Through Gritted Teeth #42: Barnsley 1997

by Chris Ledger

Danny Wilson’s 1989 single ‘The Second Summer of Love’ contains the lyrics: “the first summer of love was here when I was much too young”. And they were right, I was too young to remember Danny Wilson’s first summer of love at Sheffield Wednesday; most notably, his goal in the 1991 League Cup semi-final and playing against Manchester City in February 1993 with two broken ribs. But I knew that he was a good player and well liked at Hillsborough.

The same song also mused: “the second summer of love is here, so tell your angry friends to throw away their Gaultier and grow their hair again”. It hinted at the bitterness of not loving someone anymore. And the same applied to the former Northern Ireland international, after his tenure as Sheffield Wednesday manager. The memories of his goals and commitment were wiped. All that Wednesdayites can remember are debts that eventually peaked at £27 million, Wim Jonk, Simon Donnelly, Gilles de Bilde, relegation from the Premier League, and selling Benito Carbone and Paolo di Canio for a pittance. I was a teenager at the time, I was too young to realise that betrayal and financial neglect was part of football; it hurt, I became bitter.

But, during that era, there was something that I hated more than Wilson’s spell as the Owls’ manager, apart from Leeds United and the Blades: Barnsley, aka the Dingles (or, to those who are based outside South Yorkshire, the Tykes). Like Doncaster and Rotherham, Barnsley is a grim place: gritty without the nostalgia and friendliness, and wanting to play with the big boys without the resources. Barnsley supporters were also desperate to strike up a fierce rivalry with the two Sheffield clubs which, at the time, seemed pitiful and pathetic.

On the face of it, Barnsley’s surprise promotion to the Premier League in 1997, under the stewardship of Wilson, wasn’t going to change my feelings towards them. If anything, Wilson’s team looked like a below-par version of that season’s Nationwide Division One champions Bolton Wanderers. The Trotters had Per Frandsen and Scott Sellars in midfield, while the Tykes had Neil Redfearn and Martin Bullock. Matty Appleby wasn’t a patch on Chris Fairclough and the less said about Laurens ten Heuvel, the better. Even after signing Middlesbrough’s John Hendrie in October 1996, Barnsley seemed second best to many teams in the division.

But, during the course of the 1996/1997 season, something changed: part of me had warmed to the Tykes. Unlike David Pleat’s headmaster-esque approach at Hillsborough, Wilson’s side had class and style. The Owls may have had the likes of Carbone and Regi Blinker on the flanks, but there was no doubt that Barnsley were the Brazil of South Yorkshire; hence the good-humoured “Brazil, it’s just like watching Brazil” chant at Oakwell.

After all, Barnsley had Clint Marcelle in the hole and Sheffield Wednesday had Peter Atherton whom, in his own words, scored a fluke goal against Tottenham Hotspur after he closed his eyes and hoped for the best. Redfearn and Hendrie even managed to score 32 league goals between them. There was no comparison. More importantly, despite the local rivalry, Barnsley achieved automatic promotion the right way: by playing honest, attacking football and only spending £850,000 on transfers.

I was pleased for them, not just because their matches were the sole highlight of Yorkshire Television’s ‘Goals on Sunday’ and that Sheffield Wednesday versus Barnsley would become my first competitive South Yorkshire derby. For a short period, they were no longer patronised by Mark Clemmit-esque figures for being “battling Barnsley” or having “que sera sera, whatever will be, will be; you’re going to Barnsley” chanted at teams that were heading for relegation to the Football League. Wilson was named as the best Football League manager of the year by his managerial counterparts, while fans and journalists took Barnsley’s achievements seriously. They finally attained the respect that they had craved.

Wilson’s men got promoted on their own merits and, while the hatred remained, the pity was replaced with coy admiration, for once. And, for a while, it looked like that the second summer of love would never arrive; it’s just a shame that it came in the way it did.

Chris is the maestro behind the rather wonderful Obscure Music and Football, which is about … er … well, I’m sure you get the idea. Harass him on Twitter here: @obscurefootball.

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