Football: Danny buoyed by new world

Andrew Longmore visits a club relishing the climb to the heights
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Danny Wilson story

1960: Born Wigan 1 January.

1976: Joins Wigan, but does not play a game.

1977: Moves to Bury on a free transfer.

1980: After 90 appearances and eight goals for Bury, joins Chesterfield in a pounds 100,000 deal, scoring 13 goals in 100 appearances.

1982: Signs for Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest for pounds 50,000.

1983: After just 10 appearances and one goal for Forest, joins Scunthorpe on loan. Scores three goals in six games before moving to Brighton from Forest for pounds 100,000.

1987: Makes Northern Ireland debut against Turkey. After 33 goals in 135 appearances, joins Luton for pounds 150,000.

1988: League Cup winner as Luton beat Arsenal 3-2 at Wembley.

1990: Moves to Sheffield Wednesday for pounds 200,000 after scoring 24 goals in 110 appearances for Luton.

1991: Wins second League Cup winners' medal as Wednesday beat Manchester United 1-0.

1992: Wins last of 24 international caps against Scotland, having scored one goal.

1993: After 72 appearances and nine goals at Hillsborough, moves to Barnsley as player-assistant manager to Viv Anderson for pounds 200,000.

1994: Appointed player-manager when Anderson moves to Middlesbrough.

1997: Guides Barnsley into the Premiership, finishing runners-up to Bolton in the First Division. It is the Yorkshire club's first time in the top flight.

Danny Wilson is delighted with the Premiership already. He has new windows in his office, a new Premiership-regulation extension to his dug-out and, judging by the number of paint pots littering the corridors of Oakwell, a spare consignment of Dulux will be available soon to redecorate his house.

The photocall in the Premiership has been an eye- opener too. Not the usual scrumdown between the snappers from the Barnsley Chronicle and the Dalesman, just a single "smile please" from the Premiership- endorsed photographer, who will filter a few extra quid back to Barnsley FC and the coffers of the Premier League. Farewell to that comfortable old tweed suit, welcome to pinstriped football.

Quite how Barnsley will fare in the big bad world of share prices and kaleidoscopic away kits is one of the more intriguing questions of the coming season. This is the club where John Dennis, the chairman, sorts out his fruit and veg at the crack of dawn and gets the drinks in for the referee and linesmen at the end of the game. Carries them down to the ref's room himself. In the aftermath of promotion, Dennis could be found hobnobbing with the media and a bottle of champagne in the players' tunnel, not chatting up potential new sponsors in the directors' lounge.

Not that Barnsley have been slow on the uptake. There is not a spare seat to be had at Oakwell this season. All 16,000 season tickets (average price pounds 225) were sold within three weeks. The capacity is 19,000 and the remaining 3,000 seats (in the one uncovered stand, note) are reserved for the visitors, which neatly solves the ticketing problem.

With 10 days to go, Oakwell resembles a provincial theatre preparing for first night of a West End production. Or West Ham at least. The scenery is being tarted up, the cast are rapidly learning their lines and nervousness competes for main billing with thrilling anticipation.

In only his fourth season as a manager, Wilson has yet to endure the cares of the job. He has the healthy tan and contented look of an impresario with a hit on his hands. The words "Emporio Armani" stand out from the chest of his dark blue T-shirt. I wonder where the new Armani superstore is in Barnsley. "Oh no," he says quickly, native Lancastrian accent meeting adopted Yorkshire in mid-Pennines. "Not my style at all. Don't worry about that."

And the tan, not summer in Barnsley, surely? "Had two weeks in Barbados with the family. But I was trying to tie up a couple of deals so the telephone kept ringing. I couldn't relax completely. When I came back, it didn't feel like I'd been away at all."

In one sense, Wilson has the easiest job in football. In another, the hardest. Odds-on for relegation, his team have nothing to lose. Tales of Skinner Normanton which once anchored Barnsley's history are passe now. Barnsley have reached the Holy Grail, but Wilson does not quite see it that way.

"I expect a lot," he says brightly. "I set my standards high. If we settle for mediocrity, we'll get that. Our realistic target is to stay in the division, but if I say to my players: "Come on, why not aim for Europe?" they'll laugh at me and people outside will laugh at me. But so what? The people we're playing against have two arms and two legs, same as us."

The trick will be to convince his players of that. With luck, something might be lost in the translation. Old-stagers such as Paul Wilkinson and John Hendrie know the score, but his squad has been augmented by a handful of buys less Giorgio Armani than the Balkans branch of Woollies: Georgi Hristov, a Macedonian striker, Ales Krizan, a Slovenian defender, Lars Leese, a goalkeeper from Bayer Leverkusen, and Eric Tinkler, a bustling midfielder from South Africa by way of Sardinia. About pounds 3m the lot.

"I told them we were like Leeds," Wilson laughs. "To be honest, none of them knew anything about Barnsley, but they knew about the Premiership and that's the place to be. For the same money, I could have got one, maybe two, English players." And what when dreams of the promised land meet the reality of budget-bound Barnsley? "We beat them down and beat them down. But they're earning good wages and they're hungry to do well. If Barnsley provides a platform for them to go on to better things, that's no problem because it means they'll do well for us. They might be great or they might be crap, but the same could be said of a London boy."

Either way, with two Dutchmen, a Trinidadian and a Croatian already on the staff, "trouble at t'mill" is not liable to be the dressing-room catchphrase, even if the Barnsley public turn nasty. "How many managers does it take to change a light bulb?" asks a card on Wilson's desk. Answer: "One, plus 30,000 fans to tell him he's doing it wrong." A jocular reminder that opinions come cheap in these parts, as if a Lancastrian needed reminding. Wilson picks his words carefully.

"People who say they're just going to enjoy themselves in the Premier League can change their tune as soon as we start - if we start - losing a few games. I hope we can draw from the strength the fans gave us going up. We want to keep the friendly atmosphere here. We want to keep our identity and our history. It would be stupid to have pretensions just because we're in the Premier League; we're Barnsley and people think of us as a small club. That's fine; we are a small club.

"But I can't wait to go to places like Old Trafford and Anfield. I wish we were playing them earlier in the season because I think that could set us up for the season. I'm not going to shout from the rooftops about what we might do, but I'm hoping to learn a lot and I think we'll give a good account of ourselves." And if not, his windows are safe at least. "The chairman says I can take them with me, if I get sacked."