On the anniversary of our promotion to the top flight, we caught up with the legendary John Dennis to reminisce - our former Chairman, in his own words...
It was obviously a momentous time in the history of the football club and the town, and for all of us involved with the club - from players, management and staff, as well, of course, our amazing fans, it was wonderful to be part of something that was able to bring so much positivity to the town of Barnsley, which had been battered economically in the wake of the Miner's Strike, and which had suffered unremitting gloom for so many years after the strike, with the town and the borough always being portrayed in such a negative light.
The passage of time always gives one the advantage of greater perspective, so I think that the ‘Daydream Believers’ film used that perspective to perfectly capture what the promotion meant to people at the time. I also feel that it was a uniquely Barnsley thing that brought so many of us together to think that "They" didn't really want us there, which then mutated into the mantra that it was indeed us against the world. Both of those emotions found plenty of evidence to support those thoughts during ‘The Premiership’ season, culminating of course on that season defining day of Saturday 28th March 1998, when an extraordinary performance by the match referee Gary Willard, resulted in an eventual loss from which we never really recovered. For the record, and just to shed a light on the fact that I'm as biased as any football fan, there were one or two in that Liverpool team that day that I never much liked before, specifically Paul Ince and Steve McManaman, but after that day, I despised them with a vengeance. I don't even like Ince's son Tom, whenever he plays against us.
So, in rewinding back to the mid-90’s, after Danny's first season as manager -1994/95 - when we came sixth in the league, only being denied a place in the playoffs because the Premiership was being reduced from 22 to 20 clubs for the following season, we began the next campaign full of optimism. Although we eventually finished a very respectable 10th, Danny had decided that he felt many of the players who had served us well over a number of years had probably taken the club as far as they could, and so felt that we needed to move one or two out and bring some new faces in. His thoughts were conveyed to me at a meeting we had in early spring. My colleagues on the board bought into this proposal, which explains why so many players who had been at the club over a number of years were sold or released and then replaced by new faces. Amongst those who left were Brendan O'Connell, Owen Archdeacon, Charlie Bishop and I think Lee Butler. Andy Rammell had gone to Southend towards the end of the previous season. Before that, Gerry Taggart had done really well for the club and was attracting lots of interest and I'm afraid it was one of those familiar situations where we weren't able to offer him the terms available elsewhere. He was thus sold to Bolton Wanderers and was replaced by Adrian Viveash, whom we signed from Walsall on loan with a view to a permanent move. However, that didn't work out at all, so we were on the lookout for a new central defender, and that search resulted in the signing in early November of a certain Arjan De Zeeuw. He made his debut against Wolves on November 4th, was ever-present bar one match for the rest of that season and became a firm favourite of the fans and one of that long line of wonderful centre backs that have worn the Red of Barnsley down the years. So, although the sale of Gerry Taggart wasn't part of a greater master plan, his eventual replacement happily went on to become a mainstay of the promotion team, as I'm sure Gerry would have been had he stayed.
But, back to the summer of 1996, and, knowing that we had set ourselves a lot to do in the transfer market, Danny was keen, as was I, to try and get as much done as early as possible that summer so that the nucleus of his squad was in place for the start of pre-season. The first piece of work that had to be done was to get Neil Redfearn to renew his contract. Because we'd got the prospect of so many other senior players leaving the club, it was really important to hang on to ‘Redders’, both in terms of his importance as a player and the fact that he was club captain. In what turned out to be quite low key talks, Danny was able to agree terms with Neil quite quickly, aided by the fact that a new television deal had been agreed by the Football League with Sky, so our television revenues were likely to be going up from roughly £100k per annum to over £700k. That gave us the opportunity to increase our wage budget significantly, so it meant that we could cope with the wage demands of Neil and of course the subsequent new arrivals. These came in the shape of Neil Thompson, Paul Wilkinson, Matty Appleby, Clint Marcelle and Jovo Bosancic. It was so important that we managed to get the majority of our transfer business, both outgoings and incoming, completed relatively early that summer so that Danny and his staff had a full pre-season to work with his squad. Interestingly, in terms of ‘net spend’ that summer, we actually brought in more from our sales than we actually spent on the newcomers, although the new boys were on significantly more money than the lads who had left.
We felt at the time that we'd had a pretty good summer on the transfer front, and that view was strengthened as the season unfolded as each of the newcomers had their own positive impact on the team and its results. And fortunately, after a terrific start to the season, we were able to add further to the squad in early October in the (rather peculiar) shape of John Hendrie. To get a player of his quality and experience at that point in the season was a masterstroke by Danny, as events subsequently confirmed. We already had a very talented group of players, a lovely mixture of youthful exuberance and vast experience but the addition of John gave us something a little bit special. However, great though John's contribution was that season, it's fair to say that everyone in the squad played their part and all of them should still be proud of what they achieved at Barnsley Football Club during the season of 1996/97.
