APRIL 26, 1997 ... remember the day.
If you are a Barnsley supporter, it is a date which is truly etched in Reds’ folklore.
A then sell-out Oakwell crowd of 18,605 saw Barnsley afford themselves paradise after beating Yorkshire rivals Bradford City 2-0 to joyously book their place in the top flight for the first time in the club’s 109-year history, with the 20th anniversary of that unforgettable and intoxicating spring afternoon arriving on Wednesday.
The accents may have been Mapplewell and Monk Bretton, but the song of the day – and indeed the season – harkened back to the Maracana. ‘It’s just like watching Brazil.’
A carnival atmosphere was followed by a carnival performance as Danny Wilson’s redoubtable, magnificent Reds – backed by the support of countless neutrals across the land – secured their invite to the Premiership Promised Land, fittingly with a Moses in their ranks.
It would have provided a far more handsome victory had it not been for the heroics of Bantams goalkeeper Aidan Davison, who stood tall to most things thrown in his direction by Barnsley, who peppered his goal.
Nicky Eaden also struck the post for the hosts. But two goals proved to be plenty in the end.
Appropriately, in such a wondrous season, Barnsley did it in style with the scenes of celebration which followed substitute Clint Marcelle’s 87thminute clincher in front of the Pontefract Road end to make it 2-0 being quite something to behold.
Earlier, Paul Wilkinson had settled the hosts’ nerves by heading in a 21st-minute opener following a cross from John Hendrie, but it was Marcelle’s sweet late second which kickstarted the mother of all parties in Barnsley.
Conveying the sense of euphoria in the immediate aftermath of Barnsley’s historic victory and achievement, Reds chairman John Dennis, with no hint of understatement, said: “The party will go on for a year.”
Typically, clear-sighted manager Wilson – a true champion of the world to Reds supporters – cast his eyes forward to the next challenge before getting back to the party, which for him ended back at his local in Chesterfield where he was given a standing ovation.
Speaking after the game amid wild celebrations and an outpouring of emotion at Oakwell, Wilson said: “I want to build on what we started here.
“I was grateful to Barnsley for giving me my chance in management and I hope this promotion is a case of loyalty repaid.
“We have done it the right way, too, working hard and honestly and playing good football. These fans have seen a lot of hard times here, they deserve a day like today. We have got to look to Wimbledon’s example, now.
“That has to be our inspiration. There is not a lot of money to spend, but what we do have must be spent wisely.”
A fateful intervention from Grimsby Town winger by the name of John Oster had set the stage for Barnsley’s party and promotion coronation three days earlier.
A goal from the Mariners’ youngster earned the visitors a point at Mark McGhee’s third-placed Wolverhampton Wanderers, ensuring that victory for Barnsley at home to Bradford would be enough to take them up
By the end of the game at Oakwell, McGhee was also in the thoughts of Reds supporters too.
A brazen chant of “Are you watching Mark McGhee?” did the rounds in reference to the Scot’s pre-match assertion that Barnsley would be “thrown to the sharks” if they reached the Premier League.
Showing rather more class were many of the Bradford contingent in the open away end, who sportingly played their part in the celebrations – despite their side’s perilous plight towards the foot of the second tier.
Thankfully, it was a fight they would also win. But that April afternoon very much belonged to Barnsley.
The first chapter of an extraordinary campaign was written in August when the Reds won their opening five games to top the table and ‘little old Barnsley’ would refuse to go away in the months ahead.
Proof that the Reds were the real deal arrived in December when a key win at Bramall Lane and a festive home victory over Manchester City hardened their promotion credentials and a number of other results fortified that belief.
The majesty of Barnsley’s eyecatching and vibrant football, with a talismanic midfield leader at the helm in Neil Redfearn who was pulling the strings, added to the sense of well-being and swelling of pride.
The wobble that many were expecting would never arrive. Barnsley moved into the top three in late November and were to stay there.
From January 18, Barnsley lost just three matches in 17 outings heading into their definitive home match with Bradford.
While there were a few nerves after a 4-2 defeat to Portsmouth at Fratton Park the previous weekend, struggling Grimsby’s surprise draw at Molineux provided the Reds with all the stimulus that they required to finish off the job.
Redfearn proved the star turn with a haul of 14 goals to secure iconic status with the Reds faithful, but contributions arrived from across the park in that legendary campaign.
The nous of Hendrie and Wilkinson – in a reprise of their successful partnership at Middlesbrough – was self-evident and there was the goods at the back in another who earned cult status with Reds fans in Arjen De Zueew, famously now a detective for the police in his native Holland.
Homegrown talent in the shape of highly-regarded keeper David Watson, Eaden and Adi Moses showcased the Reds’ vibrant academy in all its glory, with contributions also from Andy Liddell and Scott Jones.
Some astute signings from the lower divisions also proved pivotal and came of age. Matty Appleby, now a deep sea diver by trade, was a classy sweeper, while Darren Sheridan, currently working as a motorway worker, was a tenacious and indefatigable presence in the engine room.
Trinidadian winger Marcelle provided some crowd-pleasing ‘off-the-cuff ’ trickery in the final third and there was also foreign flair in the shape of Serbian midfielder Jovo Bosancic, who now runs a water park in Portugal.
The input of some seasoned old heads too in the guise of experienced defender Neil Thompson and Peter Shirtliff also played its part, along with another solid professional in former Crewe Alexandra manager Steve Davis.
It was a winning mix in a vintage season which no-one connected with Barnsley will ever forget.