|Date: 11 February Kick-off: 20:00 GMT Venue: Oakwell Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, Red Button, iPlayer and the BBC Sport website from 19:30; listen to full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live; text commentary and goal clips on the BBC Sport website|
Four months into the job, Barnsley boss Valerien Ismael is still waiting to meet the club’s fans because of the coronavirus pandemic but his arrival has already struck the right note with locals.
Determined to make a good first impression in South Yorkshire, the former Bayern Munich defender donated £200 to Barnsley Brass, a brass band that has served the community for 115 years, after the Frenchman learned they needed help towards the repair of four tubas.
“It’s not all about football. It’s a tough time for everybody right now and I try to support when I can,” says Ismael.
He has also donated to a local food bank and sent Christmas cards to the club’s young supporters, and the two-time Bundesliga winner has embraced his new surroundings by setting up home in Barnsley town centre.
It is not just off the pitch that the 45-year-old has made an impact. Barnsley survived in the Championship last season under his predecessor having been four points from safety with two games left and are now looking up under the former Wolfsburg boss.
Following his October appointment, his young team – at that point without a league win this season – won 10 of his first 15 Championship games in charge. They are currently 13th in the table, albeit now winless in five games, and enjoying their best FA Cup run for eight years.
On Thursday, they will attempt to cause a major upset at Oakwell by sending Chelsea to a first defeat under Thomas Tuchel – a match you can watch live on BBC One (20:00 GMT).
“We need a perfect day and the perfect game to make a big surprise,” Ismael says.
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Living hundreds of miles from family
Ismael has worked in Germany, Greece and Austria during a managerial career spanning 10 years but moving to a new country during a pandemic meant family sacrifices had to be made.
While Ismael has moved into an apartment a few minutes walk from Oakwell, his German wife, Karolina, and their two young daughters, Lupita and Cataleya, have remained at the family home in Munich, Germany.
After Ismael took over in October from Gerhard Struber, headhunted by New York Red Bulls after the Austrian oversaw last season’s great escape, the family planned to link up regularly.
Then England went into another lockdown and travelling between countries became complicated.
The family were reunited briefly over Christmas but restrictions mean it has been several weeks since they were all together, and evenings are spent on video calls.
“It’s important for me to know that everything is fine and under control back home,” adds Ismael. “That allows me to give all my energy and focus to Barnsley.
“This is a big step for me to be in England. I am grateful for the opportunity and I try to give everything.”
At least South Yorkshire’s climate is making Ismael, who has German citizenship, feel at home.
“At home in Munich it snows almost every day in the winter,” he says. “It has been a big surprise to see so much snow in Barnsley.”
‘A stare which frightened you’
This is not Ismael’s first time in England and Crystal Palace fans of a certain age will recall his short spell at Selhurst Park when he played under five managers in 10 months in 1998.
Having become Palace’s £2.75m record signing from Strasbourg at the age of 22, he struggled to settle in London away from family and friends.
“At that time I was too young to make that step,” he recalls. “If I had waited one or two more years it could have been much better for me.”
While his time at Palace did not work out, ‘Ish’ was developing a fearsome reputation.
“He had a stare about him which frightened the life out of some people,” Kevin Miller, Ismael’s former Palace team-mate, told the Barnsley Chronicle. “He’d look at you and you knew he could snap you in half in a tackle if he had to.”
“I was a centre-back,” Ismael says. “When I played against Wimbledon, against Vinnie Jones, you needed to be scary. I’m a kind guy, though.”
In 2004, six years after leaving Palace, he won the Bundesliga and German Cup with Werder Bremen before repeating the feat two years later at Bayern Munich under Felix Magath.
Life under Magath, Ismael recalls, was not always straightforward.
“After one draw away from home, we came back to Munich and thought ‘OK, now we can go home’. We received information we had to go on the training pitch – it was 3 o’clock in the morning.”
‘Barnsley’s food culture’
Chelsea and Barnsley met as recently as September in the Carabao Cup – Kai Havertz’s hat-trick inspiring the Premier League side to a 6-0 win – but both have since changed managers.
While Ismael is implementing his high-press, high-energy approach in the Championship, Tuchel’s arrival has also triggered a positive reaction on the pitch at Stamford Bridge since Frank Lampard’s exit.
It is the second time the pair have faced one another in the dugout.
In a Bundesliga fixture in February 2017, Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund beat Ismael’s Wolfsburg 3-0. Eight days later Ismael was sacked.
There is obvious sadness Oakwell will not be packed on Thursday like it was in March 2008 when Barnsley beat holders Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
“It’s a strange feeling because I came to a new country, a new club, and I have not met the fans yet because of the restrictions,” adds Ismael.
“I can’t go out because everything is closed. I’m looking forward to when I can enjoy an evening in a pub or restaurant and discover the food culture in Barnsley.”
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