Leon Wobschall: The inside story of Daniel Stendel's reign at Barnsley
Yorkshire Post writer reflects on incoming Hearts boss during his time at Oakwell
Daniel Stendel was pretty much a left-field punt after Barnsley had been relegated to League One in 2018 and he ended up becoming arguably the club’s most popular manager since Danny Wilson.
The club had just gone down to the third tier under Jose Morais, Paul Heckingbottom’s successor, and nobody knew what way they owners would turn. After the appointment of Morais didn’t work out, most thought they would be pragmatic and bring in a manager who knew the English game but they went for Stendel which was a bit of a curve-ball.
It transpired that the club had actually decided they wanted to play high-press transitional football before they appointed the manager, so that narrowed down the prospective candidates and that’s where Stendel came into contention. It think it helped him that he arrived in the close-season so he was able to get his ideas and methods across to the players in pre-season. Straight away, they all spoke about how excellent a coach he was. He was a really hands-on figure who livened everything up immediately and got rid of the dark clouds lingering after relegation.
The fans warmed to him straight away. He came across as an ordinary guy, a man of the people, and a lot of the players who had struggled in the relegation season suddenly came into their own.
Barnsley hit the ground running under him. They had a really strong home record - they didn’t lose at Oakwell in the whole of last season - and they also had the best defensive record in the whole of the EFL last term. Daniel was very keen on having defensive strength and organisation and pressing teams with high energy, but when they had the ball it was all about attacking teams with fast-paced football.
Over the season, football-wise, they did bits of both. There were times when they had to grind things out but there were other games where they went away to Rochdale and won 4-0 and they did the same at Peterborough in a top-of-the-table game. The players really enjoyed working under him. They kept it tight at the back and scored a lot of goals. Even at time when they had a few injuries and suspensions, they managed to handle that. It was a strong promotion race they were in with the likes of Luton, Portsmouth, Sunderland and Charlton, but Barnsley had a very strong second half to the season and managed to hold their nerve to go up automatically. It was a really tremendous, consistent season. At the end of that campaign, there was genuine hope that if they could keep the squad together they could go up and do okay in the Championship.
Unfortunately, the problems started to arise in the summer when they lost some of their best players and didn’t adequately replace them. Barnsley generally don’t buy any players over the age of 23. The owners prefer to get them in young with a view to selling them on in a few years. I remember Daniel speaking at his first pre-season gathering in the summer and he spoke cryptically about his concerns that the squad didn’t have enough Championship experience. He accepted their preferred approach of bringing in younger players but I think he felt that bringing in two or three experienced ones would have massively helped, especially as he was also having to contend with losing his two leading centre-backs, Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock, as well as his goalkeeping captain Adam Davies. In essence, three of his back five who had done so well last season were gone just like that, and the replacements were young players from abroad who had promise but had no experience of the Championship. Daniel went along with it but he was obviously very concerned.
They actually started the season really well by beating Fulham but then they hit the type of bad run which Stendel had probably envisaged since the summer. The lack of experience in the squad became like the elephant in the room. It was clear there were tensions behind the scenes and that culminated in him leaving in October. In his last press conference, after the 5-1 defeat against Preston North End, he said something that implied it was like working with a youth team. He was obviously exasperated and getting towards the end of his tether. They were actually playing reasonably well at times but they were getting punished for silly mistakes and it was becoming a case of “same old story”.
When he was sacked, the majority of the fans were pretty upset because he still had a lot of credit in the bank. I think most of them agreed with his sentiments about the lack of experience. If the club had been a bit more streetwise and brought in a bit more experience, I think its fair to say they would have been in a better position. Even though Daniel ultimately paid the price for it, he left with his stock still high in the eyes of supporters. He really enjoyed it at Barnsley, it was a special period in his life. His family stayed in Germany and Daniel had a flat in Barnsley. He was big about the connnection between the team and the town and the supporters. He really seemed to get the club. He understood that the supporters had that working-class ethos of wanting a team that gave everything, and I think that probably resonated with where he was from in East Germany. As well as turning the club around on the pitch, he connected with the town and became one of the most popular managers the club has had for a long time.
His coaching philosophy and his ethos is suited to British football so I’m not surprised that he’s returning to the game in the UK. He might not have a great deal of knowledge of Scottish football but I dare say he probably didn’t have a lot of knowledge of League One and Barnsley yet he still breezed through the doors and did a fantastic job.
From a journalist’s perspective, he was a good guy to deal with. When he first arrived, his English wasn’t the best so that side of it was a bit of a work in progress, but it got better. He was a really personable, passionate guy. His assistants, Dale Tonge and Christopher Stern, are also good lads. Daniel Stendel is a top guy and a good coach, and it will be interesting to see how he fares at Hearts.