Daryl Dike might have known his time in Yorkshire was destined to be something special from how it began. The day after his first cap for the US men's national team, the Orlando City striker was flying out to Barnsley to complete a move to the English Championship side. Ten days later he was taking to the field for the first time against Chelsea, the club he grew up idolizing from Edmond, Oklahoma.
"You go through training really hard so you can play in your first national team cap and then all of a sudden you're flying out to Barnsley to start a new life, a new experience," Dike tells CBS Sports. "It was great. It is great.
"For me, it's something that changed my life, and it's something that I'm super thankful for. It's just, I don't know, it's just crazy, because think about how much happened in such a short period.
"Suddenly you're jogging next to [Chelsea striker Olivier] Giroud, you're guarding [N'Golo] Kante and you're like, 'wow, this is crazy.' You almost get starstruck.
"I've grown up watching these guys and now I'm playing alongside them. It's just a phenomenal experience."
It may have been a moment that Dike could not have seen coming but for former D.C. United and New York Cosmos midfielder Dane Murphy, now the CEO of Barnsley, it was the end of a delicately executed transfer swoop that began with changes to the UK's work permit for footballers in the wake of the UK's exit from the European Union.
Called up to Gregg Berhalter's squad just before his 21st birthday, if Dike took to the field in a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago he would earn 16 points on the English Football Association's guidelines, just one more than the minimum required, and with it the Tykes could be assured he would get the green light to join them for the second half of the season.
"I'd kept it very close to the vest for a long time because I knew there was interest outside of the MLS market in Daryl and I didn't want to sort of tip my hand as to it becoming a possibility because it was a last second move," says Murphy. "I don't think anyone else knew that when he stepped on the field he met the criteria. I knew if it got out, we would be outbid or something would happen.
"We got in contact [with Orlando and Dike's representatives], we drew everything up. We stayed up until the middle of the night to see Daryl enter the field in the second half and as soon as that happened, we filed all our paperwork. The next morning he was on a plane."
The rest could very much be history for Barnsley. Dike would not accept that he alone has been the man to propel the Yorkshire club to the upper echelons of the Championship but his addition has certainly helped. Since his arrival Valerien Ismael's side have won 10, drawn two and lost one of their fixtures including a run of seven victories that ought to be impossible in a league as competitive as English football's second tier.
Dike has scored seven goals in that period, including the decisive brace that earned Barnsley a 2-1 win at Luton Town that has them fifth in the Championship with six games remaining, in position for a play off berth that could bring promotion to the Premier League. A year ago this team were moored at the bottom of the division as COVID-19 hit and their new No.10 had recently gone fifth in the MLS draft.
Now Dike finds himself the subject of interest from the upper echelons of the Premier League as Murphy and his staff plan for the possibility of playing alongside those teams for the second time in Barnsley's history. It is a remarkable rise.
"In such a short amount of time, my life has changed in ways that I couldn't even have imagined," says Dike. "If you told me two years ago that I'd be where I am today, I would have laughed at you.
"But at the same time, I look forward and know that there's so much more that I want to do. There's so many more things I want to experience. There's so many ways I got to grow as a footballer, as a person.
"It's only been 18 months, my career could be another 10-15 years and for all I know it could be completely different in another 18 months. I keep going and keep my head down, stay humble and enjoy myself."
Dike has certainly found the right environment to develop. His skillset is well-suited to the Championship and he relishes the physical challenges that come against opponents such as Millwall and Wycombe Wanderers. There is more to his game than just winning headers -- though he does a lot of that -- and he has shown an impressive ability to find his spot on the field, just inside the penalty area on the right corner of the box, from where he has scored similar goals against Luton and Stoke City.
"With previous coaches, they always said have some shots, some methods, some type of trick up your sleeve, to know that this is kind of your secret weapon," he says. "I'm not going to lie, I've worked on that a lot. I still have so much to work on, so much to get better on. But I'm just more comfortable, I think, around that area."
Dike's scoring form is another success story for Barnsley's recruitment department, which on a relative shoestring in the second tier has propelled the Tykes within nine games of the Premier League. From players such as Ethan Pinnock to former manager Gerhard Struber, a club of their financial means will inevitably have to lose out on key figures to richer rivals.
The loss of key center back Pinnock to Brentford and Struber to New York Red Bulls are the sort of moments that can send existential shockwaves through the squad. Instead Barnsley have acquired new personnel who can swiftly integrate into the setup; Mads Andersen has excelled since his move from midtable Danish side Horsens while head coach Ismael is widely admired by staff, players and fans.
