Football: Machin's Barnsley on Maine mission

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MEL MACHIN takes his Barnsley team to Maine Road today for a fifth- round FA Cup tie against the club that sacked him from management: Manchester City.

He is the personification of sweeet reason: 'No hard feelings. I left with a clear conscience; the club were much better off, in playing strength and finances, than when I arrived. I don't think I deserved to go but that was a matter for the board. I still have plenty of friends at City and I'm looking forward to it.'

Not a hint that a Barnsley win, or a draw that would take City back to Oakwell, would give the quietly spoken Machin the satisfaction of his life after being fired, because, City said, he did not have 'a repartee with the crowd'.

As it happened, all turned out well for both sides. Machin went off to a smaller club, under less media pressure, that was more appreciative of his shrewdness, while City, condemned forever to live under the red glow in the sky, went rocketing off again under Howard Kendall and Peter Reid. A Maine Road manager has to be seen to compete, no matter how huge his disadvantages, with whoever holds office at Old Trafford.

Machin still lives in Altrincham, which is as close as one can be to the hub of the world's motorway network, so is a frequent, if unobserved visitor, to the reserve matches of both Manchester clubs. He is not the first outsider to discover that Barnsley is not some mythical land populated by Michael Parkinson's imagination nor is it the jagged South Yorkshire fortress suggested by the pronouncements of Arthur Scargill or Geoffrey Boycott.

'It's warm, it's homely and it's down to earth,' Machin said. 'They're very proud of their football club and they like to see Oakwell neat and tidy. They work very hard themselves and expect the same of others. They do appreciate effort.'

There may be no silver band before kick-off, thumping out 'My Girl's a Yorkshire Girl' yet the traditional loyalties remain deep- rooted and the Stoke-born Machin is the manager at an historic moment in Barnsley's history. The old Oakwell skyline has gone as the splendid new West Stand has risen, pleasing to the eye, costing pounds 2.5m and seating 7,500. How on earth could Barnsley, on average attendances of 6,000, afford that?

Simple, Machin said. 'We sold players - Carl Tiler to Nottingham Forest, Steve Agnew to Blackburn, David Currie to Forest.' Not so simple is the manager's job of replacing crowd-pleasing big names with unknown reserves or cheaper imports. Barnsley bought back Currie while Andy Rammell, who has scored four goals against West Ham in two matches, was a pounds 100,000 purchase from Manchester United reserves.

'Andy's a late developer. He must have been 20 when United picked him up from Atherstone United. They have so many good kids coming through that it is difficult for a player like Andy to hold on to a place and I was able to persuade Alex Ferguson to let us have him.

'We've had to work on him, on physique, pace, technique, attitude and he's worked hard, too. The crowd have given him some stick from time to time but he's now coming through, turning into the player we all hoped he would be.' Rammell, 26 last Wednesday, is in his third seaon at Oakwell and has repaid Machin's investment with 28 goals, eight this term.

Rammell has the experience of Currie and Wayne Biggins in support to give Barnsley an attack that has troubled many First Division defences.

Machin has not surrendered Barnsley's promotion ambitions but agrees that after a start that brought seven matches without a win Barnsley will need to win at full speed for the rest of the season, and rely on others failing, to be contenders.

'Next season, that's a different matter. Some of our supporters are tellng me that this is the best Barnsley side they've seen. Our turning point came when we beat Newcastle, who had lost only twice, at Oakwell. That persuaded people that we were serious, that we were building a team.'

Machin sees Saturday's tie as good and bad. 'Good for my club because I think we have a chance of a good result. Bad for me personally in that I'm bound to have some sense of regret for what happened. I've been over a couple of times, with youth teams and I've seen City, and been impressed by them several times this season.

'They've got all the makings of a cup side: good goalkeeper, good centre-half, good centre-forward and players with the ability to nick goals from slight chances. They can take a lot of pressure and yet win matches and that's how you win cups.'

Perhaps he was too polite to mention that injury and illness have so stricken Reid's team that an outright City victory might be the only surprising result.

(Photograph omitted)

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