He said: “I started as a ‘keeper when I was seven or eight. I was good.
“But then I played centre forward because I was really tall for my age and the trainer wanted a tall guy up front.
“Then I went into centre-back and it was the breakthrough for me since the first day I came into that position.
“I knew it was the place for me.
“I played football all the time and it was a big part of my childhood.
“I trained twice a week and played on Saturdays.
“I can’t say I always had the plan in my head to be a professional, but I knew I wanted to do something with sport. First I wanted to work as a sports teacher then football was the second thing I had in my head.
“Once I was about 15, the response from all the coaches was very positive so I knew I had the quality and I had to try to be a professional. Then I was in the Strasbourg academy.
“I didn’t have the big quality like other players, but my mentality and my desire was bigger than any player. I found a way to come through. Now, as a coach, I always look after players who have the same mentality.”
He made 77 appearances for his hometown club Strasbourg, including a French League Cup final win in which he scored a penalty in the shoot-out, while he played alongside France internationals like Olivier Dacourt, Franck Sauzee and Frank Leboeuf.
“It was special. Strasbourg is a big club in the region and it means a lot to play for them if you grow up there.
“It was a big achievement after being born there then being in the academy and then being captain of the first team. It is my club so to win cups and play in Europe with them, and with other players from the academy, was a great experience.”
Ismael’s club form earned him a call-up to the France under 21s side.
In a golden era for the national team, who would win the World Cup and European Championships in the coming years, he played alongside the likes of Henry, Vieira and David Trezeguet.
He said: “It was a great experience and we had a very good team.
“I still have a tight relationship with both Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira and it is always great to see them.”
Ismael was also part of the Strasbourg team that knocked Liverpool out of the 1997/98 UEFA Cup. He had been suspended for the first round against Rangers and the first leg against Liverpool in France but played at Anfield as his side secured a 3-2 aggregate win over a team containing Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.
“It was unbelievable. As a young player, you dream of playing in England then you play against such a club and win.”
Just months later, Ismael had the opportunity to move permanently to the Premier League when Crystal Palace made him their club record signing for £2.5million. He made his debut in a 3-0 FA Cup win over Leicester City but lost all of his first six league matches and ten of 13 in total as the Eagles dropped from mid-table into the relegation zone before falling into the second tier along with Danny Wilson’s Barnsley. He collected seven yellow cards and was sent off in a 5-2 loss at Bolton Wanderers.
“It was the dream for me to move to England, especially after the game in Liverpool. The problem was that it was in January and the deadline was the 15th of January. Everything went really quick. I just heard ‘Crystal Palace, Premier League, London’ and my agent said it was a big opportunity.
“I trained as normal on the Wednesday morning then, in the afternoon, everything came quickly. I travelled in the evening then signed Thursday morning and played my first game on Saturday.
“I was 22, away from home for the first time, and the club was in a difficult position. I had to rescue everything but it was too much for me at that time.
“The experience was great and it was a learning process. It was a shame that I didn’t have the breakthrough at that time but it was too early. It could have been different if I had moved in summer and had time to find a flat and integrate with the place and the club.”
Ismael then returned to France with Lens who reached the UEFA Cup semi-final but lost to Arsenal before a serious injury put him out for six months and he was loaned to Strasbourg where he again won the French Cup. His final game with Lens was the last day of the 2001/02 season which they started at the top of Ligue 1 but finished second after losing to champions Lyon.
His contract expired and he was expecting offers from major European clubs but none arrived so he returned to Strasbourg ‘to settle myself in my thinking which was the right decision.’
After two more successful years with his hometown club, the ‘breakthrough’ in his playing career came when he moved to German club Werder Bremen in 2003 at the age of 27. His first season saw them win the Bundesliga and the German Cup. Ismael said: “We started the season with the expectation to be eighth or ninth, maybe seventh, but we had a very big season. We played attacking football and with intensity. The expectation was not there to become champion but it was a great feeling.”
In 2005, Ismael moved to Bayern Munich for a reported fee of £7.5million. He also won the double with Bayern, while playing alongside the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Owen Hargreaves, Miroslav Klose, Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack while he scored at the San Siro against AC Milan in the Champions League.
“One year at Bayern is like ten at another club because you learn so much about hard work, mindset and the details that it takes to be at a top football club.
“The first day I arrived, Uli Hoeness, Franz Beckenbauer and Karl Heinz Rummenigge spoke to me and said: ‘we want to win the league, the cup and to go to at least to the quarter-final of the Champions League.’
“From the feeling with Werder Bremen like a family, this was a club that was all about winning and never being satisfied.
“That was a great mindset.”
Plagued by a knee injury, Ismael finished his playing career at Hannover 96 where he retired in 2010 and began his coaching career with their under 23s. His first job as a first team manager at Nurnberg in Bundesliga 2 lasted just a few months as did his next role with Wolfsburg in the top flight after being promoted from reserves coach.
On his early managerial career, Ismael said: “It is a journey and a process.
“You have to learn the job and find your philosophy. You have to know as a manager you will fail but you have to come back. It is a very tough job but you need to stay focused and have clarity in your mind about what you want.”
Towards the end of his spell at Wolfsburg, Ismael had identified 3-4-3 as his preferred formation and decided to focus on high-pressing football.
After a very brief spell with Apollon Smyrnis in Greece, he moved to Austrian Bundesliga club LASK Linz in 2019.
“LASK was my breakthrough in coaching, like going to Germany was for me as a player. They wanted to play my style and 3-4-3.”
He managed them in the Europa League – beating PSV Eindhoven and Sporting Lisbon – and looked on course to win the title before a 12-point deduction for training in lockdown then he was sacked in July last year.
Ismael said: “It was a big disappointment but I just want to keep all the good memories and the history we made.
“In the league, we won all our away games which is a record. It was tough but as a manager you have to accept this and move on to your next challenge.
“For me, this was at Barnsley.”