Valerien Ismael was delighted to cap Barnsley’s ‘unbelievable rise’ during his six months as head coach with a place in the Championship’s top six and believes his side will be a ‘big competitor’ in the play-offs.
Following their 1-0 win at home to Rotherham United and Reading’s draw with Swansea City, the sixth-placed Reds are guaranteed a place in the Championship play-offs.
It will be their first experience in the play-offs at this level since 2000 when they lost the final at the old Wembley stadium to Ipswich Town.
They will play either Brentford, Bournemouth or Swansea City.
The play-off semi-finals’ first legs take place on Monday, May 17 at 6pm then 8.15pm while the second legs are the following Saturday at 12.30pm or 5.30pm.
The final is at Wembley on Saturday, May 29 from 3pm.
Barnsley could finish as high as third as they now visit mid-table Preston North End tomorrow before completing their league season a week later at home to promoted Norwich City.
“It’s a new competition now in the play-offs,” Ismael told the Chronicle while also confirming Daryl Dike will stay with Barnsley for the play-offs.
“We don’t need to talk about promotion yet, we have to first be focused on the first leg then the second leg. If we play like we did against Rotherham in the play-offs, we will never have a chance to do anything but if we play like we did at Huddersfield, we can beat anyone. It could be a big advantage because we play without pressure and, for sure, we are a big competitor in the play-offs.”
Ismael took over Barnsley in late October when they were fourth-bottom, out of the bottom three on goal difference with four points from seven games, and on the joint longest wait for a first league win of a season since 1920.
Since then, only the promoted top two Norwich and Watford have more points than the Reds’ 73 while they are also the only clubs to have more Championship wins this season than Barnsley’s 23.
The Reds’ 41 points from 17 games since mid-February is the most in the Championship in that time and the joint best in the EFL with League Two club Bolton Wanderers.
Ismael said: “It was a great feeling to achieve a top six place with two games left in the season. I have been here for six months so it’s been an unbelievable rise. The commitment of the players and staff has been brilliant.
“We improved all the time with consistency – even when we lost, we learned and bounced back. In January we lost three games in a row but the feeling was we were near to getting a big result against the top six team.
“The three key moments of the season were keeping all our players in January, signing Carlton Morris and Daryl Dike, who have had a big impact, and the FA Cup game against Chelsea which made the guys realise they can beat anyone in the Championship.
“We won seven games in a row after that and, from the moment we got in the top six, we never dropped down which shows the mentality and strength of the squad.”
Fans could allowed back in stadiums from May 17, with around 5,000 permitted at Oakwell according to current guidelines, but the EFL and government are yet to confirm that. Ismael said: “With that possibility, it could be fantastic for us. After such a positive season, it will be a joy to have the fans behind us. To share emotional moments with the fans will be a big motivation.”
Victories in their last two games would mean the Reds have the most wins and points of any second tier season in their history. Their current points total of 77 is the fourth most they have ever collected in a season.
The club record is 91 from their 2018/19 League One promotion campaign but wins in their last two matches would see them beat the 80 collected by Danny Wilson’s side who reached the top flight in 1996/97 and the 82 picked up by Dave Bassett’s 1999/2000 play-off finalists. They are also one win away from equalling the record for most wins in a second tier season of 24 set by Bassett’s side.
Brentford are strong favourites to finish third, having won their game in hand on Tuesday to open up a four-point gap on the three clubs below them who all have 77 points.
Barnsley could move up to fourth tomorrow – their highest placing of the season – if they better the results of Bournemouth and Swansea who face relegation-battlers Wycombe Wanderers and Derby County respectively.