Weekend Interview: Remembering how Barnsley defied the odds to join English football’s elite

Danny Wilson and his staff celebrate promotion to mthe Premier League in 1997.
Danny Wilson and his staff celebrate promotion to mthe Premier League in 1997.
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FOR JOHN DENNIS, the memories will never fade.

As one Yorkshire side in Huddersfield Town justifiably bask in the glow of their own golden footballing feats and excitedly count down the days until the start of a new Premier League adventure, so their rivals from the opposite side of the Emley Moor mast had their place in the sun two decades ago.

Barnsley’s own top-flight trip proved somewhat brief – a one-season stint in the big time in 1997-98 – and it is to be hoped that Town’s odyssey might last a little bit longer.

But, in the final analysis, that was not really the story as far as Barnsley were concerned.

The pride of Reds regulars in being able to say that they had watched the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea compete in the same league as their club, while seeing the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Ryan Giggs and Michael Owen step out at Oakwell was manifest.

But the sense of wonder truly occurred in the previous season. The ultimate destination may have been grand, but it was the journey to get there which was so spiritually enhancing.

Those events have now prompted the commissioning of a feature-length documentary celebrating Barnsley’s historic and greatest achievement in reaching the Premier League in 1996-97.

Former Reds chairman Dennis will feature in the film along with many of the players from that unforgettable season alongside manager Danny Wilson.

It is aptly entitled Achieving the Unachievable, the brainchild of a group of five fans and it is due to be released next year.

Over £12,500 has been raised for the self-funded project, with any profits and proceeds to be donated to local causes and charities.

Cheers: Barnsley chairman John Dennis toasts promotion to the Premier league with a glass of Ward's special Tykes Premier Brew.

Cheers: Barnsley chairman John Dennis toasts promotion to the Premier league with a glass of Ward's special Tykes Premier Brew.

Dennis, Reds chairman from 1989 to 2002, was only too happy to get involved, with the trip down memory lane being a sentimental one for him and many others.

Now in his mid-60s, Dennis told The Yorkshire Post: “I think it is lovely that they are putting together a film about what happened. To have a cinematic record is great and it is great to be involved.

“I think we were dubbed as everyone’s favourite second team in that Premier League season and that was very nice.

“Obviously, it was disappointing that we were not able to repay that faith in us as we got relegated. But the whole experience of the promotion season and the season in the Premier League was amazing for all those involved.

The promotion season was such a remarkable time. I am sure, putting it into a modern context, the marvellous events that happened in Huddersfield last season will have ensured that they went through the same thing.

John Dennis

“The promotion season was such a remarkable time. I am sure, putting it into a modern context, the marvellous events that happened in Huddersfield last season will have ensured that they went through the same thing.

“They also started well and got to Christmas and were there or thereabouts and, all of a sudden, it starts to become real. And that is how it was for us, too.”

The similarities between events at Oakwell in ’96-97 and the John Smith’s Stadium last season do not end there either.

Both sides made flying starts and topped the second-tier table early on and won plaudits for their vibrant brand of attacking football in the process – while sustaining their early-season form and energising not just a fan-base, but a town.

Before a ball was kicked, the Reds and Town were similarly tipped by many ‘in the know’ to be in the shake-up at the bottom of the Championship as opposed to the top, which will have made the events of the following 10 months all the sweeter.

It certainly was for Dennis and Dean Hoyle – both local men made good and lifelong supporters of their respective clubs, who had endures some dire times previously.

Neil Redfearn was a pivotal figure in Barnsley's promotion season.

Neil Redfearn was a pivotal figure in Barnsley's promotion season.

Barnsley FC had been a key part of Dennis’s life from attending his first game in the late 50s as a young boy. He progressed to a regular supporter in the 60s and 70s with his father Ernest being chairman of the club from 1967 until his passing in 1979.

Dennis went on to join the board in 1983 and became chairman six years later, with his finest hour coming on that fateful day of April 26, 1997 when a sell-out Oakwell crowd of 18,605 saw Barnsley beat Yorkshire rivals Bradford City 2-0 to joyously book their place in the top flight for the first time in the club’s 109-year history.

Dennis recalled: “The old man put his heart and soul into the football club and it probably shortened his life. Certainly on the day we beat Bradford City, I had a tear in my eye thinking about the old fellow. That was part of the emotion of the day.

“It was a very long night. The memories of the day are very strong, but the memories of the night are very hazy!

“There were all those years in the lower leagues and the difficulties the town faced economically during the decline of the mining industry. You kind of wondered what you had to do to bring the good times back.

“But such a lot clicked into place and it was brilliant news, not just for the football club but the whole town.”

Charting a magic campaign, he added: “We had a good start to the season and I think we won the first five on the spin. You kind of look at it and think: ‘Well, only another 35 points and we are safe from relegation.’

“We just kept winning games and went into Christmas at the top of the table, I think. Around that time, we all started thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, we have got a real chance.’

“As ever before that season, we were tipped to get relegated and it was lovely to confound the critics. But you don’t do it for that, you do it because you want your football club to be successful. It was just amazing.

“Danny was a fiercely driven manager and the likes of Hendrie, Wilkinson, Thompson and Redfearn were experienced players, but very good ones with good characters. The younger players who came into the team learned from them and were guided from them. The mix worked out very well indeed and we played some magical football.

“There could not be anything more iconic that particular day against Bradford.”

Critics of Barnsley included the manager of a direct promotion rival at Wolves in Mark McGhee, who had ridiculed the Reds’ Premier League designs during that 1996-97 campaign.

He was forced to metaphorically eat his words just as Ian Holloway was at the end of last season after tipping Town to be relegated ahead of 2016-17.

Dennis said: “Mark made some unfortunate comments. But they worked to our advantage. I did bump into him at a football writers’ dinner at the end of the season. I think I reminded him of those comments!

“He was fairly rueful at the time. But to be fair, he is a good guy and has had a good career.

“It was such a magical year. I have followed Barnsley all my life. I was a very privileged supporter to sit in the chairman’s chair and I treasure those memories.

“I do not live in the past and football has changed a lot from those days. But we achieved something special back then at Barnsley and it is lovely that the guys are putting this film together and it will be a record forever of what actually happened.”