This summer Barnsley sold their three best players and replaced with with a collection of kids. It’s not Daniel Stendel’s fault that their start to the season has been so calamitous…
There’s an old quote by Richie Benaud, cricket’s sadly departed Yoda, where he outlines the formula for leadership in the game. “Captaincy is 90 per cent luck and ten per cent skill. But don’t try it without the ten per cent.”
You can apply a similar thing to playing the transfer market, if you’re a Football League club. The path for most to financial stability is, scientifically or otherwise, to buy low and sell high, to uncover some rough diamond or bring through a youngster, get a couple of good years out of them before finding some fat-walleted sucker to give you five times what you paid for them.
You have to spot the talent, of course. But then you also have to pray that fortune smiles upon you from the moment you bring in the talent, that the talent enjoys the environment, that the talent clicks with the coach, that the talent doesn’t get hit by a bus and myriad other factors that may or may not be in your control. You can of course influence some elements of how you develop players once they’re in, but picking the talent is the 10 per cent, and the 90 per cent is everything that comes after that.
And here’s the real rub: buying low and selling high is one thing, but the trick is to make sure you’re not rubbish after the selling bit. Brentford make it work, but plenty of others try it with…less success.
Take Barnsley, for example. A couple of years ago a romantically-named group called International Investment Consortium bought 80 per cent of the club, a group the Oakland Athletics number wizard Billy Beane has some sort of involvement in, and set about trying to turn it into a talent factory.
We strongly believe we have significantly upgraded the squad compared to our departing players.
But this summer, after winning promotion under the popular coach Daniel Stendel, their attempt at the alchemy of making money while not diminishing the quality of their team didn’t go brilliantly. Or to be more specific, it resulted in selling their best players, reaching the international break having won only once and with six points to their name, hoofed out of the Carabao Cup by League Two Carlisle, and parting company with Stendel, a parting announced in terms that sounded like an emotionally stunted 15-year-old breaking up with their girlfriend.
The statement announcing Stendel’s departure on Tuesday could not have been more terse if it tried: ’Barnsley Football Club confirms that it has separated from Daniel Stendel with immediate effect. Adam Murray has been appointed caretaker manager.’
That’s it. 21 words, one adjective, no words of thanks, no best wishes for the future, no acknowledgement of the promotion won five months earlier. They didn’t even dip far enough into the image archives to accompany the announcement with a solemn picture of the corner flag.
At the moment the exact nature of Stendel’s departure is slightly unclear: did he resign, was he sacked, or was it actual mutual consent? The root cause of it is a little easier to ascertain though, and this is where the player trading comes in.
This summer, to celebrate promotion Barnsley took the maverick step of selling their three best players: centre-back Liam Lindsay went to Stoke, his defensive partner and player of the season Ethan Pinnock went to Brentford, and top-scorer Kieffer Moore departed for Wigan.
They were replaced by a selection of youths and optimistic punts, 12 new players at an average age of just over 21, plus the permanent acquisition of relative old geezer Cauley Woodrow, 24, after a loan spell last term. Few of those players had any pedigree, none of them had much experience, but chief executive Paul Conway declared the transfer window to be the ‘most successful in the club’s history’, making a play for the coveted Sky Sports News award for Winning The Transfer Window.
“We strongly believe we have significantly upgraded the squad compared to our departing players,” reassured Conway. “Most signings were completed on at least four-year deals.”
We played like a youth team.
As it turns out – and knowing what you know, this isn’t a Shymalanian plot twist – that turned out to be a lesson in hubris, most of the new acquisitions have been no good and Stendel spent the last few weeks with the look of a man asked to traverse a ravine with a bit of string and a cocktail umbrella.
After what turned out to be his last game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Preston, Stendel declared his side had “played like a youth team”, which sounded like a criticism of the players, but was actually a) pretty close to be a statement of fact given none of the starting XI were older than 24 and eight were 22 or younger, and b) seemed more a criticism aimed at those who had given him these players. He sometimes didn’t need to speak to criticise, either: the team he selected for the trip to Wigan at the end of August featured a right-back and a winger in midfield.
Ultimately, Barnsley conducted the summer transfer window like it was an experiment; it felt like an extended attempt not to prepare a squad for the rigours of the Championship, but to see how many of those buy low, sell high types they could find, and make themselves look terribly clever.
But they only succeeded in hamstringing Stendel, in making a manager with whom the fans have developed a rare connection over the last year or so – and not just because he could be occasionally found on the ale in Barnsley…although that helps – look like a fool as this group of lambs presented to him were sent out to be slaughtered every week.
Stendel has already been linked with the Sunderland job, which feels like leaping out of the frying pan and into a boiling hot vat of oil, but perhaps he will ultimately land on his feet. You hope so, because he deserved better than this.
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