For those of us who remember the 1990’s, it was a decade that immediately evokes many memories good and bad - the destruction of the Berlin Wall, 2-0 (Gates & Gabbiadini), the end of Margaret Thatcher as PM, Terry Butcher composing with the Fulwell End, Britpop, Mick Buxton’s flat cap, Spice Girls, the birth of New Labour, Barnsley in the Premier League…
... whoa there, just hang on a minute.
It turns out that of all the things from the 90’s I managed to wipe from the memory banks, Barnsley in the Premier League wasn’t one of them.
Roker Report have recently been given the good fortune and privilege to view a newly-released crowdfunded film created by a set of Barnsley fans. The film, named very aptly Daydream Believers, chronicles the journey of Barnsley Football Club earning promotion to the top tier of English football for the first time in its 110 year history.
The story begins poignantly with scenes from the miner’s strike brilliantly capturing the mess that the 1980’s had left behind - a lot of scars of which are still present in the public’s psyche to this day.
Although I was too young to fully understand what was going on at the time, I subsequently grew up with stories from my parents regarding the impact of the miner’s strike in the north-east. I also now live on a new housing estate built on the old British Steel Corporation coking plant at Orgreave in South Yorkshire, where we host an annual march remembering the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ in 1984.
As I watched the opening scenes of the film describing the impact of the strike on the community in Barnsley, I couldn’t help but to begin to see parallels between the story there and our own during the 1990’s. Looking back, they’re are strikingly similar until a verge in the road took the clubs on very different paths forward.
In hindsight, the transformation over those ten years at Sunderland AFC was remarkable. The club that entered the new millennium kicking and screaming bore very little relation to the one that was spat out of the 80’s entering the nineties recovering from a first jaunt into the third tier of the football league.
As well as on the pitch, the social and economic similarities for the people of Barnsley and Sunderland are also clear to see. The closure of the mines and shipbuilding ripped the heart out of Wearside moving into the decade.
Sunderland AFC managed to put a few smiles back on faces with promotion to the old Division One under strange circumstances in 1990, but immediate relegation back to Division Two led to some pretty miserable years following the lads.
Both clubs needed a messiah to lift them up by the boot straps and give the people reason to puff their chests out with pride. The 1994/95 season saw the introduction of ex-Northern Ireland international Danny Wilson at Barnsley and ex-England international Peter Reid at Sunderland.
Reidy hit the ground running, joining the club in a relegation battle with seven games remaining after a run of six defeats in seven - and he went on to turn it all around, losing only once on the way to avoiding demotion.
We didn’t know what to expect during Reid’s first full season - a season that didn’t include worrying about relegation would have done. All safe in the knowledge that the play-offs could always be a possibility if you hang around mid-table for long enough and win your last two games.
What we didn’t expect, or at least I didn’t, was a season that anyone who lived through and witnessed will ever forget. With virtually the same squad, we went on to be crowned champions, winning the league by four points in a season that included a run of nine straight victories.
This came out of nowhere, like a bolt from the blue, and that made it all taste sweeter - and when it reaches a point when a song that you first hear on the terraces at away games reaches number 41 in the singles charts (if you can’t remember the charts, ask your parents kids), you know you’re living through a fairly epic period of time at your club.
Watching the scenes in the film when Barnsley achieve promotion from the second tier - occurring a year after ours - brings back the evocative memory of Bobby Saxton on the hallowed turf at Roker Park during the trophy presentation. A gritty, tough man in tears with one arm around the neck of Peter Reid looking around the old place repeating “money can’t buy this” - and he was right.
Promotion to the Premier League resulted in immediate relegation for both clubs, but where Sunderland took the opportunity to move into a new stadium with a capacity of 42,000, Barnsley stayed at Oakwell where they have remained to this day. At that time a lot of older grounds were still suffering from a hangover resulting from the Taylor Report, in the same way as Roker Park was.
As much as I loved Roker Park, and some part of me would love us to still play there, I know that if it weren’t for moving we would not have had the foundation to build again for the years that followed under Reid. Those years were the most enjoyable I have ever had following Sunderland and it all stemmed from that promotion and the subsequent move to the Stadium of Light.
After many parallels up to the late 1990’s it was at the point we moved to our new home that our fortunes diverged from Barnsley’s. And, after relegation, Danny Wilson left for Sheffield Wednesday and other than a brief flirtation with the play-offs, years of instability followed - including administration after the ITV Digital collapse.
Daydream Believers is a great watch for anyone interested in anything and everything to do with football, particularly at clubs where working class people are very much at the heart of everything that goes on. Watching Barnsley’s story brought back so many memories of our incredible championship winning side of 1995/96 - I could almost smell the Bovril.
Maybe a budding film maker will do the same and document our story in a similar way. I hope so - it would be a lot of fun to re-live those times all over again.
‘Daydream Believers - The story of how a football team made a town believe again’ is available to pre-order on DVD at www.daydream-believers.co.uk ahead of an official release on the 10th November - purchases go towards raising funds for a new neo-natal unit at Barnsley Hospital.