An Interview With Cauley Woodrow
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Cauley Woodrow is older than he actually is.
Born in Hemel Hempstead, the Barnsley striker has been on the professional books of six different clubs, was playing in the Premier League almost seven years ago, has represented England at under-17, under-20, and under-21 level, and is currently one of the Championship's top forwards.
His record of nine goals in 23 games so far this campaign makes him the Reds' top scorer, and puts him in joint-seventh on the whole division's goalscoring charts. He's also the top creator at Oakwell, notching four assists for his teammates this term.
But in fact, at just 26 years of age, he hasn't even yet reached what many would consider the peak years of a footballing career.
Our chat, on a rainy Thursday afternoon, takes place - like so much else in this past year - virtually, and over Zoom. As Cauley logs on, I recognise the place he's sat. It's the Oakwell press room, behind the West Stand, and a place I got to visit on a few occasions when I spent December with Barnsley's media team.
It's not actually the first time we've met, although our first encounter was far more fleeting.
Back in December, and shortly after Barnsley had seen off Wycombe by two goals to one in the first experience I had of reporting on the Reds' first team, Cauley joined the media team to give his thoughts post-match, while I watched on. Ever the star-struck football fan, I was then able to grab a quick photo with him as he left.
That night, he'd scored the winning goal, a penalty just after the hour mark, and his unbridled enthusiasm for the game was apparent. This time, I broke the ice by tapping into that same enthusiasm, and asked him for his thoughts on the previous night's 2-2 draw with Cardiff, a game in which he again found the net.
"It's great that we were able to compete against a team like Cardiff, who are probably the biggest, strongest, most aggressive team in the league, and have been for many years.
"Obviously, it's disappointing that we didn't get the win, especially when we fancied ourselves to when we were 2-0 up, but overall I thought it was an important performance for us as a team.
It's hard to disagree that the performances turned out by the current Barnsley side that Cauley occupies a spot in have been positive of late. Under manager Valérien Ismaël, who was appointed in October, they have repeatedly pulled off some impressive results, at one point rising as high as eighth in the league and just three points off the playoffs.
Those results saw Ismaël nominated for December's Championship Manager of the Month, and although he didn't win the award, no one can deny the visible signs of improvement permeating around Oakwell since the Frenchman's arrival. I put it to Cauley that this must be an incredibly exciting team to be a part of?
"For sure!" he smiles. "We have a lot of young players, and we're a relatively new team; a lot of the lads haven't played in this division before last year. Yes, we are a work in progress, but we've come miles and miles since last season.
"We've got a new style of play now under the gaffer, which is really effective for us. We're fully embracing the challenges ahead, and just thoroughly enjoying this season as a team!"
It's interesting that Cauley mentions the new style of play that Ismaël has implemented. He's plied his trade under three different permanent managers since arriving at Oakwell in 2018 - the others being Daniel Stendel and Gerhard Struber - and each new man brings his own philosophy.
How easy is it for him and his teammates to adapt to the new style of play that comes with a change of manager?
"It can definitely be difficult for the first couple of weeks, because obviously you've got used to doing things a certain way, and then another manager comes in and they want to put their own twist on things. Once that settling in time has gone, though, it becomes pretty easy.
Was this latest change from Struber to Ismaël a smooth one?
"We still play a high-pressing style, which is not new for me, it's something I did under Stendel and under [Struber] too, so that similarity made it easier.
"My role has changed a little bit; this season I'm playing as a number nine, whereas last season I played as a ten. We also do play a little differently as a team now, because we have a focus on putting the ball in the channels and getting it forward quickly, but it's an enjoyable way to play, and it's been effective too."
Cauley's unflustered persona, whether it's at the multiple adjustments to tactics he's had to experience or in response to other, bigger, changes, is something that clearly runs through him.
He's similarly relaxed when I ask him how he felt in March 2011, when at only 16 years of age, he moved from then-Conference Luton to the Premier League, joining Fulham.
"It was actually quite an easy transition for me, because I went into the Fulham academy, and I'd had plenty of experience in academy systems before, so I knew how everything worked with regards to that.
"I was only at Luton for a year and a half, mostly in the academy there, and before that, I'd played at Tottenham too." A smile breaks out: "It was great, though, and I thoroughly enjoyed the move!"
