Valerien Ismael lost his first battle against Thomas Tuchel in Germany but now has a plan… grateful for a second chance in England after flopping as a player at Crystal Palace, the Barnsley boss is ready to ‘swarm’ all over Chelsea
- Championship side Barnsley host Chelsea in the FA Cup on Thursday night
- Manager Valerien Ismael has concocted a plan to produce a famous upset
- Ismael was on the losing side when he faced Thomas Tuchel in Germany last
From his new home in South Yorkshire, Valerien Ismael casts his mind back to south London.
It was January 1998, a year in which Barnsley basked in the glow of their only campaign in the Premier League, when Ismael swapped Strasbourg for Crystal Palace. He was a young centre half, signed for a club record £2.75million. He would come to appreciate the value of timing.
During 10 months spent at Selhurst Park, Ismael worked under five managers — from Steve Coppell to Terry Venables via the joint tenure of Attilio Lombardo and Tomas Brolin and a caretaker shift from Ray Lewington.
Valerien Ismael is preparing for the biggest game since he returned to English football
He is coming up against Thomas Tuchel (left), who beat him on their only previous meeting
As a player, Ismael had contrasting spells with Bayern Munich (left) and Crystal Palace (right)
The backdrop was relegation to the First Division and a protracted takeover.
On the pitch, he never recovered from a mauling at the hands of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang. He was soon written off as an expensive flop and hastily returned to his native France.
‘I think of the derby against Wimbledon and I think of Vinnie Jones on the pitch with an area around him of two metres where nobody wanted to go,’ says 45-year-old Ismael.
‘Everybody avoided playing in the centre or running across him. It was a great moment for me to play against him and to see how physical that team was. It was a long time ago but this is the clearest memory of my time at Crystal Palace.
‘It was a strange time. The team was bottom with lots of issues — too many players, changes of manager. I was young, living away from home for the first time.
‘It was not easy but I have positive feelings from the situation. It was just too early for me as a player. Maybe it would have been different if I came two or three years later with more experience.’
Ismael is back for a second taste of English football, and the timing feels right, although Covid restrictions have limited his exploration of his new home and his wife and two daughters remain in Germany.
He arrived in October to find a club on the move under their Chinese-American ownership and part of the Pacific Media Group, who also own Nancy in France, Oostende in Belgium and Thun in Switzerland.
Ismael wants his young players to ‘dominate’ opponents by creating a ‘swarm’ all over them
Barnsley have impressed since his arrival in October and are in the last-16 of the FA Cup
His young Barnsley team have made impressive progress, climbing clear of relegation trouble in the Championship and reaching the last-16 of the FA Cup.
They host Chelsea at Oakwell on Thursday night in a tie evoking memories of 2008, when Kayode Odejayi’s header toppled Avram Grant’s FA Cup holders in the quarter-finals. ‘A good omen,’ agrees Ismael.
Or memories of that brush with the elite in 1997-98, when Danny Wilson’s Barnsley reached the Premier League with slick passing football and fans sang: ‘It’s just like watching Brazil.’
This team, however, are set up in another way.
‘Totally different,’ says Ismael. ‘Intensity is the main focus. Everybody knows what to do and we try to move as a swarm on the pitch.
‘Our purpose is to dominate our opponent. This is my way and the club wants to play this way.
The 45-year-old accepted that Barnsley’s win over Chelsea back in 2008 acts as a ‘good omen’
‘I am grateful to have this second chance in England. From the start, we were on the same page.
‘The players understand the principles and it suits the team. It’s a young side, they learn very quickly.’
It is 10 years since Ismael felt coaching’s call. After rejection at Palace, he found success as a player in Germany, winning the Bundesliga title with Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich.
He acquired his qualifications and coached through the ranks at Hannover, Wolfsburg, Nuremberg and briefly in the Greek Super League with Apollon Smyrnis.
His breakthrough came at LASK in Austria, leading them to the last-16 of the Europa League last season, where they were beaten by Manchester United.
He knows Thomas Tuchel from his time in Germany.
Barnsley go into the contest at Oakwell on a three-match unbeaten run and they have belief
Ismael believes Tuchel (middle) is a smart appointment at Chelsea as he ‘is one of the best’
‘It’s a good choice for Chelsea. He is one of the best in Europe. His teams have a clear way: possession-based, very flexible, many rotations through the middle.’
Ismael lost their only managerial duel — his Wolfsburg against Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund — and is relishing the chance to pit his young players against a Champions League team.
‘It is a chance for us to dream and measure our quality,’ says Ismael.
‘Can we stamp our philosophy on that team? It’s great for my young guys to compete against one of the best teams in the world.
‘It’s a massive challenge but we want to find a way through. The FA Cup has its own rules. That is one of the things I have learned.’
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