Archive for February, 2008

In 1982, an army of 17,000 was mobilized over the mist-clad Pennine mountains to be deployed in Anfield, home of the mighty Liverpool Football Club. The fans of Barnsley FC were rewarded with a gutsy 0-0 draw.

Fifteen years later, Barnsley had reached the top level of English football for the first time in their history. The home and away games with Liverpool that season were both momentous occasions for the South Yorkshire side, who had caught the nation’s affections as they did weekly battle with the big guns of the English soccer aristocracy.

Astonishingly, Barnsley caused a major upset by beating Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield, despite remaining under siege for much of the match. The game at Oakwell early in 1998 was an altogether different affair.

After languishing at the foot of the table for several months, Barnsley staged a revival in February and March of 1998.

Fans began to believe that their team’s  samba-style football and their shamelessly optimistic theme song “It’s just like watching Brazil” (to the tune of “Blue Moon”) might just be enough to ensure survival for one more season.

They had not bargained for the home game with Liverpool and match referee Gary Willard.

Much has been written about this game. For Barnsley fans, it is difficult to discuss the afternoon’s events without foaming at the mouth.

Needless to say, Barnsley lost the game. At 1-1, the referee sent off two Barnsley players. Liverpool went ahead 2-1. Unbelievably, the nine men levelled the scores at 2-2. Mr. Willard then sent off a third Barnsley player.

In the last minute, Liverpool grabbed the winner. A darker mood was never witnessed at Oakwell. Mr. Willard required a police escort from the pitch. The team’s league form never recovered from this game, and they were relegated before the end of the season.

Barnsley’s tilt at the Premiership is documented by Mark Hodkinson in the book ‘Life at the Top’. He is not a Barnsley fan, and therefore offers a more balanced view of that afternoon’s events. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Willard chose precisely the wrong place to stage his three-card trick. Barnsley does not suffer fools and it has a historical mistrust of authority. While, like most clubs, Barnsley has undergone what sociologists call “embourgoisement” – you know, serviettes supplied with the pies, toilets that flush, fans that applaud David Seaman because he is the England goalkeeper, etc… – there remains a mass of support based on fierce parochialism. They are ex-miners, and sons of ex-miners, once the aristocracy of the working class, now left with too much time on their hands to ponder Barnsley’s next match.

Back in the 1970s, they saw through the smoke and mirrors and detected that the National Coal Board had a secret agenda. They were patronised, told that too much time underground had made them over-fond of baseless conspiracy theories. In the 1980s the pits duly closed and their frustration was played out against lines of policemen.

The resentment, institutionalised now, still exists in Barnsley. The football club has become a focus for regional pride and naked passion; a two-fingered wave back to a country that they believe has consigned them to afternoon television and twice-weekly trips to the job club. Their nemesis arrived last weekend in the shape of a divorced father-of-two civil servant with a Saturday job as a football referee. There are “honest” fouls in football – a clip of the heel, a shift of weight to slow up an opponent’s run – and there are dishonest ones, too. Willard permitted the cynical, the puerile and the snide but gleefully punished the trivial.

After this injustice had been reinforced beyond the point of tolerance, ill-feeling spread through Oakwell like a malignant Mexican wave.

For a longer excerpt, see here.

Tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. GMT, the FA Cup fifth round match between Liverpool and Barnsley will kick off at Anfield.

Barnsley are now a mid-table Championship club. Getting a result at Premiership Liverpool tomorrow would be touted as a giant-killing. Realistically, the best most of us hope for is a draw or a hard-fought defeat with predictably sympathetic “Battling Barnsley” headlines.

But tonight, hope remains. At 10:00 in the morning, with five feet snow banks lining our driveway, our family will settle on the sofa to watch the game live on Fox Sports World Canada. Ritualistically, my sons and I will don our replica Barnsley shirts and, as the game kicks off, let optimism soar.

I will ask them to scan the hordes of Barnsley fans. And try to spot Grandad.

The distance between home and abroad, past and present, hope and reality, their childhood and mine, will shrink.

By half-time, the game may well be as good as over.

And, should Barnsley lose, they will handle the pain of defeat less well than me. And part of me will feel guilty for having subjected them to this. Even though they can’t wait to watch.

But I also know that they will always remember this game.

And that’s important as well.


Addendum: Guess what. Score level with 30 seconds to go, then this happens.

Brian Howard’s glory strike in Arabic.

Or in French:

Cue household delirium.

They will definitely remember this game.

Full match report here.

And this is how the shocked pundits saw it unfold:

Match of the Day highlights:


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 The recent Toronto snow storm put paid to my Friday night flight, so I was on the first Saturday morning hop to La Guardia. My 4:00 a.m. cab driver was just finishing a twelve-hour shift. Hurtling north on the 427 to Lester B. Pearson Airport, he pointed out the spot he’d done several 360s during the November snow storm. Then, he recounted the hour earlier in the day stuck in a snow bank. “Ever thought about going into PR?” I wondered.

In New York, where my wife had arrived two days earlier, we had tickets for the opera: Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia. I called The Met in the hope of pre-ordering intermission drinks. I was officiously informed that “only members of the Guild” would be served drinks in the “Decidedly Huffy Room” at the intermission. “Enjoy the line-up, sir.” was the main idea. I thanked her for taking the time to patronize me so effectively, and found myself looking forward to more brazen snobbery.

deep in shallow thought

Since I needed an afternoon nap, we were late having dinner, so took a cab from lower Manhattan. Unlike Monaco’s annual event, New York boasts a daily Grand Prix of “F1 and all” taxi drivers. With the lighter traffic of February, this made for an exhilarating dash up to the Lincoln Center.

The jockeying for pole positions does not end at the curbside. Sidewalk blasts of abuse and more refined over-the-shoulder “tuts” are a Manhattan art form. On the sweeping staircase of the Met itself, a haughty opera type attempted to cut me off en route to the water fountains. I opted not to brake and cede passage. Big sniff in my direction.

The lead performers could sing Rome into ruins. Even we, plain unseasoned opera runts as we are, could see that. Despite this stunning artistry, the classic operatic warble of Jose Manuel Zapata was humorous enough to provoke the odd giggle fit from my wife. This meant we both suffered from bouts of shuddering shoulders at inopportune moments. Slightly embarrassing as this was, at least we didn’t break our chairs, unlike the oversized German lady on our left after an intermission snack or three. Luckily, the warble and the lurching clunk failed to coincide.

Elina Garanca, playing Rosina, has a voice crafted by angels. I couldn’t hit a note if it grabbed me by the ears and blew a raspberry in my face, so, to me, voices like hers just defy comprehension.

A night at the opera demands a hearty breakfast to follow. Luckily, New York is one of the great breakfasting cities. We settled on the relaxing atmosphere of French Roast, whose Mexicana omelette was superb: think fresh herbs, salsa, and just the right amount of egg liquidity.

best mexicana omelette

After a stroll around Chinatown, we stumbled into the immaculately scrubbed streets of Little Italy. I wonder what level of coercion is needed to keep up that level of cleanliness. At least, you don’t worry about sullying your dropped cannoli.

the master

Ten degrees of warm spring-like sunshine, a day at the MoMA, and a night at the Met. Still, it’s always good to get home.

bowed boughs

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