Barnsley striker Cauley Woodrow has attributed the club’s remarkable run to the brink of the Premier League almost entirely to manager Valerien Ismael.
The Reds were among the favourites for relegation at the start of the season and without a win in their first seven league games when Ismael was appointed in October.
They have since undergone an extraordinary transformation – from bottom four to top six in six months – and on Monday play Swansea at Oakwell in the first leg of their Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final.
Woodrow told the PA news agency: “Without a doubt, if the manager wasn’t here, I don’t think we would be where we are now.
“Obviously it’s down to us players when we’re on the pitch, but ultimately there are people behind the success, the way we set up, the way we want to play.
“That’s been down to the manager and we’ve bought into it. Credit to the manager, his mentality. He’s a very strong man in terms of knowing what he wants from his players.”
Former Crystal Palace defender Ismael, 45, had been earmarked by Barnsley chief executive Dane Murphy as the club’s number one target when previous boss Gerhard Struber left to take charge of New York Red Bulls.
Ismael had left Austrian club LASK three months earlier and came out on top of the club’s extensive data analysis of Europe’s coaches who were leading proponents of the gegenpressing system.
“In terms of all the managers I’ve had in my career I can say without a doubt he’s made me think about the game in a totally different way,” Woodrow said.
“A lot of us this season have seen the game in a different light. His pure belief, his pure strength of character, mentality and professionalism.
“Also, he has a really clear message to the players. He knows exactly what he wants. Sometimes managers know what they want, but sometimes don’t really believe in it.
“You can feel that sometimes, but with him, he has full belief in the way he wants us to play and when you have that as a player, you buy into that and that’s ultimately why we’ve had our success this season, without a doubt.”
Barnsley survived relegation on the final day last season when Clarke Oduor’s stoppage-time goal clinched a coupon-busting 2-1 win at promotion-chasing Brentford.
One year on, Reds fans are pinching themselves at the prospect of Ismael’s side repeating the heroics of the club’s ‘class of 97’.
Danny Wilson led them to a fairy tale Premier League promotion 24 years ago – 1997/98 was the club’s only ever season in the top flight – and Woodrow believes they can pull it off again.
“Yes, 100 per cent,” he added. “I think throughout the season we’ve shown our quality and thoroughly deserve to be where we are now.
“We’re thinking: ‘Only half the job is done’. We’ve got two huge play-off games which can take you to Wembley and if we get there, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance and we aim to take it.”