The Championship play-off race
That Barnsley have a relatively high success rate in replacing players and staff speaks to a defined system into which any new recruit must fit with a data-first process highlighting the right figures to take the club forward.
Murphy explains: "The reason we're able to have success is because we have a style of play that is club-driven, we recruit head coaches, based off of data, in that style of play and that approach, and we have set guidelines in saying, 'Okay, this player can perform at this level and has the ability to play within the style that we want to play and we think they can compete at the Championship level.'
"The nice thing about our model, and the thing that I think continues to allow us to be flexible and valuable when certain things change, we know, no matter who the coaches or the players are, our basic principles is going to be a high pressing team that runs for 90 minutes, that puts the other team on the backfoot, creates a lot of chances in the opposing half… If it's a very talented team or not as talented, a young team or an old team we're going to put them on the backfoot for 90 minutes, so that we are putting the risk on them."
That is the theoretical explanation but their success is not solely down to their philosophy. It is the players that make it work; a youthful, multi-national group that have formed the tightest of bonds and have provided a beacon not just at Oakwell but to the town of Barnsley over the past year.
Murphy says: "When you go on a run like this and you see a young group of men, led by Valerien and his staff, have this attitude that we are a band of brothers and we are growing up together and we are taking the next step in our career, in our lives together. The positive attitude and the smiles and the laughs become infectious.
"Our ground has our training fields, our stadium, all of our staff, front office, first team staff account, everyone's in the same place. So very quickly it seeps throughout the organization that if the first team is doing well, that's one thing, but if the climate and the atmosphere is so positive that everyone is enjoying every day that they wake up, it just makes things so much easier. So the hard tasks and the difficult tasks: planning for the next season and getting through a pandemic and having financial strains pop up, left, right, and center becomes so much easier to manage, because you're all you're all headed at this true north together."
For Dike, who had never travelled to the UK before he boarded a flight to Barnsley, having that camaraderie whilst an ocean separates him from his family has doubtless helped with the culture shocks that come from trading in the Florida sunshine for the drizzle of the Dearne Valley. "The family that we have built around each other means we go into every game knowing that we fight for each other. We know that we have each other's backs, and it shows us on the field."
How much longer Dike remains with that family has been a subject of much speculation since his goal rush began. Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja said the 20-year-old would return to MLS at the end of the season unless "something exceptional happens" but that is very much what is happening with half of the Premier League having scouts at Barnsley's recent draw with Reading to watch the striker among others.
Everton, Leeds United and an unnamed member of the Premier League's 'big six' have all been credited with an interest in the USMNT star with Orlando reported to have set a $20million price tag for his sale. "For now, I don't really focus on that," says Dike. "I try to block it out and focus on what I can do today to better myself tomorrow."
Blocking out thoughts of what might happen next season is a luxury not available to Murphy however as Ismael and his staff negotiate the final six games of the league campaign and a potential playoff battle for promotion. It is by no means guaranteed, the five teams battling for four spots are separated by just five points with six or seven games left this season, but seasoned observers of the Championship will know that Barnsley have that most precious of commodities at his stage of the season: momentum.
Less than a year ago Murphy, his fiancée, and club secretary Taymour Roushdi were the sole Barnsley representatives in the stands for a do-or-die match at Brentford's Griffin Park. Defeat for the Tykes would have promoted Brentford and sent his side back to League One. It is at least a more pleasant form of contingency planning to be considering whether his side will have a Premier League or Championship budget next season.
"I've tried to sidestep and skirt this question a few times but of course we have started planning [for promotion]," Murphy acknowledges. "We as a club, in this structure have to plan for any eventuality because we run on thin margins. And we know we don't have the resource or a spending capability to make up for mistakes that we haven't planned for.
"It can get exhausting and it's expensive in the time it takes. But that being said it's exciting, to be in the position that we are with the club and with our personnel, it's something you want to plan for."
How would that next day look if, come June 1, Barnsley have won the Championship play off final, the most lucrative fixture in the sport? "Hectic I think is putting it politely. Yeah, I think it would be an onslaught of work and sort of just a manic time for everyone at the club. That being said, we would very much welcome it."
For Dike and Barnsley this has been a season of pleasant surprises. It no longer seems beyond the realms of possibilities that it ends with the biggest and most welcome yet.