FOOTBALLING fairytales often emerge at Christmas time – and one particularly magical story began at Barnsley exactly a year ago.
It has taken in glory days at Wembley, promotion and plenty more besides.
Even for someone such as Reds’ chairman Maurice Watkins, who sampled countless highs during his 28-year stint as a director of Manchester United from 1984 to 2012 – including a 13-year spell as a board member of the club’s PLC between 1991 and 2004 – it has represented an incredible journey.
Last Christmas, Barnsley occupied the final relegation place in League One and were just one point above rock-bottom Colchester United.
The relief after a 4-2 home victory over Blackpool on December 28, 2015, which moved the Reds out of the drop zone up to the ‘giddy’ heights of 19th was palpable.
Suffice to say they have not looked back since – the win over Blackpool kick-started a seven-match winning sequence – with the fact that they currently reside in mid-table in the Championship representing a simply staggering transformation.
On Barnsley’s vintage 2016, Watkins commented: “It has been totally amazing.
“They do say football is a game of two halves; well it was a season of two halves for us when you think where we were around December time when we were bottom of the league. We turned it around and got two trips to Wembley.
“I must say it equals my time at Manchester United and we had some great times there. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experiences at Barnsley. There have been some difficult times, but last season was wonderful for everyone.
“It was great for the Cryne family to go twice to Wembley and you look at some of the pictures and see what it meant to them.
“The fans have shared it with us, too. Before last Christmas, everyone was concerned about the situation, but we buckled down and we reaped the rewards.
“You never thought we’d make two appearances at Wembley (the JP Trophy final and League One play-off final) – and they were two great games with great goals.”
A cloud was cast over the club in early November with the announcement that club owner Patrick Cryne was to step down from his duties “for the foreseeable future” to undergo cancer treatment.
Despite withdrawing from his involvement, the continued impressive form of Barnsley this season has represented a fillip during his sickness, according to Watkins, with the justifiable hope of more team success in the new year.
Watkins: “Obviously, we are all saddened with the news. But Patrick is undergoing his treatment now and was very keen that the fans were kept fully in the picture.
“I know he’s watching what we are up to. While at the moment he is impacted by the treatment, he has been delighted by our results.”
Team success was somewhat the norm for Watkins during the vast majority of his professional association with United.
So was the desire in the corridors of power at Old Trafford to raise the bar further during each subsequent season and it is no different now that he has switched allegiances from one club in red to another.
It is a maxim also shared by Reds’ head coach Paul Heckingbottom, whose playing career also started at United in the early 1990s – when ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ were about to embark on a long spell of domestic dominance.
Watkins, whose extensive roles across sport include being current chair of British Swimming, the Rugby League European Federation and also serving as a director of Lancashire CCC, continued: “I am also involved with such things as British Swimming and we had a fantastic Olympics and Paralympics.
“But when you have a new season, you have to put things behind you as there is always the new competition.
“You enjoy it for a very short while and then you are into it again, like the seasons of life.
“We do have the great memories of last season, but we don’t want to fritter that away.
“Paul has stepped up and continued the good work. He always has his eye on the next thing.
“We have always felt our rightful place was in the Championship.
“We were delighted to get promotion and have had a great start and if we can consolidate in mid-table, that would be a great result.
“We need to keep going in the way we are. Consolidation would be a great step up from League One and show that we deserved promotion from the play-off system.”
The challenges continue in the new year, with one aim being to try to secure the services of a number of players for next season and beyond, including captain Conor Hourihane and Sam Winnall, whose deals expire in the summer.
On the situation with players whose contracts are due to end, Watkins added: “We are mindful of where we are with those individuals and we will be doing our best, so that we have the best possible team for next season.”