THE SIGHT of Barnsley – the nation’s unofficial ‘capital of coal’ – losing its sense of pride and self-confidence in the late eighties and early nineties was harrowing in the extreme.
The painful demise of the mining industry following the crippling strike of the mid-eighties revealed a big human cost. A town struggled to smile and needed a beacon of hope.
It arrived from the town’s football team, whose fairytale rise to the Premier League in 1996-97 will always constitute a major social development in the history of Barnsley.
The story of how Barnsley FC made a town believe again is chronicled in a film entitled Daydream Believers, which premiered in the town last night.
That promotion season and the Reds’ historic campaign in the big time in 1997-98 – the only time they have dined at the top table of English football – are times which no-one connected with the town will forget. It will stand the test of time.
Heart, resolve, honesty, friendship and above all, togetherness – esteemed qualities which served Barnsley’s pit communities well over the decades – were rich in that side, managed by Danny Wilson and captained by Neil Redfearn.
And the respect will always endure, as it did when supporters and ex-players and staff came together for the film premiere at the town’s Lamproom Theatre.
Summing up that special time, Redfearn said: “We became everyone’s second favourite team and captured the nation’s imagination. We also provided a release for everyone in Barnsley.
“Oakwell was a good place to go to. It was a real community thing as opposed to just football.
“A Yorkshire trait is sticking together, watching each other’s backs and being in it for one another. We epitomised that.
“I remember when we trained in the week and had 100 to 150 fans come down. Some were young kids and some had retired. The club used to openly let them in and we always had a bit of banter after.
“At away games, if some lads did not need tickets, we would pass them out to the supporters.
“As players, we went out together and did everything together. It was perfect for the young players. Sometimes, you get a cynical environment with old professionals, but it was not there. We had good attitudes and top players and such a good balance of youth and experience.
“I played in a lot of Championship football and watch a lot now, but that Barnsley side was the best Championship side I have ever seen or played in. We are just miles in front of everybody.
We became everyone’s second favourite team and captured the nation’s imagination. We also provided a release for everyone in Barnsley. Oakwell was a good place to go to. It was a real community thing as opposed to just football.Neil Redfearn
“A lot of things came together at the time. We had some good experienced players and Danny had the odd masterstroke like putting Paul Wilkinson and John Hendrie together.
“Then we had a raft of young players that Eric Winstanley brought through.
“I look at the division now and that side would breeze it.”
After winning their first five league games of 96-97, the Reds simply refused to go away.
It culminated in those magical events on April 26, 1997 when Barnsley were promoted amid a sea of Oakwell emotion following a 2-0 win over Bradford City.
Top senior professionals including Redfearn, Hendrie, Wilkinson and Darren Sheridan dovetailed with talented academy products Nicky Eaden, Adie Moses, Dave Watson and Andy Liddell. Committed foreign players such as Arjan de Zeeuw and Clint Marcelle added to the mix. The chemistry was perfect.
It represented a special time for Barnsley and its people. A time which ‘one of their own’ in Eaden, brought up in the pit village of Elsecar, will treasure.
He said: “The Bradford game was the best day of my career.
“It was my hometown club and we were totally unfancied from the start of the season.
“Everyone expected that we were going to blow up, but we just kept going.
“I remember after the Bradford game and there were lads I had been to school with on the pitch. It was a bit surreal.
“The togetherness among the lads was brilliant. Once Taggs (Gerry Taggert) left, I got promoted to being ‘social captain’ being from Barnsley and we were a real tight group. You did not realise how good the dressing room was until you left.
“We had nights out with the wives at places like Beatson House in Cawthorne and we had a box at the club and all the wives got quite friendly.
“At the time, I was living near Locke Park. You would walk to the paper shop and if you had won, it was: ‘Not bad, Saturday’ from someone. If you got beat, it was ‘sh** Saturday, that’
“There were no airs and graces and people treated you as one of the lads.
“I remember when we had a reception in the town hall and we went on the balcony and it was a sea of people.
“You had never seen anything like it in Barnsley. It was absolutely lashing it down, but they did not care.”
The big Premier League show then came to Barnsley, with Wilson’s side casting aside a fraught start to give themselves a fighting chance of securing their top-flight status in the spring of 1998.
But fates sadly conspired against the Reds, who never recovered from a controversial home loss to Liverpool, when the hosts had three players sent off.
Mistakes were made along the way, with several continental signings failing to come off, but there was still immense pride at Barnsley’s brave efforts against the big boys.
Defender Moses recalled: “It was such an unbelievable achievement to get there and something that will probably never be repeated.
“At the start of the promotion season, we were one of the favourites to go down.
“It was my only season in the Premier League and looking back, I can say I played at Old Trafford and Anfield, which are great places. But if you are getting hammered at those places, it is not as great!
“But I look back now and am proud. You see the Premier Years on Sky Sports now and when 1997-98 is on, my lads are watching it.
“Looking back, we signed a few foreign players and some of them were not probably the best and not all of them had the best interests of the club at heart.
“The likes of me, Scott (Jones), Nicky, Bully (Martin Bullock) and Watty would have run through a brick wall for the club. Whether some of the foreign ones would have done that, I don’t know.
“We had some good ones too. Arjan was fantastic and Clint was a good lad and a fan’s favourite. Eric Tinkler was decent and had a good attitude too.
“I remember on the first day of pre-season, Danny saying: ‘It is going to be a big season, you have to raise your game.’ Running around the laps that Eric set up, we were lapping some of the foreign lads, who were jogging and having a chat at the back.
“But we were a bit unlucky in the end. We dragged it out and in other seasons, our points total would have kept us up.”