There isn’t a lot of middle ground when Barnsley pay us a visit; the game is either rotten or designed to be talked about for years to come. And only recently has the latter come in City’s favour, with the Tigers triumphant on the last three occasions, including Matt Fryatt’s lovely hat-trick performance at the end of last season.
In the 1980s, City were absolutely rubbish whenever Barnsley visited. Five defeats and a goalless draw was the decade’s eventual tally from the fixture. City also lost the fixture that occurred 61 days before the 1980s got underway, and the first post-80s fixture too. And there was seldom even the consolation of the games being entertaining – with one very, very obvious exception.
New Years Day, 1987. Midway through a campaign defined by inconsistency and transition. City had finished sixth in the second tier the previous season, the best campaign in 15 years. Player-manager Brian Horton was re-shaping the squad, bringing in young fringe players raised at Luton and Watford who would galvanise the whole set-up. But there was a real problem with goalscoring. Billy Whitehurst had been sold midway through the previous season and there was nobody of the absolute reliability of Keith Edwards or Les Mutrie, so clinical during the early part of the decade.
Horton had shown his faith in Andy Flounders, who had been in the first team picture since he was 16 but had not been able to take his Third Division ruthlessness up a level. Alongside him were Andy Saville – another product from the system who was never close to prolific – and Frankie Bunn, who managed 14 goals the year before but dried up substantially afterwards.
Flounders scored on the opening day as City beat West Bromwich Albion at Boothferry Park, then Bunn got the only goal at a typically fierce Millwall, where little more than 100 City fans were permitted into the Cold Blow Lane cage. This was an excellent start, but the next four games produced one point and no goals, and while the odd autumnal success kept hope up for the second half of the season, City generally were treading water and more likely to sink than swim. Stoke scored four times without reply at the Ark, then big festive defeats at Crystal Palace and Sheffield United meant that the Tigers were firmly in the bottom six of the table.
New Years Day came, and so did Barnsley, who were in the bottom three. Exactly one year earlier City had pummelled them 1-4 at Oakwell, which was one of three wins there in the 80s, making the abject home record seem even more odd. Barnsley’s manager was ex-Leeds and England striker Allan Clarke, enjoying a second spell at the club, and they had the likes of Withernsea-born Stuart Gray, defensive half of identical twins Paul Futcher and balding midfield creator Steve Agnew, now City’s assistant manager, among their number.
They’d got their revenge for that cuffing at Oakwell the previous season via a single goal win at Boothferry Park over the Easter weekend, the kind of irritating dispensation of points on home soil that ruined Horton’s dream of an automatic promotion place in what had been the last campaign without play-offs. They were in much the same position as the Tigers but with less expectation or investment, and while Yorkshire derbies on New Years Day were always welcome, it didn’t feel like it would have the tension or fire of a visit from Leeds United or Sheffield United, though Leeds had by that point already been to the Ark and handed City their backsides. The crowd of 4,879 – City’s lowest League gate for more than four years – suggested that this particular Yorkshire derby wasn’t exactly high on the priorities of many City supporters.
City took the lead through Bunn’s close-range header, only his second of the season. Good start. Flounders and Saville – on as a sub for injured left back Lawrie Pearson – then spurned good chances before Barnsley equalised through a glancing header from 18 year old striker Ian Chandler, who’d only signed pro forms in the summer and was playing because David Hirst, merely four months his senior, had been sold to Sheffield Wednesday for huge money two weeks before the start of the season. Level at half time, then City went back ahead through Garreth Roberts, club captain and midfield figurehead, immediately after the restart. Again Flounders and Saville were denied before Chandler, astonishingly, scored again for 2-2 after a mistake by Garry Parker let him in.
Lack of goals wasn’t a problem on this occasion, but the humpings by Palace and the Blades were still affecting the defence, evidently. Left back had been an issue all season; Pat Heard was at the club but up to now prone to injury or forced into midfield; Pearson, a signing from non-league in Horton’s first pre-season, was largely unfancied by his manager by this stage but had become Hobson’s choice; Gary Swann had been sold; summer signing Ray Daniel, who could play back as well as forward on that flank, spent almost the whole season crocked; and Gary Ablett, a kid on loan from Liverpool, had been way too good for there to be any chance of turning his five game spell with the club in September into anything longer term. On the other flank, Richard Jobson was still playing in his less specialist position, as Horton pursued the tested pairing of Peter Skipper and Stan McEwan in the middle.
McEwan, hard of nature and of shot, made it 3-2 to the Tigers with a penalty after Paul Cross had handled a Flounders header. Chandler equalised again with four minutes left. This kid seemed extraordinary. The game certainly was extraordinary. The Tiger Nation was a mixture of raging and hooked. Worries about form can come another time, was there a fourth in this? Was it to be one of the most entertaining, compelling games seen at Boothferry Park in many a year?
Well, yes, but you know what’s coming, as it’s already been made clear that City didn’t beat Barnsley at home at all throughout the 1980s, while the only draw was goalless. What added to the gall of conceding a Barnsley winner was that it came in the last minute of the game, meaning that the Tykes had been ahead for only seconds of it, and yet took away all the points. Substitute Andy Duggan, a teenage defender making one of only two appearances he ever managed for the Tykes, was the scorer, stabbing in unmarked from close range as the City defence remained statuesque.
