Football: Barnsley's believer in the race of adversity

Stephen Brenkley finds John Hendrie refusing to feel down at Oakwell
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IF BARNSLEY'S relationship with the Premier League is to be something more substantial than a one-season flirtation they may do well to heed John Hendrie's advice. The veteran striker has experienced before the heady elation of mixing in the big-time only for cold reality and a messy break-up to follow.

"I've seen it, I know what it's like, I hope that will help me cope with it this time," he said, sounding a bit like a counsellor in such matters. "We have got to be positive in every match rather than be afraid. We must remember we're only two wins away from shutting the gap altogether."

Five years ago, the first of the Premiership, Hendrie was a key member of the Middlesbrough side which had been promoted the previous season and were immediately relegated. The circumstances were slightly different because while Barnsley have been in trouble from day one, Boro looked secure in mid-table until Christmas. They then entered a spiral of decline from which there was no escape. In one crucial period they lost eight out of nine matches and all self-belief. It is the latter which Hendrie seeks to guard against.

"A lot of the team haven't been involved in a scenario like this," the 34-year-old said. "But I think we have to learn to thrive in the atmosphere of big grounds. We're at Anfield next week and instead of being overawed we should be lifted by it."

Although this upbeat approach might be decreed to have failed so far, given the 7-0 defeat which Barnsley suffered at Old Trafford last month, Hendrie managed to take some heart from that. His side showed spirit that day against impossible odds. Hendrie and his colleagues were more downhearted by going down 4-1 against Southampton at The Dell last week.

"We know we let ourselves down. It wasn't just the result but the performance. The pity was that we really thought we'd turned the corner after our second-half efforts against Blackburn the week before. We'd got a point and went to Southampton buzzing. After five minutes we were two goals down. "

The scale of the players' disappointment probably did not match that of their manager, Danny Wilson. Having stoutly defended his players throughout the late summer and early autumn even as Chelsea, Arsenal and United were taking pot shots at them, he finally snapped. Wilson laid into his charges. Hendrie could understand why.

"Danny has done a fantastic job. Like so many of the team he's still learning - and he would be the first to admit that. He's had his ups and his downs but he doesn't mess you about. He's straight to the point. Danny hasn't been out of the game that long so obviously he knows more about what players are like, what makes them tick. But I know he wants to be a winner. He's going to be one of the top managers one day."

Where Wilson might achieve this status has been the subject of prolonged speculation and gossip. It is generally agreed that keeping Barnsley in the Premiership would be a major triumph (as if getting them there in the first place was not) and that to contend for the game's bigger honours he will have to look elsewhere. If, at the season's end, he were to move to Sheffield Wednesday, where he played for three seasons and where the fans have lately been chanting his name, it would provide nobody with a scoop. But for now, Oakwell it is.

"For all our present position I'm enjoying it as much as I've ever done," said Hendrie, whose ghosted autobiography covering his career with seven clubs is out in a fortnight. "To be playing in the Premiership at my age is hugely thrilling. Maybe the pace isn't quite what it was [and in his pomp at Middlesbrough, it should not be forgotten, it could be electrifying] but you know other things. You're not so uptight as the years go by but you still keep that pride in your performance intact."

John Hendrie will spend the next few months counselling his mates in the Barnsley dressing-room about these matters.