CHAMPIONSHIP football is a badge of honour to Barnsley and its proud townsfolk – and if anyone knows how much it means, it is Luke Steele.
The Oakwell goalkeeper may not be a Tyke by birth, but can count himself an honorary one following several successful tours of second-tier duty which have seen the Reds avoid relegation.
The 29-year-old arrived at the club six years ago this month – famously making a scarcely-believable winning debut in the club’s epic FA Cup stunner at Liverpool.
But the memories he looks back on with most pride are the occasions when a season’s work has been on the line and Barnsley have not been found wanting.
Like at Plymouth at the end of the 2008-09 campaign when a 2-1 victory at Home Park secured another term of Championship football, a level Barnsley have played at for 27 of the past 32 years.
Also on much more local terrain at Huddersfield last May when the Reds secured a draw which kept both clubs up.
Fighting for themselves, their club, their people and their town has brought out plenty in the Reds in the past and while no-one probably thought that last season’s ‘great escape’ could be topped, they will have to provide a sequel in 2013-14.
Today, they face relegation rivals Millwall in a game that has the same billing as those at Oakwell at the business end of last season against the likes of Hull and Wolves.
Offering his thoughts on the dreaded ‘R’ word raising its spectre again, Steele said: “Obviously, you do think about it in the back of your minds. But it’s something we definitely don’t want, it’s a bad place and we will be scrapping for everything we can get to enable us to stay here.
“Last season I wasn’t aware of all the different jobs at the club that were at stake until after the season. We were in the changing room when one of the staff was crying his eyes out. We then knew he was going to be let go if we did go down.
“I don’t think that pressure (to stay up) should be put on players. But it’s still something to think about. You look at the fans, people and community in Barnsley – everything is affected if you are relegated.
“Of course, money will be affected for players but, ultimately, it is our pride and the club that counts. We can stay in this league again – I know we can.”
Steele added: “While the FA Cup run was phenomenal and something not to be overlooked and something which will stay with me forever, you look at some of the relegation battles we have had.
“The second season (2008-09) was interesting. I was out of the team due to Heinz Muller and it was such a tough time. But to get back in the team and go down to Plymouth, the worst place to go and win, felt the proper start for me at the club.
“I’ll never forgot that; I remember making a save over the bar with the fans behind me in the first half who were phenomenal and I remember thinking: ‘Yeah, we are going to stay in this league’.”
Ironically, it was in his place of his birth last summer that brought home to Steele the magnitude of preserving Championship status.
Back in his native Peterborough, whose team were cruelly relegated on 54 points on the final day of the season, Steele could not help thinking what might have been every time he went past Posh’s London Road ground.
Feeling a big sense of pride and relief after the Reds survived by a point at Posh’s expense, Steele continued: “I’m from Peterborough and in the summer I go home quite a lot. In the last one, every time I went past London Road to go to friends’ houses or whatever, I had the feeling of: ‘Well done, Luke.’
“Because they are a League One club and, as horrible as it sounds and they would hate for saying it, I never want to go in League One or this club to go into League One.
“I know some people even say maybe it would be better if we go down and have a good season trying to come back up. Rubbish; we want to stay as a Championship club. As footballers, we are here for a short while and survival is massive.”
The final day of the season is not a time for losers, with Posh the fall guys and the Reds and last-day opponents Huddersfield the big winners from an incredible ‘Survival Saturday’ at the foot of the Championship on May 4, 2013.
While an East Anglian city mourned, two Yorkshire towns, Huddersfield and Barnsley, held an on-pitch love-in and then went off to their respective parties – a day Steele will never forget.
The Reds went into that final-day encounter at the John Smith’s Stadium with their fate still in their hands and Steele is candid enough to take that exact same scenario going into their seasonal finale at home to QPR on May 3.
Steele said: “I think I would. Because you have a chance and it’s in your hands. But I’d like to think we can get out of trouble before then.
“At this moment, we haven’t got that run together and it’s doom and gloom. But one good win on Saturday could start off a good run.
“Everybody knows the stakes this weekend. We’ve still got Yeovil and Charlton to play, but, at the moment, Millwall are the ones everybody is catching.
“You keep an eye on the bottom three, but it’s more important to look at the fourth from bottom if you are in a relegation scrap.
“It’s not something that is new to us. A lot of players in the changing room are used to this from last year and previous years.
“But this is the worst situation we’ve been in, in terms of points to how many games we’ve got left. Last year, we’d already started the run of wins and are a little bit behind on that. It’s a bad position to be in.
“We need people to be performing at eight or nine (out of 10). Me included.
“I have been playing at six or seven out of 10. I’ve not done anything that has wowed myself or anybody and made an error at Doncaster last weekend. I’ve just been okay, but I am fully fit now – no excuses.
“I’ve got to win more points for us. I’ve got to because, if not, we will go down. I’ve got a big part to play.”