From acorns, Oakwell grows

Glenn Moore charts the rise and rise of Barnsley, the Premiership's unlikely new boys
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The Independent Online
Last summer they warmed up for the new season by playing Wigan and finished it by losing 5-1 at Oxford United. This season they have prepared by hosting Santos of Brazil and will conclude with the visit of Manchester United.

Such is the pace of change at Barnsley, a club formerly noted only in Michael Parkinson's memories. On Saturday they become the 29th team, and possibly the least likely, to play in the Premiership when West Ham United arrive.

In 110 years, Barnsley have never been in the top flight and were getting gates below 4,000 four seasons ago. Like Port Vale and Grimsby, the only time they were mentioned in the same breath as the Premiership was as a threat to teams facing relegation.

No longer. From Adams to Zola, the very best are now heading for Oakwell and they will be pleasantly surprised by it. Since reluctantly and belatedly agreeing to adopt the Taylor Report five years ago Oakwell has been transformed. What was once an open barn, large but dated with barely 2,000 seats, is now an all-seat 19,000 arena which retains enough of the old memories to give it the edge over the new Meccano pre-fabs. It also has room to grow, being on one of the largest sites in the Premiership at 25 acres (Highbury is 10 acres).

The twin masters of this domain are the contrasting pair of John Dennis and Danny Wilson. Dennis is a big man in his mid-forties, the son of a former chairman, Yorkshire-born and a Barnsley fan since childhood. He has been known to leap about the directors' box, but is yet to become one of the moneyed chairmen who work at the club and look to the stock exchange. Away from match days he is busy running the family fruit-and- veg business.

Wilson, a decade younger and half a foot shorter, is a Lancastrian (though he played 24 times for Northern Ireland). Quieter and more intense, he has been in the game since he was 16, playing under "about 15 managers" but being more influenced by 13 months under Brian Clough than anyone else.

It shows in his team's football. "Don't call us battling Barnsley," he has cautioned. "It makes us sound a bunch of thugs. Why not `stylish Barnsley', for that's nearer the truth.

"You won't see us pumping long balls forward. We try to put on a show and that means playing the ball to feet. That was the style of football I was brought up on, what I want to see and what I think the public want to see." He appears to be right, with all 16,000 season tickets sold - the remaining 3,000 spaces are for away fans.

Not that the supporters were always keen. When Dennis promoted Wilson to manager in 1994, after Viv Anderson had joined Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough, the club were concentrating on rebuilding the ground and Wilson had to manage with just inspiration and perspiration. Both men were criticised as the club slipped into the relegation zone with two wins in the first nine games and crowds below 4,000.

"The locals were playing hell," Wilson recalled. "I was a convenient scapegoat because I was still playing and for four months I was hammered."

However, the team finished 10th and sixth while the stands went up around them. Then, given a little cash to spend, Wilson looked abroad. He brought in Arjan de Zeeuw, a Dutch doctor, and Trinidad's Clint Marcelle. From Middlesbrough came John Hendrie and Paul Wilkinson further supplementing youngsters such as the England Under-21 goalkeeper, David Watson, and experienced pros like the skipper, Neil Redfern. The mix worked: Barnsley won the first five matches and have rarely looked back.

But now comes the Premiership. "I can't wait to go to places like Old Trafford and Anfield," Wilson said. "I'm going to learn a lot and we'll give a good account of ourselves. I believe we can stay up. We have good bonding and a little bit of skill."

How quickly the newcomers - the Macedonian striker Georgi Hristov, German Lars Leese, Ales Krizan, a Slovenian, and South African's Eric Tinkler - settle could be crucial. Good luck with injuries will also be required if Barnsley are to justify the local slogan "It's just like watching Brazil".

Simply by getting to the Premiership Barnsley have struck a blow for all those clubs held in thinly veiled contempt by the Premiership barons. They are proof that, with good husbandry and smart management, "small" clubs can earn the right to tangle with the best. It will be good for the game if they survive, but even if they do not one hopes Wilson will stick to his principles and ultimately prosper.

And that Dennis, who was once censured for bursting into the referee's room and berating Ray Lewis ("I felt a right prat when I got there"), will still find the time and perspective to pull a pint for the official and his assistants before delivering it personally - still in the glass.

Mind, if it's the local brew, Timothy Taylor's award- winning Landlord, Dennis should be careful. It might constitute a bribe.

Rising without trace Other minnows who made the big time

Club Years in Total years

top flight of tenure

Bristol City 1906-11

1976-80 9

Carlisle 1975-77 2

Fulham 1949-52

1959-68 12

Northampton 1965-66 1

Watford 1982-88 6

Wimbledon 1986-now 11