The new football season is underway and millions of fans will already be dreaming of promotion, buckling their belts for a tough season ahead, or just praying their team continues to have financial stability that defies the lingering effects of the recession. Football fans are a funny bunch. We experience a multitude of emotions in the space of 90 minutes and no matter how bad things get the majority of us keep coming back for more, but why? I can only offer my own perspective on the joy and suffering I have endured following my hometown football club – Barnsley FC.
Barnsley are not one of the big teams in Yorkshire. Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds have prouder histories than the Tykes and in recent seasons Doncaster and Hull have risen from the lower leagues to rub shoulders amongst them. Inferior we may be but Barnsley do have some traits other teams would envy. For instance, we have won the FA Cup. Okay, it was only once, back in 1912, but a win’s a win right? Many football teams cannot claim to have been the last one’s standing in the FA Cup. Barnsley also have the dubious honour of having spent more seasons in the second tier of English football than any other team. I find that statistic somewhat fitting, the idea of the Tykes being one agonising step away from the elite.
My support of Barnsley FC began, shamed as I am to say, with our brief stay in the Premiership. Oakwell was suddenly selling out, the whole town was interested, so I certainly wasn’t alone in being branded a ‘glory chaser.’ Despite our relegation it was a season to be proud of. We didn’t finish bottom of the league and it took until the penultimate game for our fate to be sealed in a 1-0 defeat at Leicester. It wasn’t until the following season that I saw my first game – a 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane where the Blades pegged us back only when our keeper slipped trying to keep out a free-kick. The season following our relegation from the Premiership was a non-starter but in May 2000 we had a trip to Wembley for the play-off final and were 90 minutes away from a return to the top flight. A 4-2 defeat to Ipswich saw them ascend to the top tier while the Tykes were left reflecting on what might have been. The following season we slipped into League One and our attendances continued to decline. My support for Barnsley did not waver even though the glory days of ‘just like watching Brazil’ were becoming lamentable specks on the horizon.
Until 2005 I would see a handful of games at Oakwell every year, particularly local derbies, but for the 2005/6 season I became a season ticket holder and have been ever since. My decision was justified with Barnsley winning promotion via a play-off final victory over Swansea at the Millennium Stadium. Since returning to the Championship I have sat through three relegation struggles and feel the extent of my anguish has more than redeemed my ‘glory chaser’ days. The 2010/11 season has seen Barnsley lose 4-0 at QPR and suffer a 1-0 reverse at home to Rochdale in the cup. It’s hardly the start I was hoping for but as I brace myself for my first home game on Saturday against Crystal Palace I still feel positive.
Whenever Barnsley lose, and believe me it is a lot in the Championship, I find myself grumbling and cursing the players, the referee and the opposition. If Barnsley have given their all and lost to a better team then I’ll go home satisfied, but if the spirit and belief wasn’t there I don’t feel the players are worth the applause. With most losses my disappointment comes not from the result but from knowing the team is better than what we’re seeing on the pitch.
Whatever happens on the pitch I always enjoy coming back to Oakwell. Though I no longer live in Barnsley my roots will always be in the town which is now overlooked by the disused coal mines. Barnsley and its football team may be a joke to many but I’m proud to be a part of both. It’s a good feeling sitting amongst thousands of like-minded people and the 11-12,000 that regularly attend the games display the kind of loyalty that more should practice in football. Oakwell can hold 20,000+ people yet there are so many empty seats. In May 2006 20,000 travelled to the Millennium Stadium and in April 2008 30,000 emerged to make the trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final. It’s the way the game works, sadly. A former neighbour of my mother’s once said he was a loyal Barnsley fan yet only went to games when the team was doing well. He couldn’t see the point in going if they were always losing. It’s a tale I’ve told many times and it always makes me sad to recount it.
On Saturday when Barnsley emerge from the tunnel I’ll be on my feet applauding the players and hoping they can deliver, firstly, a good result and, secondly, a decent performance. I don’t know what the season will bring for the Tykes. I try to take each game as it comes. As it stands we’re bottom of the league and could do with a win on Saturday to get our season up and running though we face a tough test in the Eagles. Whatever happens I’ll keep coming back, I’ll suffer many more defeats but rejoice and savour the victories. I’ll never stop believing that Barnsley FC have the potential to do great things, but whether they realise this is not for me to decide.
Saturday is almost here so it’s time to grab the scarf and check I’ve got my season ticket before I make the short journey on the train to my hometown. I’ll expect to see the usual loyal faces come 3.00 p.m. and together we’ll brace ourselves for a season of cheers, jeers, sore throats and gnawed fingernails. Being a Barnsley FC is certainly not easy, but it’s something I’d be sorry to be without.
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