Horton had his usual extra-long post-mortem with assistant Dennis Booth after the final whistle, then went ballistic with his players through the press. He resorted to mad changes to make a point to his underperforming senior squad, not least by picking teenager Neil Buckley for his League debut at Plymouth Argyle two days later, while also choosing himself in midfield. City shipped four without replying, Horton substituted himself in the second half and never played again, while Buckley’s next League start would be nearly two years away. Talk of a crisis followed, but Horton then relocated his sensibility. He dropped McEwan, moved Jobson to the centre of defence and temporarily plugged the vacant right back spot with local trier Steve Brentano (two years at the club either side of North Ferriby United and Bridlington Town) before taking £30,000 off Don Robinson and buying Charlie Palmer from Derby County with it. Pearson, meanwhile, failed to convince his manager once more and Heard was embedded into the number 3 shirt for the remainder of the campaign.
The midfield had been all over the shop. Parker, the previous season’s marquee signing from Luton Town and as skilful a player anyone had seen in the centre of a Hull City team, was almost ever-present but not always authoritative and also didn’t score a League goal for the club until the following year, on his 52nd appearance. Roberts was dependable and energetic beside him, as ever, while the remainder contained the largely underwhelming duo of Heard and Neil Williams until the much-missed Billy Askew recovered from the injury that robbed him of the first half of the season. And beyond all of that, club and fans were desperately seeking news of Bobby Doyle’s return, so gifted in the centre of the park the previous year but laid low by a broken leg in pre-season after a shocker of a tackle from Doncaster’s Dave Cusack. Eventually he returned for four games but it wasn’t the same and he was eventually forced to retire, becoming a lorry driver. Other temporary solutions had been sought – beyond Horton forcing his ageing frame into a kit six times in total, gifted but erratic winger Terry Curran, formerly of Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Sheffield Wednesday, arrived back from a spell in Greece to manage four appearances in the League (and a goal in the Full Members Cup) but then hotfooted it to Sunderland.
Up front, Saville stuck around and top scored with nine but it was time up for Flounders, who crossed the river to Scunthorpe United while Horton shelled out for athletic frontman Alex Dyer, a Watford youth product who’d made his name at Blackpool. Nothing especially worked, not straightaway. City couldn’t score enough, conceded too many and were hovering above the relegation zone in the spring, having also seen the too-mouthwatering-for-words prospect of an FA Cup quarter final against Leeds scuppered by a useless performance at Third Division Wigan Athletic in the fifth round. Three wins and a draw in the last four games – including two braces for Dyer and a pair from Saville on a penultimate day draw at Blundell Park which sent Grimsby Town down; we’ve not played each other in the League since – rescued the Tigers from being sucked into the bottom three and in the end, the 14th placed finish looked more respectable than the team had deserved, until you noticed that only five points separated City from the drop. Six teams could have taken the last relegation place on the final day; City made sure it wasn’t them with a 3-0 win over Palace.
The newer players would make their mark the next season, and their similar heritage showed Horton’s good knowledge of the burgeoning scene in his area of the Home Counties when he finished his full-time playing career at Luton Town. Jobson, Williams, Bunn, Parker, Daniel, Palmer and Dyer all served their apprenticeships at Luton or Watford. They did well to differing degrees – Jobson, Parker and Palmer were unqualified successes; Dyer a good player sold too quickly; the rest somewhere around the average or underwhelming mark – and Horton built his next team around them. The kids from the ranks headed straight back there, enjoying more gradual introductions over the next 12 months. Horton got rid of McEwan and no-hopers from the stiffs like Brentano and Steve Corkain (four appearances, one goal) and City looked bright and prosperous up to and including an ecstatic 3-1 win over Leeds at Boothferry Park. What occurred over the next 14 games is, of course, the stuff of dubious legend.
As remarkable a story from this seven-goal heartbreaker was that of Chandler, the teenager who had almost single-handedly ruined City’s New Year celebrations. Hat-tricks at 18 aren’t regular occurrences, but any pedestal he was put on soon toppled over, as he only made 12 appearances in total for the Tykes, scoring two more goals, before moving to Aldershot (the original incarnation) in 1988 and then returning to his north-east roots to spend more than a decade in the non-league system there. He has been the manager of Whitley Bay now for eight years. Duggan, a year his senior, played for Huddersfield Town and Rochdale before retiring with injury aged just 23.
City got a 1-1 draw at Oakwell in the return fixture (over Easter again, meaning the two games against Barnsley had been scheduled for New Years Day and Easter for two seasons running), with Skipper scoring the goal. The two stayed in the same division until City were relegated in 1991 (during which they lost at home to Barnsley yet again) while the Tykes stuck around for another six years before memorably reaching the Premier League, opening a gap of three divisions between the two for 12 months. The next meeting wasn’t until 2004/5, in the third tier, when City finally won at home against Barnsley for the first time in nine games (and almost 31 years). City have since won three of the last four, the exception being the infamous night that caused Phil Parkinson to choke, just two games into his tenure as manager.
Barnsley have been in the Championship now for seven seasons though rarely have looked like returning to the Premier League. City have the edge over them in pretty much every aspect of the game these days, but in this current period of facing bogey teams, it does no harm as Barnsley come to the Circle this weekend to remember the hold they unwittingly had over the Tigers when the two clubs were essentially the same.
(picture copyright Hull Daily Mail)