Book Of The Week: Tales of Barnsley in a very different era

Barnsley: A study in football 1953-59 by Andrew Ward and Ian Alister (Crowberry, pounds 9.99)

Jon Culley
Sunday 10 August 1997 23:02 BST

These are dreamy days for Barnsley. Their next home game will be shown live on television on a Sunday afternoon against Chelsea. The Chelsea of Ruud Gullit and Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola.

Almost all the 17,000 seats at Oakwell will be taken, as they probably will for every home match this season. It can't really be Barnsley, can it?

Ian Alister and Andrew Ward will have asked themselves the same question since the club's 110-year odyssey through the lower divisions of English football ended with promotion to the Premiership last May. Many times, no doubt.

Almost two decades ago, the two of them set out to capture what they considered to be the essence of Barnsley Football Club with a chronicle of one brief period - six seasons only - in the club's history, the years in which Ward's father, Tim, was manager.

Unconstrained by deadlines or commercial considerations, they conducted more than 100 interviews in such spare time as their teaching jobs would allow, talking to as many of the players from those years as they could locate, indeed to absolutely anyone - including bus drivers, office staff, tea ladies and even journalists - as could supply them with reliable anecdotes.

The fruits of their labour appeared first in 1981 in a slim paperback. It was not a big-budget production. Indeed, the pages appeared to have been typed on a vintage Remington and then Xeroxed by the school secretary, or, as Michael Parkinson put it, "like it was printed in someone's back bedroom with the police knocking at the door".

The words, however, were strangely compelling, the catalogue of memories they had compiled being reproduced not as a dry history but as a diary in narrative form. The result was less of a football book than a social documentary, recreating vividly the atmosphere of the era in prose that gripped the reader with the immediacy of a novel, times recalled with affection and humour but little sentimentality.

It acquired, or so the publishers say, a cult following, which usually means that not many people bought it. Happily, a few more will have the chance now. It has been reissued, under a different cover and in a "proper" type face, but with the text largely unchanged. Syd "Skinner" Normanton, who really did exist, has his picture on the front.

The era described, of course, is light years from the present. A Barnsley player whom the locals might consider a star might earn pounds 15 a week, drive a Ford Prefect and go dancing on a Saturday night. If he ever saw himself on screen it would be on Pathe news film from the one-and-nines.

The book is reproduced for obvious reasons. It should be regarded, though, not as a celebration but an antidote, should these dizzy heights start to turn anyone queasy.

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