It was a fairy tale nobody believed would ever be written. And Barnsley was a town where nobody believed it would be set.
Yet, as the clock ticked down on 26 April 1997, the distant dream was about to be realised. All Barnsley needed were three more points to guarantee their place in the Premiership. Leading 1-0 against lowly Bradford City with only minutes left to play, the Tykes were well on their way to their first ever promotion to the top flight.
Oakwell was packed to the rafters with a sea of red shirts, each one worn by an expectant Yorkshireman, bellowing his support towards their unlikely heroes in front of them. They were on the verge of greatness, although nobody wanted to accept the inevitability.
There had been too many disappointments in the past; not enough happy endings in Barnsley to make this time any different to the rest.
Then the clouds of uncertainty lifted. Captain Neil Redfearn collected the ball in the middle of the field, turned and slipped a pass into Clint Marcelle, before the Trinidadian shimmied from one side to the next and drove a low strike into the net for 2-0. Cue delirium.
That would be enough to secure promotion and, with it, unleash an outpouring of pent-up emotion that went far deeper than football. Barnsley’s underdog success represented so much more than simply an old-fashioned club from a rough-around-the-edges town gate-crashing the glamour of the Premiership.
Left decimated by the colliery closures that swept across the UK throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Barnsley was on its knees. The south Yorkshire town embodied the collateral left behind by industrial disputes which saw the nation’s coal industry shut down.
Within a decade, more than 30,000 jobs that supported the town’s population were gone – leaving poverty and a lack of hope in their wake. And for many people in Barnsley, their incredible promotion to English football’s top table in 1997 was the first thing to breathe pride into the area since.
There was no sign of what was to come when Danny Wilson took over from former England star Viv Anderson two years earlier. Wilson was an untested young boss who’d joined the Tykes under Anderson, and despite impressing the Oakwell hierarchy enough to earn a chance as number one, his appointment was still branded as a “gamble” by chairman John Dennis.
But as the Tykes chalked up five successive victories to kick off the 1996/97 campaign, Wilson appeared to be on to something. He led Barnsley to top spot at Christmas, although not many experts expected them to stay there.
Spearheaded by irrepressible skipper Redfearn, a ragtag bunch of local lads, much-travelled senior pros and a couple of unheralded foreign imports were expected to fall away as the season reached its conclusion.
However, then-Crystal Palace boss Dave Bassett accurately surmised that Wilson’s side had a lot more staying power when he told TV cameras: “I think a lot of people thought early on in the season that they’d fall away, but as time’s gone on, I don’t think anyone’s underestimating Barnsley.”
Bassett’s words were prescient and after the victory against Bradford confirmed promotion, focus turned to an even greater task: Premiership survival.
While the numbers weren’t as astronomical 20 years ago as they are now, Barnsley’s budget would make it difficult to field a team which could compete with the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp and David Beckham. Wilson spent wisely, bringing in club-record signing Georgi Hristov from Partizan Belgrade for £1.5million and adding Eric Tinkler, Darren Barnard and German goalkeeper Lars Leese to the ranks.
Despite being overwhelming favourites to finish bottom, things didn’t start too badly for the Tykes. After a narrow 2-1 reverse at home to West Ham on the opening day, they got their first win a few days later when Redfearn struck to beat Crystal Palace. And although a 6-0 trouncing by Chelsea, which included four strikes by Gianluca Vialli, set the warning bells ringing, Barnsley again bounced back to defeat Bolton.
Six points from the first four games may have looked impressive, but it wouldn’t last. Six consecutive losses followed, with Barnsley shipping 19 goals and scoring just three. The gulf in class was beginning to show.
The arrival of striker Ashley Ward did inspire some light relief, as the new recruit from Derby netted in wins against Coventry and, incredibly, Liverpool at Anfield. But the bright moments only punctuated the hard winter months. By Boxing Day, Barnsley were entrenched in the bottom three, with only 15 points from 20 matches and a goal difference of -33 – enhanced by a 7-0 gubbing at Old Trafford, and another five-goal thrashing at the hands of Arsenal.
But just as it looked as though the fairy tale was turning sour, the Tykes found their feet. Clean sheets at home to Derby and Crystal Palace coincided with two Ward strikes, securing two priceless 1-0 wins – albeit either side of a 6-0 loss at West Ham – while victories over Bolton and Tottenham in the FA Cup spread enthusiasm that an escape was possible.
Those notions began to spread, as Barnsley hosted Manchester United in an FA Cup fifth round replay, which came on the back of a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. Not only did the initial result represent a huge improvement on the rout they suffered at The Theatre of Dreams just a few months earlier, but it could – and should – have been a lot better had Gary Neville’s desperate lunge on Andy Liddell been correctly awarded as a penalty.
Back at Oakwell and the stage was set for another night to get the home fans rocking. Wilson’s men didn’t disappoint, edging a topsy-turvy encounter 3-2 thanks to a brace from reserve centre-back Scott Jones, who had only been called up to play for the first team earlier that day. Not even goals from Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole could save United this time.
The famous win appeared to spur Barnsley on and three wins on the bounce in the league following the United victory had pundits purring at the prospect of yet another great upset in the Yorkshire town.
But it all unravelled spectacularly against Liverpool at the end of March – a match that, despite being two months before the season’s conclusion, is widely credited for knocking the stuffing out of the Tykes’ survival hopes.
It had started so well when top scorer Redfearn swivelled in the box to put the hosts 1-0 up, although a double from Karlheinz Riedle either side of half-time soon pegged them back. But it wasn’t the German’s brace that struck the knockout blow; that honour fell to referee Gary Willard, who sent off three Barnsley players during the second half. Barnard and Chris Morgan were dismissed for clashes with the speedy Michael Owen, and Darren Sheridan was given his marching orders for squaring up to Paul Ince in the aftermath of Steve McManaman’s stoppage-time winner.
If the chastening late defeat wasn’t hard enough to take, the ensuing suspensions and FA investigation into the day’s events, which led to Willard temporarily leaving the field as irate fans ran on to the pitch to remonstrate with him, left a bitter taste.
All the positive momentum that had been building appeared to dissipate in an instant and a familiar inevitability surrounding Barnsley’s fate – along with a perceived unpopularity among the powers that be – saw their form abandon them. They’d pick up just four more points from the remaining eight games to go down five points adrift of 17th-placed Everton.
Relegation proved to be the end of the Barnsley fairy tale. With the exception of a play-off final defeat by Ipswich two years later, the Reds never truly threatened to repeat the trick of getting to the promised land and soon slipped back to yo-yoing between the second and third tiers.
Two decades on from their season in the sun, Barnsley suffered another relegation – this time back down to League One. And while the prospect of the current crop emulating Wilson, Redfearn and co. seems bleak, the Oakwell faithful now know the impossible is possible. After all, it’s happened before.
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