It's hardly surprising he remembers his early days at Fulham with such positivity, as, after a short loan spell to League Two Southend United in the 2013/14 season, it was the Cottagers who handed him his Premier League debut. Funnily enough, that was against Cardiff City!
How did he take to top-flight football?
"At the start I was a bit worried, as I'd found League Two quite hard, so coming back from there, I was thinking 'if League Two's hard, then the Premier League will be even harder!' but I actually found it easier, in terms of playing football with the ball on the floor a lot more.
"It was still physical, but it wasn't as aggressive, and it was a lot more tactical. I was really happy with how quickly I settled in, but I was actually quite shocked by how comfortable I found it!"
He certainly did settle in well, getting on the scoresheet on the final day of the season, in a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace, but by then, Fulham had already been relegated.
Unfortunately for Cauley, that relegation meant a period of heavy upheaval at Craven Cottage, and one which saw him largely pushed out of the starting line-up. Over the ensuing two and a half years, he made just 12 league starts for Fulham, including only two after August 2015.
He departed on several loans from January 2017 onwards. First, he headed north to Burton Albion on a short-term deal, scoring five times in 14 appearances, before then going west for a season at Bristol City, where he netted twice in 15 games.
Repeatedly being shipped out on loan can prove mentally stressful, especially for a young player such as Cauley, who was only 22 when he left for Burton. In tough times like that, in any walk of life, it's undeniably extremely important to have support from your friends.
Who does he name as some of his friends in football who were able to help him along the way?
"I'm close with [Tottenham midfielder] Harry Winks when we played together when we were much younger, and I also look up to [current Fulham manager] Scott Parker, who's been a role model for me.
"Scott had an unbelievable career, so I've been able to learn a lot off him, but it's those sort of people that I like to chat with about football."
Things did begin to become more certain, and thus easier, in August 2018, when Cauley dropped a division to move to Oakwell, initially on loan, but with the very real prospect of a permanent deal in the offing.
Having found a rich vein of form while only a loanee, scoring seven times in 12 games, he did finally depart Fulham permanently when Barnsley signed him on a two-and-a-half-year deal in that season's January window.
He went on to finish that campaign with 19 goals in 36 appearances as the Reds memorably returned to the Championship at the first time of asking.
What he was thinking at that point of his career, when he was repeatedly leaving on loan to a host of different destinations, is particularly interesting. Did he want to fight for his place at Fulham, or did he feel a fresh start was the best option?
"A fresh start was 100% the right thing for me. It wasn't in terms of me not being good enough to be at Fulham, but more just the fact that managers wanted a clear-out of players.
"I thought it was a great opportunity for me to drop down and play more regularly to prove myself."
What was it about Oakwell specifically that drew him in?
"I knew there had been interest from Barnsley in the past because when they were in the Championship the season before they were looking at a loan for me. I knew they were going for promotion, which was definitely something I was interested in.
"I thought I could play a lot of football by coming here, which thankfully I have, and yes, it's been a great move for me!"
And so we come full circle, with Cauley's arrival in South Yorkshire the start of a successful spell that has seen him net 45 goals in 106 games (https://www.soccerbase.com/players/player.sd?player_id=57719).
He's immensely popular with the fans, having received multiple player of the month awards in the two-and-a-half years he's been at the club. He now has a very big tie to look forward to in the near future, when Barnsley take on Chelsea and new manager Thomas Tuchel in the FA Cup next week.
What's the mood in the Reds camp like ahead of that game?
"I think it'll be quite a different game to when we played them earlier this season at Stamford Bridge [in September, Barnsley were defeated 6-0 by a strong Chelsea side in the League Cup].
"The pitch here is pretty cut up at the moment, which hopefully will stop them from playing their pretty football that they'll probably want to play!" He laughs: "Obviously, we have to respect them, they've got a great team, but we're all really looking forward to it.
"We'll be right up for it, just like we're up for every single game, and we'll give it a right go to try and beat them!"
That deep passion Cauley has for the game shone through once more as we discussed the Chelsea tie, and I have no doubt the Blues will meet a young, fired-up Barnsley side. That game will be broadcast live on BBC1 at 8pm next Thursday, the 11th of February.
I want to thank Cauley, very much, for taking the time to speak to me. The insight he offers speaks to me more deeply than a journalist; it's fascinating to hear from him simply as a football fan, and I hope many other football fans find it equally interesting. I wish him and the Reds all the very best in this season and beyond.
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