Barnsley looking to build on the spirit of Gough

Guy Hodgson reports from a part of Yorkshire where "Darren delirium" ha s taken hold and Aston Villa could be riding in tomorrow for an embarrassing fa ll
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The Independent Online
The two men eating breakfast in Barnsley's Alhambra Shopping Centre yesterday morning were rueing a missed opportunity. "The lad couldn't quite do it, could he?" one said. "Did his damnedest though." The other nodded, adding: "Done us proud, he h as. Done us proud."

They did not need to amplify as to who " he" was. Their talk was of Darren Gough and England's near-miss in the third Test, as indeed was almost everyone else's in the Alhambra whose conversation strayed beyond the foul weather and the kids' bronchitis.

The nation's new sporting hero is a local lad, and this pocket of South Yorkshire is bursting to let you know he is one of their own.

The motto below the coat of arms in Barnsley's tourist information office is "Judge us by our actions" and the town is delighted to be held up for scrutiny in the light of Gough's cricket in Australia. They are not too unhappy, once Darren delirium subsides, to have their worth weighed by their football team either.

Barnsley, as unfashionable as Beatle jackets and Chelsea boots, are seventh in the First Division and wilder thoughts are drifting to play-offs and a possible place in the top division for the first time in their history. Not now, though. The town is bracing itself for the icing on the cake of Gough's achievements - an FA Cup win over Aston Villa tomorrow.

"There is an excitement," Danny Wilson, the club's player-manager, said. "We played Newcastle in the Coca-Cola Cup when they were the best team in the country. They couldn't stop scoring and they were flying at the top of the league, but we took them on over two legs and I think we surprised a lot of people.

"We lost 3-1 on aggregate but from our point of view we gained a lot of confidence. We gave them a good run for their money and I think it has put thoughts in people's minds here that we can cause an upset against Villa. I can't see any reason why we shouldn't emulate that performance. Whether we win is another matter."

Wilson, who took over at Oakwell when Viv Anderson was tempted to become Bryan Robson's assistant at Middlesbrough, has made winning a realistic prospect in the six months he has been in charge. In profound contrast to the mood this time a year ago.

Barnsley were confronting third-round humiliation when they were trailing 1-0 to non-League Bromsgrove with three minutes to go, and escaped huge embarrassment only by two late goals. They reached the fifth round but the season was a wearying struggle against relegation.

"At Bromsgrove their fans were doing a lap of honour while ours were getting ready to throw bricks," Wilson, who won League Cup winners' medals with Luton and Sheffield Wednesday, said. "That match turned our season round. If we had been knocked out there we'd have had big trouble in the League because the confidence would have been sapped out of us."

Twelve months on and their short-passing game has won them admirers while they have become divisional giants rather than pygmies. Indeed, had it not been for defeats against Portsmouth and Wolves over the festive period, their noses could have been out in front in the pursuit of Middlesbrough at the top.

"We try to play attractive football, it's the way I've been brought up in the game," he said. "I worked under Ron Atkinson and he used to say that he wanted his teams to play in a manner that he would enjoy if he was a paying spectator. I try to preach that. You should try to entertain the public."

It has not always been the way. The club has hardly set the football pulse racing since the Rev Tiverton Preedy formed Barnsley St Peter's in 1887 and persuaded a local landowner to let them play on the fields that are now Oakwell. They won the Cup once,in 1912, but since then there have been 80 years of anonymity punctuated only by the odd Third Division (North) championship.

Even in the Cup season they did not exactly become a compelling distraction to the country's obsession with the Kaiser's Dreadnoughts, earning the sobriquet "Battling Barnsley" for their dogged progress (not to mention their rugged tactics). Six 0-0 dra

w s and five odd-goal victories were in a 12-match campaign, and it was probably through boredom that West Bromwich Albion allowed Tuffnell to score the extra-time winner in the replayed final after nearly four hours of goalless football.

It has been a battle since to overcome the disadvantages of crowds around 5,000 and little money. In an area where the staple industries of coal mining and glass blowing have virtually become extinct, football has taken a low priority, although tomorrow's match has captured the imagination and all but a hundred tickets had been sold by Wednesday evening.

"I don't think they'll relish coming here," Wilson said. "They'll be coming to the unknown. They won't know many of our players and won't know what to expect. It's just like we were at Bromsgrove.

"Darren Gough made people sit up, and put the town on the map to a certain extent. There are people in Australia who had never heard of Barnsley before he went there but he's got a British bulldog spirit, and allied that to an enormous amount of skill. It just goes to show what you can do if you get your mind right."