Less than 20 years ago, Barnsley and Rotherham were eyeball to eyeball. Richard Darn examines how it ll went right for the Tykes and wrong for the Millers

I’ve always had difficulty understanding Charles Darwin and all that Origin of the Species stuff. How on earth could a hare and a tortoise be descended from the same creature? Then one day it suddenly dawned on me. Once upon a time Barnsley FC were just like Rotherham United – and now they’re not.

It’s an odd fact that the Millers represent Barnsley’s nearest geographical opponents (ten miles) and yet no one at Oakwell has regarded them as serious rivals for two decades. Not only have the Reds spent most of that time in different divisions, but local venom has been variously directed at the Sheffield clubs and Leeds United. It’s also true that people feel a certain degree of sympathy for Rotherham in their struggle to sway local youths away from the Big Mac sports of ice hockey and basketball on offer at nearby Sheffield Arena. The club’s only media ex­posure in recent years has been on League of Gentlemen, where one of Royston Vasey’s warped residents wears a Millers shirt.

Rotherham and Barnsley are clubs of very similar character (both towns have pop­ulations of 200,000), but they now face each other across a huge financial gulf. Whisp­ers of a Premier League second division and tough, perhaps even non-existent, promotion conditions, have sent more shudders through the Mill­moor faithful. The Millers don’t punch their weight these days, but in the decades after the Second World War they totally eclipsed Barnsley. In 1955 Rotherham narrowly failed to join the elite on goal difference and 17 postwar seasons up to 1981 were spent in the old Second Division, compared with just 11 for the Tykes. Barnsley drew some crowds below 2,000 in the Sixties and sank as low as 16th in the old Fourth Division.

Coincidentally, Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 saw both clubs revive. Barnsley climbed out of the Fourth Division and within a couple of years scrambled back into the Second. The Millers, fired by the likes of Gerry Gow, Ronnie Moore (now manager) and Tony Towner, won the old Third Div­ision championship in 1981, with Barnsley runners-up. The fol­lowing season the two teams met in the Second Div­ision for the first time since the Fif­ties. By year’s end the Reds were sixth and Rotherham sev­enth. That could have been lift-off, but it wasn’t – the Millers went straight down again.

The whirlwind of job losses from the “rationalisation” of the steel industry – which left hundreds of acres of land der­elict and sent the un­employment rate soaring to 16 per cent – couldn’t have come at a worse time. By 1987 debts were approaching £1 million and Rotherham’s notorious chairman Anton Johnson jumped ship. Local scrap merchant Ken Booth moved in, delighting the head­line writers.

Over at Oakwell, the genius of Allan Clarke in sparking the Reds’ revival failed to rub off on his successor, Norman Hunter. Average crowds of 17,000 created expectations beyond his powers and he was duly sacked in 1983. Unlike Rotherham, however, Barnsley stayed in the Second Division. Subsequent events proved this stickability to be crucial but at the time it scarcely seemed to matter. The devastating miners’ strike ravaged the crowds, down to 6,000 by the mid-1980s, and the board announced the club was on the brink of extinction. Severe cost cutting and a lottery put the bailiffs off the scent and more astute management by Allan Clarke in his second spell ensured the Reds steered clear of the Millers’ fate.

What followed sent the clubs on totally different paths. When the Taylor Report imposed much tougher ground conditions on the top divisions, the Barnsley board naturally baulked at the expense. But the threat of stadium closure focused minds and generous Football Trust grants lubricated the club’s bank account. After decades of peeing at the back of the Brewery Stand, fans were soon to enjoy soap and hot water as Oakwell was dragged from the Stone Age.

The club instantly recognised the cheerier implications of Taylor as the same crowd yielded greater revenue through higher admission prices. Then along came Danny Wilson to finish off the work started by Clarke 20 years before. As Premiership riches added to the bounty, Millers fans could only stare and reflect on what might have been as sibling rivalry was replaced by vulgar inequality.

Before Barnsley embarked on their top flight odyssey, they played a pre-season friendly at Millmoor to inaugurate Ronnie Moore’s new regime. “Going down” sang the Rotherham fans, but then at least Barnsley had a division to go down from. The Merry Millers were embarking on another year in the base­ment with fixtures against Frickley and Gateshead awaiting any further failure.

It’s tempting to look for complicated reasons why Oakwell and Millmoor have evolved so differently after years of trading players and places.True, Barnsley have had a more stable boardroom and sacked half the number of managers over the past two decades. But a simpler answer presents itself – it’s all a matter of chance. The 1990s were a good time to be successful and the Tykes were in the right place at the right time.The upshot has seen the club spending more on its new academy (£1.5 million) than Rotherham put into ground improvements.

Things at Millmoor are looking up after last sea­son’s promotion. But a much more radical solution is required to bridge an ever-widening gap. The Don Valley is well on its way to regeneration after the rubble-strewn Eighties. Banks, insurance companies, car showrooms and shopping malls have sprung up. But Millmoor, for all its homespun charm and terrace humour, remains the same – a venue unlikely to excite any but the most committed fans.

At Bradford, Barnsley and Huddersfield ground redevelopment has been a catalyst for progress on the pitch. But finding funds to make the great leap forward in a cash-strapped town is tough. A more enlightened distribution of TV monies and the repeal of Bosman would help. More likely is Jack Walker discovering his birth certificate was forged and that he actually hails from Mexborough.

From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month

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