Unknown pleasures

Barnsley were becoming the neutral's favourite team, but Richard Darn explains how this put their fans in an odd position

Spring – according to the Met office – came early this year, and crops and insects are totally confused. They’ve got my sympathy. The other day I queued for my first-ever season ticket (£215) to watch Barnsley play in the Premiership – and it was still only April with one more game to play in the Nationwide League.

Promotion has come as a massive shock to a town built on conspiracy theories. The directors didn’t want promotion, they said, and somehow would manufacture a fall from grace come December. I’ve never believed that, but I can see why it became an oddly comforting mantra. After all, by the law of averages we should have been able to get in the top flight at least once in 100 years – unless that is we are genetically programmed to be crap. Much better to believe that human scapegoats are to blame in the shape of complacent directors puffing on cigars.

Things have been on the move at Oakwell for a few years and it quickly became apparent that the team was more than capable of going up this time. But the wave of emotion that accompanied the crucial victory against Bradford was a surprise.

When stewards start smiling because they are genuinely happy – and not grinning inanely as a prelude to chucking you out of the ground – then you know something remarkable has happened.

No longer would sporting anoraks try to out-compete each other by asking which is the only FA Cup winning side that’s never played at the top level. “Tykery” – as the Independent put it – has become fashionable and amazingly associated with success.

 It’s easy to be flippant about the press coverage concerning Barnsley’s elevation, with its constant allusions to cloth caps, cobbles and pit head gear (there were 52 accredited photographers at the Bradford game). Arthur Scargill was the only professional Yorkshireman not asked for a comment – to my knowledge he has no interest in football, and was not about to become a revisionist now the bunting was being rigged-up. A New Labour councillor filled-in for Arthur by tactfully suggesting that “bodies must be spinning in the town’s cemetery at the shock of it all”.

But for the most part the national press got it just about right – this was obviously a defining moment. I’ve never seen people as moved as they were at that game. Not just after the result you understand – but before the kick-off. It might sound a bit naff, but a full-throated rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ actually produced a flood of tears.

No longer did I want to annihilate Bradford – in fact I’d- sooner have had a sing-song with their fans, swap anecdotes about The Shay and Spotland, and celebrate the camaraderie of the so-called small clubs.

But I did feel the weight of both history and the deep affection local people have for their town, stoked by the fact that to outsiders it can seem wart-ridden. Perhaps I’d just discovered what solidarity is.

Fans were also deeply moved by the support from around the country for Barnsley – it seemed whether the club wanted it or not, they were carrying a banner for the bulk of the League and saying something about the way finance is consuming the game. Alan Sugar’s recent observation that “football will remain our core activity” really doesn’t require further comment.

Oddly enough, though – aside from the sentimentality – I’ve got mixed feelings about promotion. On the one hand I’m delighted the team has proved that good football can triumph against the forces of darkness (Wolves and Sheffield United), but on the other I’m not looking forward to forking out substantial sums of cash to subsidise star players suffering from media over-exposure.

A wonderful innocence went after the final whistle: what on earth were we going to do without a belief in something beyond the horizon, some Eldorado? After 100 years of travel, had we really arrived? And what was I going to do as a hardened critic of the”greedy” Premiership now that it was Big Macs before kick-off and heated concourses?

We often wondered why First Division clubs aspired to scrap around the top flight for years like Southampton or Coventry, lurching from one crisis to the next, with seemingly little hope. Wimbledon’s Faustian Pact with the devil, in which top-flight survival is exchanged for sterile football, is no inspiration either.

Perhaps it won’t come to that. If the Reds are banking on staying up for just three seasons – autumn, winter and spring – then a swift return to more familiar pastures will soon come. And I’ll buy a pint once again for that incredibly depressed Tranmere fan in the Prenton Park pub (you really need counselling).

But no one – least of all him – should rely on that, for Danny Wilson is an excellent manager. Far better than most of the current crop in the Premiership and in his humble demeanour – “I’m still a novice with plenty to learn” – he will probably by-pass the England manager’s job and go straight to the Vatican as Pope.

There probably isn’t an answer to this dilemma – you want your team to win all its games and make history, but you are not so certain the Premiership is where you want to be. One possibility is that the Barnsley chairman could write to Sir John Quinten and say thanks for the offer of joining the élite, but on the whole we’d rather stick with our mates lower down. Send the cash anyway.

But after much contemplation I’ve decided to let next season look after itself. For in footballing terms the Reds’ success has come with glowing credentials – it’s been really fun to watch. Precise football outwitted the carpet bombing philosophy of Wolves (why do their players shave their heads, but not their chins?) and an excellent coaching policy bore fruit with half the side being one-club players.

Although the problems of going up are only too obvious, hopefully the excellent management of the club will make the most of the opportunities. Perhaps the key is to use the Sky cash to improve Oakwell further – away fans should go to the toilet before they get to the ground – and also establish the centre of excellence the club plans with the aim of getting children as young as eight years old on a sensitive coaching path.

That – rather than spending futile millions to retain top division status at all costs – is the best way to commemorate a day few ever expected to see. It might even stop the bodies rotating in the cemetery. 

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month