In terms of my hopes and aspirations heading into that campaign, well, as I did every summer when the fixtures came out, I had a look through to see if I could find three or more teams that I thought might be worse than us. Then, as the revamped squad came together, I think my thoughts were that we would probably do okay. But having had a busy summer both at Oakwell and in my business, we had a family holiday booked, so apart from a gentle workout against Sheffield FC at their ground in Dronfield, I missed all of the subsequent pre-season friendlies. That meant that the first game of the season at West Brom was the first chance I had to assess the team. Obviously, I'd been in touch with Danny and some of my colleagues on the board, and been told that things were looking promising, but I was taken aback by how good we looked at The Hawthorns. I can still remember turning to Barry Taylor, the club's Vice Chairman at the time, after about 20 minutes and saying words to the effect of - ‘Blummin Eck Barry, we're not bad are we?’ - He replied that we'd been like that throughout pre-season.
I think we all thought that there was something special in the offing. The wins at Albion and then at Maine Road - a special moment for me - meant that we had gone to two of the biggest clubs in the division and beaten them convincingly, so yes, it started to feel special very early. However, as Chairman, and as directors, it was our duty to remain grounded and stay focussed on the day to day running of the club and its finances, to leave Danny and his staff to look after the football side. Our general manager at that time was Michael Spinks, one of the best administrators in the Football League and he was indeed an expert in helping people to stay grounded! To be fair to Michael, he ran a very tight ship, and his team and he were utterly dedicated to their club. They were all local people and knew how much the club meant to the town, so, both off the pitch and on it, the club was in safe hands.
Obviously, after the City game, we were brought back to earth with a bump when we lost to QPR, but really, throughout the season, I found myself wondering whether this could be the year, but telling myself just to calm down. But, after winning at Bramall Lane just before Christmas, meaning we went into Christmas topping the table, then we all realised that we were there absolutely on merit and that we must have a chance.
Of course, there was also the rather fatalistic instinct, bred into Barnsley fans over generations, that if it's possible to mess it up, then that's what we will do, but, generally, I remember that the belief in the club grew stronger and stronger as the season progressed, culminating in those emotional scenes before, during and after the Bradford City game.
Genuinely, throughout the season, there was only once when I was sure that we'd blown it and that was when we lost 4-2 at Portsmouth on the Tuesday night before the Bradford game. Wolves had got a seemingly straightforward game against Grimsby Town on the Wednesday night but, to my utter astonishment, they could only manage a 1-1 draw, so that meant that we knew that a win against Bradford on the Saturday would see us promoted. Just as a side issue, the scorer for Grimsby that night was a young winger called John Oster. Many years later, he had a seriously underwhelming loan spell at Oakwell, but, at the time, I hadn't realised that he'd scored the goal at Molineux that night. So, belatedly, I apologise to Mr Oster for all the terrible thoughts I harboured when he was here on loan, and would like to thank him for his goal all those years ago.
I suppose it's fair to say that, because of the two midweek fixtures involving us and Wolves, the proper build up to the Bradford game only really started on the Thursday, so it probably helped all of us keep our emotions in check. Outwardly at least, Danny was calmness personified, but to be fair, I've often told him since, usually on the golf course when I've been willing the little so and so to miss an easy putt, that he's got ice running through his veins. Nonetheless, there was a calmness about him, and throughout the club, that I thought boded well. As for myself, I've said before that after the Wolves result, I then became sure ( or, I convinced myself) that we would beat Bradford and be promoted. Obviously, whilst keeping in touch with the club on a regular basis, I made sure that I was kept busy at the business, in an attempt to stay calm and balanced. I think that I managed that, but I'm not necessarily sure that Mrs Dennis would remember it the same way.
On the day itself, I tried to remain as calm as possible, which wasn't easy, bearing in mind that for any match, I was always a bag of nerves. The game itself was a bit of a blur; I think that the occasion had got to the players to some extent, but, we stuck at it, worked hard and rode our luck. The flowing football that had been our trademark all season was missing, but, the scruffy opener from Paul Wilkinson settled nerves for a short period, but those nerves returned with a vengeance as Bradford came perilously close to ruining our day. Then, finally, there was Clint. I don't need a video of the goal to see it once more because it's as fresh as yesterday in my mind. Then, the outpouring of emotions, the relief, the joy, and yes, the tears as well. The last few minutes were a total blur, then the final whistle and utter mayhem.
It's really hard quite to express the maelstrom of emotions that engulfed us all that day. Obviously, there was the immediate outpouring of emotion. I recall long and tearful hugs with my wife and two daughters, who had always supported me during my time as Chairman, and who continued to do so long after that day. There were long and ferocious handshakes and slaps on the back with my fellow directors - we didn't do ‘man hugs’ in those days! - and it's worth saying that all of those guys had done their bit over the years and had worked hard in all sorts of areas of the club's activities. At that time, the Board was a very effective unit. We were all of a similar age, we were all local men and we were all committed Barnsley fans. In fact, to this day, there are at least five of us who regularly continue to attend matches, a phenomenon very rare in modern football, when usually, at the end of a director's time at a club, they rarely go back. Indeed, Michael Spinks is another who rarely misses a game at Oakwell, and still travels regularly to away games.
