KHALED El-Ahmad is not expecting a relegation fight for Barnsley this season but understands supporters’ frustration after going from a fifth-placed finish to just one win in the opening 14 games of this campaign.
The Reds are second-bottom in the Championship, winless in 12 and have lost their last six games under Markus Schopp.
During his first interview with the local press, chief executive El-Ahmad told the Chronicle: “I haven’t used the word relegation, I think we’re better than that with the quality of our squad.
“The season could be very long but we are quite similar in points to last year and they ended up in the play-offs.
“There are more than 30 games left.
“I 100 per cent understand how the fans feel.
“I knew one of the toughest things would be managing the hope from last season.
“Hope, even though it is a fantastic thing, is always quite dangerous.
“Realistically we should be mid-table then have a fight for the play-offs as a long-term vision.
“But the immediate change from being that close to the Premier League to it going so bad, I understand the frustration.”
Barnsley have lost a large number of their backroom staff this season.
Former head coach Valerien Ismael took a first team coach, analyst and sports scientist to West Bromwich Albion in the summer while El-Ahmad’s predecessor Dane Murphy moved to Nottingham Forest with secretary Taymour Roushdi and, months later, groundsman Ian Marshall.
Last month, long-serving physiotherapist Craig Sedgwick left for Huddersfield Town and goalkeeper coach Kevin Pilkington also departed.
All of them have been replaced, mainly by internal appointments, but El-Ahmad admits it was disruptive to lose so many staff at the same time.
“Craig the physio had been here 12 years and wanted a new experience.
“He handled it professionally.
“We cannot stop people leaving. The movement is quite natural, what is surprising and tough is that so many left at once.
“If you have a ship on the sea, it wasn’t just big waves, the tornado hit.
“In the last international break, I brought the whole staff together and said ‘look around the table, this is now Barnsley Football Club.’
“It will take time to build relationships but they are all doing a fantastic job.”
The Swede was officially appointed in late June but, after several weeks of gardening leave with previous employers City Football Group – Manchester City’s owners – and a bout of Covid-19, he has only been at Oakwell for five full weeks.
He spoke of knocking down the wall between the coaches’ rooms to make a larger space, as well as his aims for installing a new security system – ‘Oakwell is very, very easy to enter’ – and potentially making the stadium cashless in the future.
He also provided the press and fans with cans of a non-alcoholic beer he wants to sell in the stadium, as well as introducing more vegan options.
Asked for his vision of the club in five years’ time, he told the Chronicle: “We will be a stable Championship club with as clear an identity as we can possibly create and an ability to look upwards.
“We will be young and energetic.
“In marketing, I want to create a narrative that we are an innovative, kind club.
“I would also like an upgrade on the facilities.
“My legacy doesn’t have to be what happens on the field because sometimes you can’t control that.”
When El-Ahmad was appointed, co-chairman Paul Conway said one of the main areas he would focus on was the academy.
He told the Chronicle: “Before we sign a left-back for the senior team, can we look at the academy first? If we have a good 15-year-old, which I hear we have, can we expose him to the first team environment early.
“We are looking to co-ordinate the first team training schedules with the 23s and 18s.”
That ties into an overall vision of youth at Oakwell, sometimes to the frustration of fans as well as staff. Schopp asked for an experienced central midfielder in the summer, to replace former captain Alex Mowatt, but instead is now working with players aged 23 and younger in that position. El-Ahmad said: “The vision of the club is to have 23-year-olds and younger.
“What is experience? I can find you a 19-year-old who has played 200 games in MLS.
“He could be experienced. Getting stuck on experience being an age is not relative.
“The discussion needs to be around the personality. Maybe it was the personality and leadership of Alex that we lost, not the experience.
“I am happy if we are 23 and younger.
“Ajax went to the Champions League final with a very young team.
“(Michal) Helik, (Callum) Styles, (Brad) Collins are all one year more experienced.
“To go out and sign a 30-year-old is not going to happen at Barnsley Football Club.”
Conway also said El-Ahmad would help the Reds recruit in North America and Scandinavia, now that Brexit means recruiting from EU countries is much harder.
The CEO said: “We’re open to all good players wherever they come from. I worked with CONCACAF and Scandinavia but I have relationships in other parts of the world.”