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Archive for April, 2008

Tomorrow marks Barnsley’s return to the semi-final of the FA Cup. They will meet Cardiff City at Wembley.

Except that it doesn’t really feel like a return. The last time they progressed to this stage was 1912. So, unless any ageing Barnsley fans also have dim and distant memories of seeing the Titanic sail tragically forth from Southampton, this is the first time for all of us.

You might then call Barnsley’s appearance in this season’s FA Cup semi-final a once-in-a-lifetime event. Except, of course, that most people don’t see their 96th birthday. We’d better make the most of it.

After a cup run including stunning victories against two of the Big Four, Liverpool at Anfield and Chelsea back home at Oakwell, Barnsley have suddenly achieved global recognition. In FA Cup terms, this is our Halley’s Comet year. Not every Barnsley fan gets one.

The big question is this: FA Cup glory or Championship survival?

Barnsley are currently flirting dangerously with relegation to the third tier of English football. This has provoked the customary debate for teams in such a position. 

Which would you prefer? A day of historically-etched  glory in the final at Wembley or surviving the drop to fight for another season in the Championship.

For me, it’s simple: Take the run and cup.

I understand the view that Championship survival is the pragmatic option, that this would maintain the club’s financial stability, and that Barnsley have undergone enough monetary turbulence in the past decade thank you very much.

But I couldn’t give a proverbially flying one.

This may seem short-termist and blinkered. But I don’t believe it is.

The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world. Since its inception in 1871-1872, only eight teams from outside the top level of English football have won the competition. Three of these occasions (including Barnsley’s sole victory) were before the first world war. The last time “an outsider” won was 28 years ago when West Ham beat Arsenal.

More ominously, since the Premiership began in 1992, the FA Cup has been dominated by the so-called Big Four of English football: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea. Only Everton, hardly minnows themselves, have broken the monopoly.

In other words, to hell with relegation. This will not be happening again for a long long time. Enjoy the ride. Carpe diem. Mañana is mañana

So, I say: Take the run and cup.

An FA Cup final appearance, let alone a victory, would solidify into Barnsley memories and folklore as an immense cultural monument.

Mere Championship survival falls well short of epic cultural significance. In the long term, Barnsley would likely return to the Championship within a few years. After all, no other team has spent so many seasons in the second tier. So, fear not, relegation is not the end of the world. In any case, many of us fondly recall the days when a mere couple of thousand people turned out in the early seventies for Division Four entertainment.

But what’s this talk of cultural importance? Time was when I might have subscribed to the view that the world of football constituteth not art and culture. But I was wrong. You want drama, grandiose opera, blasted-heath tragedy, or the soul of a people laid bare? It’s right there: down on the pitch and high in the stadium.

The town of Barnsley has a population of 72, 000 people. This Sunday afternoon, 33,000 Barnsley fans will converge on Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final against Cardiff City. It will be an unforgettable occasion. They will remember it for the rest of their lives. Football is not really about the players, who come and go, but the fans, who stay through thick and thin. For Barnsley fans, this generally means more thin. But, as art also shows us, the greater the agony, the greater the potential ecstasy.

Witness this momentous cellphone clip as Barnsley score the last-ditch winner at Liverpool during the three minutes of stoppage time.

Cut to 1:55 minutes for the ungiven penalty kick reaction. Then at 2:11, a lone voice urges “Go on Brian”, followed by a split second of mass silent disbelief. Next, incredulous delirium kicks in at the sight of Brian Howard’s strike barelling into the Liverpool net.

It’s a cracking night out, but you never ever get this at La Scala.

We’re going to Wembley. Come on you Reds.

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