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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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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.

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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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I love New Year’s Day.

A time of hope and optimism.

Woefully misguided? Perhaps.

Sometimes, the hope lasts until Christmas. Then, you’re tempted to really start believing.

No, not that New Year’s Day. Or the Chinese one. Or the others. They’re just feeble excuses to overeat, drink to excess, and desecrate fountains.

I’m talking about the proper one. The one by which notable events in history are solemnly recorded.

That’s right: The English football season kicks off today.

My team, the legendary Barnsley FC, has a storied 120-year history littered with glory and landfills’ worth of silverware. There’s an excess of garbage-related vocabulary in that last sentence. And for good reason.

One particular Barnsley game has acquired unmentionable status in our household. Quite simply, days are all the better for not going there.

The game-that-must-not-be-named is the Division One (now the ChampionshipWembley play-off final of 2000 between Barnsley and Ipswich Town.

There, I named it, but fear not, fellow blogging wizards; the Expatronus Curse doesn’t work in the blogosphere.

In early 2000, we were weighing up the pros and cons of moving from England to my wife’s native Canada.

The scales were delicately poised.

Now, I wouldn’t claim to be the most obsessive football fan in the world. Because I’ve met people like that.

But I have invested significant amounts of time, travel, and money in watching and playing the greatest game in the world. Yeah, I know, there are other sports, but they’re not real religions are they?

For Barnsley, in May 2000, victory in the play-off final would have meant a return to the Premiership: The top tier of English football.

For our family, victory would have meant that the balance of our emigration decision would swing towards remaining in the UK.

 Three key moments stand out from the game.

Key moment number one: Delirium

After just six minutes, Craig Hignett, our midfield maestro, unleashed a high-velocity drive from over 30 metres. The ball thumped against the crossbar, bounced off the keeper, and rolled into the Ipswich net. The massed ranks of 35,000 ex-miners and their red-bedecked kith and kin exploded in wondrous disbelief. Barnsley 1-0 Ipswich.

Key moment number two: Despondency

Just before half-time, with the score at 1-1, Barnsley were awarded a penalty kick. It was the perfect moment to take control of the game. Darren Barnard fluffed it. And the scales of emigration tipped west.

In the second half, Barnsley looked shell-shocked. We weren’t even at the races. At 3-1 behind, the game seemed lost.

However, Barnsley clawed their way back into the game. After a penalty brought us back to 3-2, we pressed for an equaliser.

And so very nearly got one.

Key moment number three: Anguish 

An inch perfect cross was met by Georgi Hristov: Our most expensive signing ever. He was directly in front of the Ipswich goal. It was Georgi’s moment to etch his name in the Barnsley seams of history.

Georgi sent the ball powerfully goalward.

In our minds’ eyes, 35, 000 fans saw the net billow. We rose as one to salute the dream comeback. But the mind’s eye is capable of mindless blindness. Especially in a crowd.

barnsley fans wembley play-off final 2000

It wasn’t to be.

Reacting on pure instinct, the Ipswich goalkeeper, Richard Wright, pulled off the save of the match and managed to beat the ball away.

A standard football game lasts around ninety minutes, but its defining points are often played out in nanoseconds.

With our heads still shaking slowly, Ipswich scored a breakaway goal in the dying seconds to make it 4-2 and kill the game off.

On the day, Ipswich deserved their win. But the game could easily have gone Barnsley’s way.

Back at home, I knew that someone was secretly pleased to see that save.

But she had had the goodness of heart (and good sense!) to hope openly for a Barnsley victory.

For the rest of us in London, we trudged away from Wembley, had a disconsolate curry in King’s Cross, and took the train back north.

Meanwhile, the scales dipped and the family compass swung west.

And six months later, we were all in Canada in time for New Year’s Day. The other New Year.

What’s that you say? You didn’t think I was shallow and irrational enough to base a key life decision on something as insanely trivial as a football result?

Hey, if you want logic, that’s what all those tech sites are for!

But today’s New Year is all about memories revisited and hopes renewed.

Season’s greetings. May all your dream goals come true.

Happy 2007/2008!

For a more balanced match report, see the BBC version here.

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The English football season is virtually over. For fans of non-Premiership clubs not involved in the play-offs, it’s already finished. Barnsley, by finishing fifth from bottom, have over-succeeded. Sighs of relief all around. And Leeds are down. Icing on the black pudding.

2007 is an odd year of course, so England won’t be sending penalty-kicks high into the stands during the latter stages of a major competition.

With no team to support all summer, this creates a niche opportunity for some woeful underachievers. Now, where to find them at this time of year?

Wait a second. What’s that ominous rumbling sound gathering strength over the still waters of Lake Ontario?

Toronto FC fans

Of course, it’s the massed tribal ranks of the Toronto Ultras. Cacophonous waves of blind passion filling the stadium. The sheer weight of history pouring forth onto the hallowed turf below. The lore. The history. Four whole weeks of it. No goals though.

San Siro

Are we in the San Siro, Old Trafford, or the Ali Sami Yen stadium? No, we’re still at the Bank of Montreal Field next to Exhibition Station. Judging from the reports of Toronto FC’s first home game, you’d have thought you were at the Glasgow derby.

As in this CBC report.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I hope Toronto FC is a great success. Although, right now, I just hope they score a goal before the season ends.

So let’s not get carried away.

Having a carnival atmosphere with a few drumbeats for your first ever home game is one thing, but replicating the atmosphere of a major European stadium is another. Especially one where intense intra- or inter-city rivalry is taking place. Think the two Manchester teams, or the north London rift between Arsenal and Tottenham, or the Catalonia/Castile split between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The loyalty of generations, a century of bitter hatred, lifetimes of memories and incident – it takes a while to ferment this kind of atmosphere.

For now, let’s be pleased that Torontonians are flocking to the stadium and giving the fledgling team some decent support. But let’s go easy with the liberal sprinklings of North American hype. Who knows, if the team scores a couple of goals this month, the cheering might last a while longer.

Hopefully as loudly as Barnsley fans when this game began at Wembley. But that’s a story for another day.

Barnsley fans at Wembley 2000

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Happy new year to misguided fools everywhere

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