Why Barnsley is obsessed by one subject

town where the general election comes a poor second to the unlikely prospect of the Yorkshire club reaching the top division for the first time
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Even those for whom the next seven days offer disappointment as well as pleasure were paying attention to the proper priorities in Barnsley this week. Simon Gutteridge, for example, can tell you the year the town's football team last nearly made it to England's top division, not to mention when they won the FA Cup.

Which is not bad for an outsider from "down south" who has a few things on his mind at the moment: like standing as a Conservative Party candidate in a Labour stronghold so mighty it could be a fortress, and the little matter of overturning a 19,000 majority in Barnsley Central.

Yet, fact perfect, he rattled off statistics like a Tyke. 1922: missed out on the First Division by a fraction of goal average; 1915: finished third in the Second Division, a place below the promotion teams; 1912: winners of the FA Cup. The litany of near misses and one direct hit is repeated like a prayer.

Barnsley is about as obsessed on one subject as it could be. A local brewery, Elsecar's, is preparing a special ale, Barnsley's Glory Bitter, while in the Alhambra Shopping Centre people talk of little else. A general election may be in process but the ups and downs of the parties mean little when promotion is the topic on everyone's lips. After 109 years of waiting, the team are past the knocking-on-the-door stage and are about to cross the threshold into the big time.

A win today over Bradford City in front of a 19,500-capacity crowd at Oakwell and that will be it - Barnsley will be rubbing shoulders with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool and taking part in a league that was designed for city slickers rather than small-town clubs.

"I've been living on my nerves for weeks now," Paul Grunill, a 37-year- old lifelong supporter, said yesterday. "Twenty-six hours before the match starts and I'm finding it hard to concentrate on anything else."

Grunill is typical of the line that runs through the club's fans as his family have supported Barnsley since the Twenties at least. "Promotion would mean a lot to me on many levels," he said. "I will be celebrating for my grandfathers who are now dead, my father who is blind and can't go to matches any more, and my son, Edmund, who has caught the disease of supporting the club through me."

Better known Barnsley supporters include Michael Parkinson, Charlie Williams, Stan Richards (Seth Armstrong from the television soap Emmerdale) and Dickie Bird, the former Test umpire, who signed amateur forms for the club at 15, only for a knee injury to wreck his chances of a career in the game. "Today's Barnsley team is the best I have seen since 1948 and the days of Danny Blanchflower," Bird said. "There are some fabulous youngsters coming through the club's youth policy and they play real football, beautiful football, not just kick-it-into-the-stand stuff."

If Barnsley succeed the achievement will be enormous. This is a club whose record transfer fee, pounds 310,000, would pay Fabrizio Ravanelli's wages for only eight weeks and who have got to the precipice of promotion while playing with two veteran strikers who were surplus to Middlesbrough's requirements. The fact Barnsley might swap places with Middlesbrough at the end of the year is a delicious thought for those who bemoan that money shouts in football.

"To be honest I could have stayed at Middlesbrough and spent the season sat on the bench," said John Hendrie, who has been promoted four times before with Boro, Leeds and Bradford. "But Danny Wilson [the manager] was very persuasive. He said: `Listen John, you're not coming to a dead- end club. We play good football and we have a good chance of going up'."

Paul Wilkinson, the other Boro reject, told him much the same. "I never expected to be playing with Wilko again but he was very enthusiastic. He told me: `Don't think you're dropping down in standard, John. Barnsley are a good team'." At 34, and costing pounds 250,000, he was about to become the First Division's bargain buy of the season.

Ask him why Barnsley have defied expectation and he admits his answer is predictable. "There's a wonderful team spirit," he said. "I know everyone says that if they have a bit of success but the players are prepared to work hard for each other here.

"The standard of play is very good too and we pass the ball about a bit. I'm proud that we have played our way to the verge of promotion and not just kicked our way there.

"The people round here always thought we'd be there or thereabouts. Maybe not automatic promotion but the play-offs certainly. There's been no pressure, they've left us to get on with it, but I think they've always fancied our chances. It's just the rest of the nation that's taken until the last few weeks to cotton on."

Hendrie will not talk about promotion until the mathematics have been fully satisfied - "Football has this nasty habit of kicking you in the teeth - until we get into the Premiership I don't want to talk about it" - but others will face the question that hovers over Barnsley's success: can they survive in the top division?

John Dennis, who owns a wholesale fresh food business, is the club chairman. "We've been the bookies' favourite for relegation for 12 years out of the last 15," he said. "We are on the brink of history, but it would be foolish to minimise the problems we'll have next year if we go up."

Dennis, who has masterminded the redevelopment of Oakwell with two new all-seat stands and an excellent playing surface, says he has endured "the mood swings of a junkie" during the promotion run-in. "I'm 46 and look 90 at the moment," he said.

Paul Grunill believes "the achievement is in getting promotion to the Premiership, not playing in it." He added: "Personally I find the emphasis on money in the top division a big turn-off. I want them to do ourselves justice but if things do turn out badly I hope the board will not panic. If we struggle next season it won't make Danny Wilson any less of a good manager."

Meanwhile, Simon Gutteridge was still knocking on doors attempting to persuade people to vote Tory when the Labour party could put up a sheep and win an endorsement of the electorate. A likely loser in a town about to embrace a great sporting victory, he was defiant. "You can't concede defeat," he said, "although I accept it will take a lot of luck on a very good day for me to succeed. I remain hopeful. I like a challenge."

Barnsley, whose odds of gaining promotion at the start of the season were only slightly better than Gutteridge's becoming an MP on Thursday, are having their lucky day. The challenge will come next year.

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