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Europa League

Barnsley chief Valérien Ismaël hoping to strike up rapport with returning fans

The last time Valérien Ismaël managed a game in front of fans was against Manchester United in March 2020.

On Monday, after more than a year of playing games behind closed doors, the Barnsley boss will get his first glimpse of what English fans bring to matches when his side face Swansea in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg.

Ismaël, who arrived at Oakwell last October, has quickly transformed the South Yorkshire side from second tier strugglers to Premier League contenders.

A superb haul of 74 points from 39 matches since arriving from Austrian side LASK has Barnsley fans dreaming of a top flight return for the first time in 23 years.

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Little was known of Ismaël when he was named as Gerhard Struber’s successor earlier this season.

The defender had a brief stay in England as a player with Crystal Palace – ironically during the 1997-98 campaign when both Palace and Barnsley were relegated from the top tier.

But him and his impressive Tykes have more caught the eye and they’re now set for a two-legged showdown with the Swans.

A small crowd was present when Valerien Ismael bossed Austrian side LASK against Manchester United in March 2020

That mini-series begins at Oakwell on Monday when 4,500 fans will be in the stands as Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease.

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For Ismaël, it represents the first time he’s bossed a game in front of spectators since LASK were humbled 5-0 by Manchester United in the Europa League 14 months ago.

That game was played in front of just 500 fans as the coronavirus began to take a firm grip on the world.

Reflecting on that incident and the impending return of fans, Ismaël said: “The last time (in front of fans) for me was against Manchester United. That was the last day before the pandemic came.

“It was a game without the crowd but it’s a long, long time ago.

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“It’s more than one year now without a crowd and I’m just looking forward to sharing the emotional connection with our fans. It’s the same feeling when you date your wife for the first time! It’s exciting you’re nervous.

“I’m excited for the guys, the possibility to meet each other on Monday. It’s really a great feeling to have such a finish at Oakwell this season.”

Ismaël is hopeful that midfield duo Alex Mowatt and Herbie Kane will be in contention for the visit of Steve Cooper’s side.

Cooper, whose team did the double over the Reds during the regular season, is also looking forward to fans being back in grounds.

Steve Cooper

The Swans will play the second leg next Saturday in front of 3,000 of their own supporters.

“We welcome it… because it has been not as good without them,” Cooper said.

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“When we get people back in, it will be a special moment and I am sure for the people who are lucky enough to come.

“And by the way we will be thinking about the ones who cannot come as well, because it’s going to be a free-for-all in who is lucky enough to be here.

“It will be a special moment and we will be doing our very best to give them something to sing for, something to support, something to cheer on.”

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