Don’t feel bad about having to run to Wikipedia to study up on the Orlando City striker’s home for the next six months. Even the most devoted Tykes supporter would likely concede that they’re not a big fish. Located in a modest town between Leeds and Sheffield, Barnsley spent a solitary season in the Premier League 25 years ago and have floated between English soccer’s second and third divisions in this century. Their highest honor to date is an FA Cup triumph way back in 1912 and they currently sit 12th in the English Championship.
But there’s a distinct American flavor around the club now – and a clear plan, crafted by an MLS alum, to punch above their weight in a way they hope will eventually carry them to the promised land of the Premier League.
Three years ago a new ownership consortium which also controls OGC Nice (France), FC Thun (Switzerland) and KV Oostende (Belgium) took over Barnsley, including one Billy Beane, of Oakland A's and “Moneyball” fame. Then in July of 2019 the group hired Dane Murphy away from D.C. United to take up the CEO position at the relatively tender age of 33.
Their plan may look familiar to those who’ve watched the New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City prosper in MLS in recent years. Ruthlessly competitive, the Championship is littered with clubs great and small vying for a precious place in the EPL, the world’s richest league. Money is splashed freely, even desperately. Front offices, many of them spending beyond their means, churn through managers and players relentlessly.
Amid all that wealth and waste, Barnsley are seeking sustainability, particularly in the face of the daunting financial shortfalls imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's a project of trying to do things a little bit differently,” Murphy explained in an in-depth conversation with MLSsoccer.com late last year. “It starts with our recruitment, and our sort of data-driven ability to bring in players and coaches that fit a certain model. We feel if it's club-driven, the way we want to play, the type of players we recruit, type of coaches we bring in, then if there's turnover, you don't have to change the baseline, you don't have to change the infrastructure. You're just shifting out parts.”
Taking a cue from the likes of Jurgen Klopp and the Red Bull global empire, Barnsley have adopted the high press, embraced analytics and focused on young talent that can be cultivated for sell-on value. Build a stable foundation there, the thinking goes, and a sustained promotion push can follow.
“We feel young players can grow into that system and find their way in any club that plays a different formation or have different tactics,” said Murphy. “It's the best thing for us to be competitive against these sort of Goliath teams with a lot of talent, a lot of money. If we can put them under pressure, create as many chances as we can, we can compete week in, week out.”
That approach has fostered unexpected connections back to MLS, even before Dike's arrival. A year ago Barnsley hired Gerhard Struber as their manager and despite spending nearly the entire season in the relegation zone, the Austrian doggedly led the Tykes on a great escape capped by a dramatic upset last-day win over Brentford to keep their place in the Championship. A few months later the Red Bulls came calling, and eventually pried Struber away from Murphy & Co., paying a reported seven-figure sum to extricate him from his Barnsley contract and make him RBNY’s next head coach.
“We had a very good coach and a great person. We wanted him to stay because we felt under him, we could build off of the miracle of last season, and really compete this year,” said Murphy of Struber.
“He is so good with younger players and keeping the temperature of the team where it needs to be. Not once last year did he falter in saying, ‘we're going to stay in the league,’ even when it looked impossible. And you do that over and over and you say it enough, everyone starts to believe it. And we felt at some point last year that, Gerhard believes this, and we're playing these teams that are 10x our spending ability and are fighting for promotion, and he still really believes this, why can't we all believe it? … the New York Red Bulls fan base and the club is going to get a guy who will put everything he can into it.”
Conversely, Barnsley would love to lure some North American talent across the pond to join them. Last year they placed a transfer bid for Reggie Cannon in the months leading up to the fullback’s move from FC Dallas to Boavista. So far the MLSers they’ve pursued have been priced out of their reach – Orlando's reported valuation of Dike is probably beyond their means in terms of a permanent transfer – while UK work permitting remains a challenge.
But the Tykes are keen on the league’s emerging export market and Murphy is routinely peppered with questions about his homeland by colleagues across Europe.
“Everyone over here is watching. I'm not the only one following it closely,” he said. “It only takes sometimes now two or three good games from a young American player, young Canadian player, for it to flare up on Sky News, and me to get a ping from someone in Germany or Spain saying, do you know about this boy? So now the eye of Europe is looking towards MLS more so than ever to find their next generation of talent. And that will only help the league.
“One thing I’ve found is that as the players have gotten better in Europe,” he added, “Americans or Canadians coming in and making an impact, there's now less of the ‘Bob Bradley says PKs, he uses the wrong verbiage,’ and ‘Dane has a funny accent and talks about other American sports.’ There's less of that now because as the players do well, and as Jesse Marsh does well, then ‘oh OK, Americans know what they're talking about.’ Very funny how that works.”
Murphy has encountered plenty of that suspicion himself. The former MLS and NASL midfielder is still fresh-faced enough to be mistaken for a player, and Americans in a post like his remain unusual in the sport’s ancestral home. He got a striking reminder of that after one of the first English Football League board meetings he attended, when the CEO of a big club that’s now competing in the Premier League approached him to offer compliments on his contributions to the conversations.
Dane Murphy in his playing days as a member of the New York Cosmos. The 33-year-old is currently the technical director for Barnsley FC after stints in MLS front offices with Real Salt Lake and D.C. United. | Reuters
“He said, ‘I didn't even think you would know that there were three divisions in the EFL,’” recalled Murphy. “And I laughed, and he laughed. And he said, ‘No, but seriously, I thought you were just this new kid who was placed in this position and you would have to learn everything, like the alphabet.’”
US and Canadian soccer fans have for decades been following the exploits of Yanks and Canucks performing in Europe’s top leagues. More recently the likes of Jesse Marsch have opened up new possibilities on the coaching front, and a steady stream of North Americans are investing in clubs abroad. As Murphy’s experiences illustrate, the influx has been slower at the executive level, however – which makes him, and his club, a fascinating case.
“In the end, we're all tribes, and the quote-unquote British tribe, or the English, just feel so strongly that this is their sport,” added Murphy, who also worked for the New York Cosmos and Real Salt Lake before crossing the pond. “And when this American, funny-accent young kid comes over, what does he know that the general populace doesn't? Any guy on the street can do his job.
“So there is definitely a bias and it's ingrained, it's built in. It's not malicious in any way. It's just, there is a feeling that if Americans come in, and they can do a better job or an equal job to someone who's British, are they treading on our turf and our national pastime?”
Murphy is already proving he can do the job in England's cutthroat win-or-bust Championship. Now he has given one of the U.S.' top striking prospects a chance to do the same.