Football: Barnsley, the Premiership and the credibility gap

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The Independent Online
Barnsley 1 Port Vale 0

In football's new elitism, where the rich grow richer and the poor contemplate a future of being subsidiary to the rich, what place have Barnsley in the scheme of things?

Scrimping along on four-figure crowds, buying players for the kind of sums that looked small two decades ago, they are a club whose resources place them squarely in the latter category. Moreover, shackled to an image that to some speaks still of flat caps and clogs and Skinner Normanton, they have a major credibility problem also.

And not just among those with a south-of-Watford perspective. Even close to home, amid folk who bridle at such tired stereotyping, one senses that the possibility of a Premiership place is not taken totally seriously. Although crowds are up 20 per cent on last season, Oakwell is usually less than half full; and those who do turn up have taken to self-mockery.

"It's just like watching Brazil," they sing, which in part signals approval of the style in which the manager, Danny Wilson, has schooled his team to play but acknowledges also a prospect still seen by many as faintly absurd. In 110 years, no Barnsley side has ever played in the top flight. Is it really going to happen?

Wilson, just turned 37 and a man with a future regardless of Barnsley's fate, answers the question without a hint of nonsense. "I've no idea," he says. "But we're not doing too badly so far and I've seen no one we need fear."

Which is extraordinary when one considers the millions spent by some of his rivals, most notably at Wolverhampton and Sheffield United. While watching his chairman part with pounds 6m to build two Premiership-class stands, Wilson, in today's language, has been given barely two ha'pennies to rub together.

But he has invested his modest funds wisely, never parting with more than pounds 250,000 - still the club record for an incoming player - but buying genuine class in the likes of Arjan de Zeeuw, his Dutch centre-back, and John Hendrie, the skilful former Middlesbrough favourite.

Hendrie, whose goal on Saturday was his 11th in 20 matches since his move from the Riverside, has been teamed with former Teesside team-mate Paul Wilkinson to provide a cutting edge lacking last season, when Barnsley were placed almost as well as now at the corresponding stage but fell away through a drought of goals.

They were not at their best on this occasion, an assessment with which Wilson readily agreed, but were still good enough to breach one of the division's more resilient defences, well marshalled by Andy Porter, and would have established a wider margin with better finishing. Neil Redfearn's dependable form in midfield often served them well, outshining Wilson's Serbian import, Jovo Bosancic.

Vale defended well enough to force Barnsley to pull off Wilkinson in the second half in favour of the Trinidadian, Clint Marcelle, but rarely posed much threat of their own as the home side consolidated their position in the First Division table, just behind Wolverhampton and just in front of Sheffield United, both of whom have played a game more.

By coincidence, Wolves are Barnsley's next opponents at home in two weeks' time, with Sheffield United due at Oakwell in the first week of next month, by which time a sceptical public might just be daring to dream.

Goal: Hendrie (26) 1-0.

Barnsley (5-2-1-2): Watson; Eaden, Moses, Shirtliff, De Zeeuw, Sheridan; Redfearn, Bosancic; Liddell; Hendrie, Wilkinson (Marcelle, 72). Substitutes not used: Jones, Bullock.

Port Vale (4-1-2-3): Musselwhite; Hill, Aspin, Holwyn (Mills, 31), Stokes; Porter; Walker (Foyle, 84), Bogie; McCarthy, Naylor, Guppy (Corden, 74).

Referee: D Laws (Whitley Bay).

Booking: Vale: Aspin.

Man of the match: Redfearn.

Attendance: 12,246.

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