Barnsley, South Yorkshire.
December 2nd 1981.
"The noise within the ground is force of evidence of the football boom in this town...."
Take one step aside from the cliches of dark satanic mills, pensive colliery masts and flat cap and vest combinations for a moment and allow your senses to be seduced. Listen first to the throaty roar of that crowd packed into Oakwell in their heaving thousands. It lifts you off your feet and holds you there, sucks at your insides and blasts through in giant waves of static heat. Smoke rises from the terraces, so tightly packed, the thousands of heads look like pebbles packed onto an infinitely sloping beach. The night is darker than tar and an ephemeral fug hangs around the diagonal light cast by the giant floodlight pylons. There are almost 34,000 souls vying for legroom, stretching for a viewpoint, fighting for air in here on the shallow steps tonight. The atmosphere tears at your senses, vibrant, electric, and pulsing. For two hours they have been pouring down the hill from the town centre.
"The atmosphere tonight truly belongs to an age gone by..."
Cigarette smoke snakes through the icy air, as, down below on the impossibly green pitch, the teams emerge to a cascade of noise. It is in this South Yorkshire sweat-house that the willing men of Barnsley Football Club will do battle with their swanky upper class neighbours from across the mountain moors, First Division Manchester City. It is here that the night prepares to rip any doubters to shreds. Stand tall, clear your throats or be off with you back into the forbidding Yorkshire night. The noise lifts again, the whole place seems to tilt a little under the onslaught. The boys in Blue have never looked so utterly small and outnumbered. The away terrace, a giant open hill of rickety steps facing the chill blast of this November night, trembles a little too, with its 5,000 visitors from Lancashire. We try to raise some noise but it is carried away by the wind. The onslaught from all around us is loud and clear, however.
Barnsley, as today, a tough as teak second tier side, went on to knock City out of the League Cup that night. It was a very cold December, the year 1981. City, the FA Cup holders, experienced and keen to savour the twin towers of Wembley again, hardly stood a chance as that throbbing mass of folk sucked the ball from one side of the pitch to another. The leggy Tommy Hutchison was shackled by a man as solid as a pillar of granite, an upright centre half in the old mould of clatter and be clattered. Standing next to the impish Phil Boyer, his fluffy blond hair taking off in the squally Yorkshire night, Mick McCarthy could have been mistaken as something hued from stone cliffs. Boyer had never looked so impotent as on that occasion, dragged around by gusts of wind, buffeted by the expert attention of McCarthy. The Barnsley captain would a year later appear in the sky blue himself, brought in to help the faithful forget the departed Tommy Caton. But on this occasion, he dragged that Barnsley side to Olympian heights.
He brought with him to Manchester an appetite for hard work and a natural honesty that blew new life into a freshly relegated City. McCarthy is the last player to swap Oakwell for Manchester City, but various forays into the lower leagues have allowed City to reaquaint themselves with Barnsley football club, who now stand between the Blues and a berth in this season's FA Cup semifinals. Indeed this very competition brought the two clubs together in an epic 1993 clash, decided by the speed and sure-footedness of David White, who scored twice from a total of a foot and a half from the goal-line in City's 2-0 fifth round win. The fall-out from both the ‘81 and the ‘93 cup games was a swift waning of power in City's legs. By 1983, City were in the old second division, playing Barnsley regularly as fellow incumbents of the lower echelons. In 1993, the success against the Tykes pushed City into an ill-fated quarterfinal with Tottenham, which featured the rare sights of pitch invasions, the only Nayim hat trick witnessed by humankind and so many dollops of steaming horse excrement on the Maine Road pitch, you would have thought you were watching the horse of the year show. Three years later, City were once again packing their bags for Oakwell to fulfill lower league obligations.
It is clear, then, that history warns opponents of Barnsley football club to sit up and pay attention. At no time, presume that this is some sort of cakewalk direct to the marble and steel of a Wembley semifinal. There is serious work to be done first, against a team with pedigree and pride. A team that will display no little grit and determination, as befits a side representing the tough old hilltop town of Barnsley. If the men of Manchester are to prevail, they will do well to remember the tales of '81 and '93 and take heed.
Barnsley, South Yorkshire.