THE RECENT Soccerex Football Finance 100 showed that English football is the dominant force in world football at the moment. Of the many clubs from the Premier League and Championship, there was one name that certainly made you look twice to ensure your eyes were not playing tricks – Barnsley, the 65th strongest football club in world football.
Barnsley? The team of Michael Parkinson, cricket umpire Dickie Bird, Skinner Normanton and brass bands? One of those clubs that, to a large degree, is a standard bearer for regional identity.
Barnsley it certainly was, sitting at the bottom of the Championship on the morning of February 15. How could a football club with a turnover of around £ 14 million and a wage bill of £ 11 million be so high and be looking down on luminaries like PSV Eindhoven, Lazio, River Plate, Boca Juniors and CSKA Moscow?
Did the Barnsley fans who travelled to London and Fulham realise their club was mixing in such exalted and decorated company? The Tykes may have won only five times in the league before heading down south, but they are apparently “bigger” than PSV, a club that won the European Cup in 1988 and has played host to some of European football’s big names.
Such is the nature of modern day football, where a wealthy gang of owners can transform the business perception and reality of a club. It is, however, a tall order and we’ve seen what happens when overseas owners dip their toe into provincial Britain and then realise that, after all, the UK economy and media revolves around London. More often than not, such investments end in disillusionment, but Yorkshire needs a few more successful football clubs – there’s only one representative in the Premier League (Sheffield United), although Leeds United could join them in 2020 if they don’t implode once more.
Barnsley, of course, had a brief flirtation with the Premier League in 1997-98, but it was a one-season affair and it had a long-term effect on the club in the years that followed. In 2017, the ownership model changed at Oakwell when an international consortium rolled into town and bought 80% of previous owner James Cryne’s stake.
The consortium comprised an intriguing group of individuals, including: Chien Lee, a Chinese billionaire who still has a stake in Swiss club, Thun; American businessman Paul Conway and his partner Grace Hung, both of the Pacific Media Group; data expert Neerav Parekh; and the Billy Beane or Moneyball fame. Media reports suggested that Barnsley’s ownership group was the second richest in the Championship, hence the high placing in the Soccerex Football Finance 100.
The arrival of this group of investors created no small amount of excitement, particularly among fans who salivated over the prospect of Barnsley competing with the big guns in English football, but the message was one of realism and a gradual increase in the financial power of the club. Barnsley were relegated in 2017-18, just a few months later, and their coach, Paul Heckingbottom, who had just signed a new contract, left Oakwell to join Leeds. The new era had to start at the lower level of League One.
In 2018-19, Barnsley won promotion back to the Championship with coach Daniel Stendel in charge, but the popular German was sacked in October 2019 with the club in 16th place in the Championship. Some Barnsley fans were upset about the way the board treated Stendel. His replacement was Gerhard Struber, an Austrian who was previously Wolfsberger’s coach.
It’s questionable whether Barnsley are actually any better off for making the change. Since Struber took over, and before facing Fulham (a club that has used Billy Beane’s methods to build their squad with varying degrees of success) he had won four games out of 16, almost identical to his predecessor, and had lost eight times compared to the seven defeats suffered by Stendel. But rather than 16th place, Barnsley were now bottom and 16 more games had been played. In other words, the situation was deteriorating. And in meeting Fulham, they were up against a team chasing promotion. Their only away victory in 2019-20 was in London, at Millwall.
The boisterous Barnsley fans, who gave their club a low satisfaction rating over ownership (27.5%) in a recent survey, had plenty to cheer about at a wet and windy Craven Cottage. Fulham were woeful, but the Tykes seemed to have a spring in their step. Barnsley deserved their 3-0 victory on the banks of the River Thames and in the face of the oncoming Storm Dennis. Players like the tricky Conor Chaplin and Cauley Woodrow impressed and Fulham really didn’t rise to the occasion and looked a little leaden-footed. Their Slovakian goalkeeper Marek Rodák had an afternoon to forget.
Barnsley fans taunted the sedentary home fans with a chorus of, “you must be shit, we’re winning away”. If any team looked like promotion contenders, it wasn’t the one in white, despite their wage bill being more than four times the amount paid by Barnsley.
It is possible that Barnsley just need to consolidate this season before some sort of promotion plan is put into play for 2020-21 and beyond. Investors with big money will not want to be playing League One football again and in the unpredictable, dog-eat-dog world of the Championship, a well organised and fit team can be moulded into play-off pretenders. Fulham manager Scott Parker said there are no surprises in the championship, but at the same time, he revealed he was “shocked” by the result. Some Fulham fans are now calling for Parker’s head, a premature and knee-jerk reaction if ever there was one.
The Premier League is on Fulham’s agenda this season and at some point, Barnsley’s monied owners may well be looking at steering their investment towards the big time, knowing full well that the club’s last sojourn ended with problems. First, though, there’s a six-point margin between Barnsley and safety. That has to be reduced quickly, for there are only 13 games to go, starting with a home game with Middlesbrough on February 22.