Football

Oakwell: A Love Letter to A South Yorkshire Gem

There is something glamorous about the names of certain football grounds that give an air of mystery if you haven’t visited them. Shrewsbury Town’s Gay Meadow and Darlington’s Feethams may be gone, but you can still visit Priestfield in Gillingham, Molineux in Wolverhampton or a venue I know well, Oakwell in Barnsley.

Barnsley are enjoying a celebration of their own at the moment, 20 years on from their first ever visit to the top flight of English football. In 1997/98, ‘Its just like watching Brazil’ resonated around Oakwell and players whose names carry weight in that specific corner of South Yorkshire, if perhaps nowhere else, strutted their stuff.

That team brought a lot of joy.

Nicky Eaden, Neil Redfearn, Clint Marcelle, Arjan de Zeeuw… I could go on. There is a DVD by the title of ‘Daydream Believers’ being released to mark the anniversary. They deserve it. That team brought a lot of joy to one of England’s poorest areas; and I can empathise with that given what is happening in Huddersfield at the moment.

For all the ‘green and pleasant land’ of England, few of its football stadia afford the same aspect of its cricket grounds, with rolling hills peeling away in the distance; perhaps as the better football clubs tend to be in the bigger, more industrial towns. Of those that spring to mind easily, Moss Rose, Macclesfield, is one. Oakwell is another.

In my opinion, the best approach to Oakwell is from the West side of the ground; it brings you through to the stadium with a view down on the North and West Stands, the first of which is the away end. You look down on the West Stand, seen in the picture here, and wonder not just how the home fans can see from the back of it, but how perfectly out of time it seems, as if a beautiful relic from another age.

I’m talking about Oakwell today because its just about all I’ve talked to my mum about all week. I’m a Huddersfield fan, as you may be aware, so my trips to Barnsley have always been in the North Stand; it used to be open, but it has a roof now. I’ve been to it in both states, but preferred the former.

Oakwell deserved its moment in the sun, in the top flight. It made its mark, too, in a way that Barnsley maybe failed to do. One of the iconic goals scored in English football in the late 20th Century was a dancing run from enigmatic Frenchman David Ginola, taking him through a host of Barnsley players before rolling the ball into the goal in front of the away end. It was beautiful, and Oakwell was the perfect setting for it.

More than spectacular goals, football is all about the shared memories you have with family, with friends, and with your fellow supporters. The question I posed to my mum last week was ‘When did I last go to Oakwell?’ and perhaps the reason it has brought so much to mind is because our paths have intersected with Barnsley so often and because Barnsley and Huddersfield are so close, the games generally carry a little bit of spice, though less than those with Bradford or Leeds.

Just like watching Brazil

I know the first time I went was in August 1996. If it was just like watching Brazil to see Barnsley that season, Huddersfield were in yellow that day. Clint Marcelle scored a beautiful goal that afternoon in a game that was live on Sky, while Town’s reply came direct from a throw-in from Tom Cowan and was on ‘What Happened Next?’ on Question of Sport a few weeks later.

“Was it the lunchtime kick off where that throw in was scored from right where we were?” asked my mum. No, it was not.

I know the second time I went, and I know the away end was still open then because it was tipping down on a Friday night – another game live on Sky. I’ve seen Town play worse, believe me I have, but to be 6-0 down at half time and be lucky (genuinely lucky – watch the highlights – even if just for Darren Barnard’s goal, the sixth) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQbSPjdhhSov) to be so, and that’s before Craig Hignett missed a second half penalty.

You grow on nights like that, standing in the pissing rain on a bitter November night in South Yorkshire. You realise why you’re there, and you don’t leave at half time, and you don’t even leave when Bruce Dyer finally does make it 7-0 and you laugh when Delroy Facey gets a consolation that I remain sure was offside.

It was not that game that was my last trip to Oakwell (perhaps fortunately so), I don’t think.

Another scrappy, crappy goal

Some time later, Huddersfield and Barnsley met in the League One playoff semi-finals, in 2006. Most stories about Huddersfield Town involve the playoffs somewhere along the line and this one is no exception. Another televised match and another scrappy, crappy goal.

This time, Gary Taylor-Fletcher gave Town a 0-1 victory that looked to have given them the upper hand in the tie. Of course, Huddersfield have never won a playoff game at home, so they lost that one 1-3 and Barnsley went on to promotion, via a penalty shootout, a couple of weeks later.

“Your mum and I definitely were (there), not sure about you. I remember thinking ‘job done’ with the away leg won, only to lose the home leg” came the message about that one; my mum being messenger from her partner rather than referring to herself in the third person.

I’m not even sure I was there. I think I was, but I’m not sure. I remember the home leg, I’ve got a picture of torn up ticket on the table at my village’s Liberal Club afterwards.

Oakwell is an evocative name. It sounds as though its in a leafier, pleasanter town than Barnsley, but it isn’t. It sounds as though its smaller, more homely, and less perfunctory than it is as well. For all that, Oakwell is somewhere I have fond memories of, despite horrible weather conditions, despite horrible results, despite horrible outcomes in the end.

Football, as I say, is a game of shared moments and my family and I have shared a few at Oakwell, as we have at countless grounds across the north of England. I just wanted to remember them.

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