Football: Farewell to Barnsley's popular fantasy

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The Independent Online
Leicester City 1 Barnsley 0

WHAT now then for Barnsley and for Danny Wilson, their proud and dignified manager? In the short term, a fanfare farewell before a full house at Oakwell next Sunday. Manchester United at home - the perfect closing chapter on a season of fantasy.

But after that? The realisation, sooner or later, that the dream has died and left them back at square one. They may talk now about making a quick return but at the start of another First Division season the prize of the Premiership will seem a tiny light at the end of a very long tunnel.

It is not a prospect they will relish. Promotion last season was a bit of a fluke, if the truth be told, not undeserved but freakish in that it disrupted the natural order of things in a manner that becomes increasingly rare. The odds against it happening again are depressingly long.

Money, of course, holds the key. Wilson could not even dream of financing the kind of team he would need to stay up. The club did what they could, filling their partially rebuilt stadium for every home match with fans eager to enjoy the novelty. But the funds they provided were never remotely enough.

They were paupers at a table set for kings. When they took their seats last August, Barnsley's incoming transfer record stood at pounds 310,000. Wilson has not had to deal entirely in petty cash but the most he has been allowed to spend on one player is pounds 1.5m. That bought him Ashley Ward, a striker who could not get into Derby's team.

Initially, he tried to survive with a First Division squad, which was never likely to work, especially if it takes three months to realise that the demands of the Premiership are a long way from those of the section just below.

"The strength and power in the Premiership is difficult to understand unless you've played in it," Wilson said. "It's far more physical and stronger than the First Division. We got better as it went on but possibly at the end of the season there was nothing left in the tank."

Like the Swindon team tutored by Glenn Hoddle that went up in 1993, Barnsley believed they could pay their way by playing their way. Swindon were a pretty side and to see Barnsley, as their supporters famously declared, was "just like watching Brazil". It was a mistake.

"I feel for them," Leicester's Martin O'Neill said. "What Danny Wilson has achieved there has been fantastic and the wave of affection for them around the country has been an amazing thing, a phenomenon.

"But they thought they could play their way to survival and maybe that is where they came unstuck."

O'Neill, who took Leicester up two years ago, did not make the same error. His sides work tirelessly first, play football second. Crucially, O'Neill has acquired - probably from Brian Clough and Peter Taylor - the ability to detect in an individual the willingness almost to die for the cause. Theo Zagorakis, the pounds 500,000 Greek midfielder whose goal removed Barnsley's last hope, looks a case in point, as does Mustafa Izzet, bought for a modest sum from Chelsea. Izzet has clever feet and inexhaustible drive.

On their budget, Leicester survive against the odds and even contemplate playing in Europe again next season, which is still a possibility. But even Leicester are better resourced than Barnsley.

Meanwhile Wilson, revered by Barnsley's fans, says he will stay at Oakwell. He is a man of honesty and integrity and should be taken at his word. Then again, the future of Ron Atkinson at Sheffield Wednesday, his old club, is undecided. Take nothing as read.

Goals: Zagorakis (57) 1-0.

Leicester City (5-3-2): Keller; Savage, Marshall, Elliott, Walsh, Guppy; Zagorakis, Lennon, Izzet; Cottee (Fenton 83), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Arphexad (gk), Campbell, Wilson, Kaamark.

Barnsley(5-3-2): Watson; Eaden, De Zeeuw, Moses, Jones (Bullock 59), Barnard; Redfearn, Marcelle, Tinkler (Bosancic, 56); Ward, Fjortoft (Liddell, 69). Substitutes not used: Sheridan, Leese (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Bookings: Barnsley: Barnard, De Zeeuw, Redfearn. Sending-off: Barnsley: Bosancic.

Man of the match: Izzet.

Attendance: 21,293.