Football: Wilson's blend of spirit and polish

Norman Fox looks at the stunning rise of Barnsley as Premier contenders
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The Independent Online
Some of the instigators of the Premiership had it in mind that one day in their ideal future they would be able to reduce the number of teams to an elite, create a super league, join up with Europe and enjoy security within a cartel of big names. They would never again have to mix with and perhaps be embarrassed by the very grass-roots clubs that form the basis of the game. Barnsley are one of those with the capacity to spoil the undemocratic grand plan.

Given a few more points they will be playing in next season's Premiership, even without recourse to the play-offs. But they are a club you would have depended upon to remain one of football's worthy strugglers, always dreaming of better days without knowing what they would do with them if they came. Barnsley, the epitome of football's eternal support group, a club built on nostalgia that Michael Parkinson turned into a cottage industry and one brought into many a pre-election speech by another of the town's proud sons, Roy Mason MP.

According to Parkinson, by tradition Barnsley folk really only go for the hard men of the game "with hearts as big as their bums" and names like Arblaster and Ironside. He made Skinner Normanton famous to a generation who never saw him play. In the late Forties and early Fifties Normanton was "as swift in the tackle as summer lightning" and, in the opinion of the locals, was an even better player than Danny Blanchflower, who appeared at Oakwell in the late Forties but fumed at the relentless emphasis on physical training, leaving to play his part in the glory of Tottenham.

So what will they make of the millionaire players who, it now seems certain, will next season come to Barnsley, though only to play against them? The whole situation is a far cry from the time when the club's manager for 16 years until 1953, Angus Seed, would go to promising young players with his pre-prepared boast "there's a job waiting for you at Wharncliffe Woodmoor Colliery - come to Barnsley and the place will grow on you". Since many of the players came from other mining towns, persuading them was not all that difficult. Whether Barnsley could be presented as a suitable place to live for some future Juninho or Ravanelli in the way Bryan Robson sold Middlesbrough is debatable.

Although notable FA Cup fighters, in all of their 110-year history Barnsley have never reached the top division. But their followers resent the whole working-man's club portrayal. They claim that even in the old Fourth Division their teams always tried to play good football on a tight budget. Barnsley's campaign this season has sometimes been enhanced by offering cut-price football and free entrance and balloons for schoolchildren. And the Home Matches for a Fiver scheme has brought in thousands of long-lost supporters. The value-for-money ethic is still strong.

The inspiration is the manager, Danny Wilson - there's a name straight out of the Wizard. He has been winning a lot of admirers and is considered one of the few young bosses with the talent to succeed at a bigger club. Alan Curbishley, the Charlton manager, recently saw his side lose 4-0 at Oakwell but had the grace to say: "I really hope he does it - Barnsley play football the way it should be played. That's what you'd expect of Danny Wilson." Good enough for the Premiership though?

Wilson, who is only 37 but appeared for eight different clubs before arriving at Oakwell in 1994, has brought his team together for about pounds 1m. Although nine of the playing staff are Barnsley born, the club are not as insular as the romantics like to make out. The squad include several foreigners. Indeed, a visit to the Reds shop will find T-shirts bearing the slightly optimistic slogan "It's Just Like Watching Brazil". In reality Barnsley's progress to second place in the First Division behind the rampant Bolton has been based largely on a striking partnership of John Hendrie, with his clever footwork, and Paul Wilkinson, the battling leader. It was a partnership forged at Middlesbrough (what irony if they went down while Barnsley replaced them) and is supported quickly and cleverly by Clint Marcelle, a Trinidad and Tobago international.

Wilson thinks Premier sides would regard a visit to Barnsley like a trip to the dentist. "All of the best teams in the First Division have played here and we haven't been afraid of any of them. I don't expect many people outside Barnsley to get all that excited or want to help us, but all the time we're winning, they can't stop us."

A better FA Cup run would have brought deserved publicity but they fell to an extraordinary overhead kick by Queen's Park Rangers' Trevor Sinclair. Rangers were also one of the few teams to outplay them in the league. The die-hard older Barnsley fans complained that the team had become too fussy. Wilson, curiously a Lancastrian in this bastion of Yorkshireness, says he is not fussed by that.