It was a fairy tale nobody believed was possible, and Barnsley was a town where nobody believed it could be set. Yet as the clock ticked down on 26 April 1997, the distant dream was about to be realised. All Barnsley needed was a victory 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 sealing promotion to the top tier of English football – a division they had never occupied before.
Oakwell was filled to the rim with a sea of red shirts, each worn by an expectant Yorkshireman. Yet although Barnsley were on the verge of greatness, nobody wanted to take anything for granted. After all, there had been countless disappointments in prior years, and there was nothing about the current situation – however promising it looked from the outside – that could make the club’s supporters get ahead of themselves.
The players did not let the pressure get to them, though. They continued plugging away in search of a second goal, which was eventually given to them by Clint Marcelle. Cue pandemonium.
That would be enough to secure promotion and, with it, unleash an outpouring of pent-up emotion that ran 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 which 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 promotion to English football’s top table in 1997 was the first thing to breathe pride into the area since.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is often easy to fall into the trap of thinking that any given achievement – in football or otherwise – was inevitable. In truth, though, no one could have seen promotion coming when Danny Wilson replaced Viv Anderson as Barnsley boss two years earlier. Wilson had no managerial experience to speak of, and although he had impressed the club’s hierarchy while working as Anderson’s No.2, the appointment was clearly a gamble – as chairman John Dennis himself admitted.
It did not take long for Wilson to win over the doubters, however. Five consecutive wins at the start of 1996/97 lifted Barnsley to top spot in the second tier, which is the position they also occupied at Christmas. Even so, not many experts expected them to stay there. Spearheaded by irrepressible skipper Neil 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 team had a lot more staying power when he said: “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.
Barnsley may have been competing in the same league as the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, but they were operating in a different financial reality. Every penny had to be spent wisely, and Wilson did a good job of getting value for money; Eric Tinkler, Darren Barnard and Lars Lesse were added to the ranks, while Barnsley broke their transfer record to acquire Georgi Hristov for £1.5m.
Despite being overwhelming favourites to finish bottom, the Tykes had a decent start to the season. After a narrow 2-1 loss at home to West Ham on the opening day, Redfearn’s strike against Crystal Palace gave Barnsley their maiden win a few days later. A 6-0 thrashing by Chelsea set the warning bells ringing, but Wilson’s men showed their grit and character by bouncing back to beat Bolton.
Six points from the first matches games may have looked like an impressive return, but it wouldn’t last. Six consecutive defeats followed, with Barnsley conceding 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 drop zone, with only 15 points from 20 matches and a goal difference of -33.
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 victory – albeit either side of a 6-0 loss at West Ham – while triumphs over Bolton and Tottenham in the FA Cup helped to spread optimism on the terraces, as did a 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford in the fifth round. It could have been even better for Barnsley, who should have been awarded a penalty after Gary Neville had brought down Andy Liddell in the box.
Not that it mattered in the end; back at Oakwell, Barnsley secured a thrilling 3-2 win thanks in large part to a brace from reserve centre-half 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 rescue United from an early elimination.
That famous night under the floodlights spurred Barnsley on, and successive successes against Wimbledon, Aston Villa and Southampton put them within touching distance of 17th spot. But it all unravelled spectacularly against Liverpool at the end of March – a match which, 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 home side 1-0 up, although a double from Karlheinz Riedle either side of half-time soon turned the game on its head. 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 in 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 loss 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 in the mouth.
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 would amass just four more points from their remaining eight matches, and ultimately finished 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. No one, though, can ever take their season in the spotlight away from them.
“We’ve always had ambitions to do this,” said Eric Winstanley, a club legend who was born in the Yorkshire town, shortly after the Tykes had confirmed their place in the top flight.
“And it’s a dream. But dreams can come true. And I’ll tell you what, at the bottom end of it as well, there’s a lot of clubs – your Doncasters, your Rotherhams, your Rochdales of this world – we’ve been there. There’s no reason why they can’t get there as well. And I think it’s great for all the smaller clubs. But we’re not small anymore. We’re Barnsley. We’re Premiership. And we deserve it.”