New film Daydream Believers documents the highs and lows of Barnsley's 1997-98 campaign, with one particular refereeing performance at Oakwell still riling fans to this day
4 February ~ Football matches slip quickly from memory. Only occasionally does the mood or atmosphere of a particular game linger. On Saturday March 28, 1998, Barnsley lost 3-2 against Liverpool. As is detailed in Daydream Believers, the excellent documentary about the club’s season in the Premier League, three members of the home side were sent off. Fans ran on the pitch to attack the referee, Gary Willard, and players had to help stewards and police wrestle them to the soil. After the game, sirens wailed all round Oakwell and glass could be heard smashing.
I was there. As a fan and journalist I have attended thousands of matches but it remains, by some distance, the most extraordinary and the strangest. Earlier in the film, the club’s manager Danny Wilson says: "Barnsley has a typical working-class crowd. They like you to roll your sleeves up and have a really good go." They were doing just that until that chilly March day but as Willard ostentatiously issued a red card at every Barnsley misdeed while waving play on gleefully as Liverpool players hacked and whacked, the Oakwell crowd collectively stirred in bafflement and rising anger.
In Willard, they saw authority exerting undue and unfair influence. These ex-miners and sons of ex-miners were reminded of a recent past still sore and angry. They saw Willard as an emissary of a powerful elite (the Premier League or one of its sponsors, no one was quite sure) much the same as police officers who had done Margaret Thatcher's bidding as she razed the coal industry. The conspiracy theories seemed paranoid and melodramatic to those outside Barnsley. I've often reflected on that eerie afternoon and resolved that Willard’s “performance” (the word fits) was either gross ineptitude, or an act of public masochism with a tinge of megalomania.
The film reveals two hitherto unknown episodes from that mad day. One of the pitch invaders was an old pal of Barnsley defender Nicky Eaden (the goalie who had played in the same junior team as him, no less) and Jan Age Fjortoft had a fight in the tunnel with Liverpool’s Paul Ince. "I wanted everyone to have a go at them [the Liverpool players] because of the injustice of it all," he says. The match footage reveals another incident. In such a cauldron of unrest, Steve McManaman unnecessarily and irresponsibly fist pumps after scoring the winning goal. In small gestures, how people are revealed.
Before the defeat against Liverpool and an inexorable slide to relegation – the team took only four points from their final seven games – Barnsley’s first season in the top-flight after 110 years of toil had been a joy. There were inevitable drubbings but there were victories that delighted the whole nation. A 1-0 win at Liverpool was precipitated by a squad visit to a pub the night before with the instruction to "have one or two pints". Across two heady, delirious nights at Oakwell they beat Manchester United and Tottenham on their way to an FA Cup quarter-final. And they had in their ranks genuine personalities.
Ex-chairman John Dennis sums up the club’s arrival at the top level better than anyone: "We’ve brought unalloyed joy to this poor benighted town." Meanwhile a team-mate refers to John Hendrie, who later managed the club, as "slightly overweight with bandy legs". Hendrie’s pale blue eyes are flushed with happiness as he remembers his FA Cup goals but fall sad when he recalls the stroke suffered by his late father.
Fans and local MPs have their say eloquently and passionately. "Barnsley’s fans are rough on the edge but warm on the inside," notes Dutch defender Arjan de Zeeuw. The word "adventure" is spoken often and it is clear the season was viewed in such a way. There is sadness and disappointment that it was short-lived but a sense that they knew it probably would be and, even at the time, were purposefully banking every incident, every episode and all the emotions in between. At the end of the film Danny Wilson makes one of those statements that falls between the profound and prosaic. "You can’t buy memories and they can’t be taken away," he says, and nearly smiles. Mark Hodkinson
Photo by Colorsport: Neil Redfearn celebrates a Premier League goal for Barnsley in 1998