BARNSLEY FOOTBALL CLUB have announced the completion of a takeover deal by a consortium led by Chinese billionaire investor Chien Lee and “Moneyball” pioneer Billy Beane.
The group also includes investors Paul Conway, Grace Hung and Neerav Parekh and already owns a controlling stake in French Ligue 1 club Nice who made the Champions League qualification stages last term.
Yet it is the arrival of Billy Beane in Barnsley that has set pulses racing in South Yorkshire.
The takeover ends a period of uncertainty for the Tykes following the announcement in September that chairman of 13 years Patrick Cryne was battling a terminal illness. Few in football could fail to have been moved by Cryne’s open letter to supporters which provided an sobering perspective on the game.
FROM OAKLAND TO OAKWELL
Billy Beane is a former baseball player who’s revolutionary use of statistical data analysis techniques to recruit underperforming and previously overlooked baseball players transformed the fortunes of the Oakland Athletics. In perhaps the ultimate compliment, Brad Pitt was later cast to play him in Moneyball the Hollywood story of how the plucky underdog disruptors took on the sporting establishment.
The Oakwell faithful now hope that Beane can work the same magic in football and help manager Paul Heckingbottom strengthen his relegation threatened Tykes squad in the January transfer window.
Yet successfully identifying ability and shaping that potential into a winning team is far more nuanced affair than in baseball and achieving success in the Championship is a greater challenge for the statisticians and data analysts.
There are no easy ways to tell how well a player will perform at a club and important skills such as speed of thought and decision making are far harder to quantify than physical attributes or how fast a pitcher can throw a ball. Whilst aspects of data analytics have seen success at clubs such as Brentford and Danish upstarts FC Midtjylland, the full Moneyball potential is yet to be fully harnessed in football.
Whilst Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea and Manchester City have shown you can buy Premier League success, there are scores of examples of how new owners with deep pockets did not bring a passport to glory, as Blackburn fans would later witness under the Venkys.
To a certain extent, whilst Barnsley fans can dare to dream, they should also be careful what they wish for.
Famously, Flavio Briatore’s billionaires boy’s club consortium proclaimed a “Four Year Plan” to transform QPR into a force in European football. Loftus Road was branded a “boutique stadium” as the rich and famous took their places in the stands to the growing disenchantment and frustration of the “£20 fans” who had seen Rangers through thick and thin. When Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone sold their stakes in QPR to Air Asia chairman Tony Fernandes, the club then embarked on years of overspending and excess which shook the traditions of a proud club. Following two promotions and relegations from the Premier League, owners and fans alike have been reminded that there are rarely quick fixes or silver bullets in sport that can replace the need to develop a sustainable culture of team work and player development.
The aspirations for Barnsley seems to be more modest and are reassuringly built upon sustainability and those good old fashioned Yorkshire traditions of good honest work ethic and value for money.
Although there may be question marks around how a Moneyball style system of recruitment could work in football, Beane and Barnsley would appear to be a good match of sporting principles especially if they can draw upon the scouting network and experience of their new friends in Nice.
In recent seasons, Barnsley fans have seen local boy John Stones and Alfie Mawson leave for Premier League pastures new, whilst former coach Lee Johnson is now chasing promotion to the promised land with Bristol City. Development as well as acquisition of talent is an area the club will continue to focus on with the added incentive that with raised ambitions, the Tykes may be able to hold onto promising players and build a team capable of returning to the Premier League without falling foul of Financial Fair Play rules.
The takeover by Chien Lee, Beane and the consortium at Barnsley represents one of the most exciting new opportunities in football for some time revolving as it does around a plan that involves more than simply throwing vast amounts of money around.
Barnsley’s immediate prospects have been lifted and depending on the execution of the plan and it’s translation into football, Barnsley fans can look forward with some optimism to a brighter future at Oakwell, so long as there is respect for the club’s heritage and the words “project,” “franchise” and “boutique” are never used.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure, there are exciting times ahead for Barnsley.