Barnsley: why it's so grand

Friendliness, not prosperity, puts the town in the premier league, says Esther Leach
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The Independent Online
IT'S EARLY morning in Barnsley and a young boy dribbles his football along the street. He repeats under his breath, "It's just like watching Brazil", the football chant which will sing out from the terraces as Barnsley takes on Newcastle in today's FA Cup quarter-final.

The young footballer is growing up in a town where once there was little but coal-mining. The industry that supported generations from the cradle to the grave in pit villages around the town disappeared with the colliery closures of the Eighties.

Yet, despite its past difficulties, Barnsley still has an extraordinary hold over its inhabitants. A recent survey by the Council for the Protection of Rural England found that fewer than 115 people leave each year - the lowest figure of any town in the country.

If such a statistic raises an eyebrow or two down south, it is easily explained by the locals. "We lost everything and nothing when the pits closed, because we still have each other," said David Fretwell, 23, whose father was a farmer and uncle a miner.

"It's still there, that feeling for each other which keeps me here," he added as he tried to explain the elusive something that is Barnsley. "I can't imagine being anywhere else. And I think it's the same for the rest of my family. Barnsley has been through a tough time and no matter how bad it gets I'll stay."

Mr Fretwell works behind the counter of the Reds' official supporters shop in the busy Alhambra Shopping Centre and knows Barnsley FC's history as well as his own. "I haven't got children of my own yet, but I have young nephews and nieces and I suppose their future is uncertain but there will always be someone to look out for them. If I hadn't been able to work with the football club, I would have probably got a job with one of the new factories."

A steady stream of fans come and go at the shop. Some join in the discussion on the reasons for the seemingly unquestioning loyalty to Barnsley. A young mother said there was genuine friendliness. "It is different here," she said, and then hesitated before adding: "Have you heard the saying, 'Barnsley born and Barnsley bred; Strong in arm and thick in the head'? My husband always answers, 'You can always tell Barnsley folk, but you can't tell them much, they know it all'." She laughed after buying a T- shirt declaring: "Tyketanics Up for the Cup".

Mary Betts, who works alongside Mr Fretwell, is not from Barnsley, but moved to the town from Whitley Bay 21 years ago, married and stayed. Her two children may wander but she expects them to return. She said: "I wouldn't go back to Whitley Bay, or Carlisle where my family came from originally. People of Barnsley have always made me feel welcome. It's true, people here are very friendly. It's in their blood. Of course, there are bad 'uns like everywhere else, but probably not so many."

Barnsley, population 175,000 and the biggest metropolitan borough in the country, is about to lose its government-sponsored regeneration initiative after five years. Barnsley City Challenge, which has spent pounds 37.5m and attracted investment of pounds 60m from the private sector and pounds 40m from Europe, has carried out its last attitudes-and-opinions survey in the north-east of the borough - the poorest area.

"Ninety-three per cent of people agreed strongly that Barnsley is very friendly," said Phil Moss, its director. "Fifty per cent agreed that they wouldn't live anywhere else."

He is not convinced that it's Barnsley grit that keeps the town together, rather than a natural inclination towards insularity. "Barnsley is squeezed by Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster but manages to keep its own identity," he said.

The warmth and friendliness shown to each other, he suggests, is the tradition of pit villages, which is to offer support and comfort in hard times. "I'm pleased to know that people are happy and committed to Barnsley, but there is a down side. The town can seem to be parochial when it should be more outward-looking. "

He tells an anecdote which illustrates mistrust of the outside world. "A group of community workers went to Glasgow to look at an inner-city project they thought they could adapt for Barnsley. They were so horrified by what they saw that they were back within the day. They feared they had seen the future for Barnsley.

"My biggest fear is that the young will become alienated if there are not enough opportunities for them."

He added that Barnsley had never been known to do a "big 'I am'" routine, but the town should not only want to be re-cognised for its friendliness and the success of its football team or its famous sons such as broad- caster Michael Parkinson or former cricket umpire Dickie Bird.

It ought, he said, to be acknowledged for its expertise in business partnerships, advance- technology training and the welcome it can offer to new industries and businesses.