But, back to April 26th, 1997. Having gone through the immediate rush of emotions, I then found time to have a moment on my own in the then deserted visiting director's box. As the wild scenes of joy continued unabated, I allowed myself to reflect on those who had been instrumental in dragging our beloved football club from, literally, the depths of the old Fourth Division to where we were now going to be. I thought of my own father Ernest, who in 1966 had found an ally in my predecessor as Chairman, Geoffrey Buckle, as they set about the task of resurrecting the club. Geoff took over as Chairman at the end of the summer of 1979, after my father's death, but I'm always so glad that my Dad was well enough to see us promoted from the old Fourth Division after beating Grimsby at Oakwell in front of 21,000. By the way, it's a little known fact that the final signing that Ernest authorised before his death was a certain Ronnie Glavin. I also thought of my mother Jean, who had supported the old man throughout his time as Chairman and who had nursed him through ill health. She was a regular at Oakwell up until the time of her death in 1990, but was so proud when I was invited to join the board.
I did also spare a moment to think of the first manager I worked with, dear Mel Machin. He was a proper gentleman, and helped me enormously as I tried to adapt to the job of being a very young Chairman of Barnsley Football Club. In fact, I was only 39 when I was asked to take over, the second youngest Chairman of the then 92 clubs in The Football League, the youngest at that time being Tony Kleanthous at Barnet, who, funnily enough, is still there to this day. I bet he's got grey hair now! I was sorry when Mel left, but grateful for his help and advice for me personally and for the work he did at the club.
I then went down to the dressing room, and had a joyous few minutes with Danny, Eric and the players. After that, whilst Danny and the players were in great demand by the media, I was also asked to do a number of interviews, but it was not easy to put on an air of calm responsibility when all I wanted to do really was have a few drinks and shout from the rooftops "WE ARE PREMIER LEAGUE!”
Once the press had done with me, I then went to the boardroom, where I was handed a pint glass, brimming with champagne, and I was finally able to join the party which had started an hour and a half earlier and which was destined to finish in The Theatre Bar on Wellington Street in the early hours of Sunday morning, via another huge drinksfest in the sponsor's lounge in the East Stand.
The following week was a strange one really, there was still one more game of the season remaining - Oxford away - as if anyone needed reminding! On the Monday, I had to travel to Lytham St Anne's, to the main office of The Football League, to sit on a tribunal to resolve a dispute between Wolves and Leicester. It had been scheduled months before, but it was the last thing I wanted to do. I would have much preferred to have stayed in Barnsley, enjoying the heady atmosphere that engulfed the town at that time. Of course, all week tributes were pouring in from all over the world, quite literally, many of which were very personal and very moving. I've still got the ones that were sent to me personally, and although it's a year or two now since I've looked at them, they always give me a shiver down the spine and a tear in the eye. As the week went by, discussions behind the scenes were taking place about what needed to be done. The Premier League had come to Oakwell some weeks previously to give us a briefing on what would be expected from us should we be promoted, plus of course we had our own issues to address, but it was only really after the Oxford game that we could clear our heads and get down to the hard work of what was going to be a very busy summer, both on and off the pitch. It's now a matter of folklore that we were overwhelmed by the demand for season tickets, but that our fans cheerfully queued for hours for the opportunity to watch their team play in the top flight of English football for the first time in the club's history. They had been told for years that it would never happen and that the directors didn't want it. Even we, the directors, were told we didn't want it! But we all wanted it, and now, it was a reality. So much happened that summer, but, my feeling is that, perhaps, that's all for another time.
Early on in this recall of those events, I mentioned that I felt that the passage of time gives one the opportunity of greater perspective, and I'm sure that's the case with the promotion season. Looking back now, it should be a great source of pride to all of us who were involved or who witnessed that amazing season that we did it in style. The quality of the football was extremely high, so many of the goals that we scored were sensational, our manager, the incomparable Danny Wilson, was not only a very shrewd football man but he had a hugely likeable personality, great integrity and a wonderful public persona. To a man, our players were all exceptionally talented and were lovely people and I think that it's these qualities that made us such a well-loved and respected club throughout football at that time. There must have been something special, because otherwise, after the Liverpool/Willard debacle the following season, really, the press should have ripped into us far more than they did do, and the FA should really have punished us far more severely than they actually did.
Obviously, at the time, we were all aware that the promotion was a massive achievement, but again, the perspective gained from the passage of time makes me at least realise how important that achievement really was. Since 1997, I've come across Danny and most of those players on a number of occasions - the only time I've seen Clint was coming out of Hillsborough many years ago, long after I'd left the board. He was living in Doncaster at the time, but I couldn't resist giving him a massive hug - and it's so heartwarming to witness the camaraderie that still exists between them and to listen to their memories of that season and their fondness for Barnsley Football Club.
As we reach the end of this short recollection of a famous part of the history of Barnsley Football Club, I refer back to the first question posed, in respect of mine and my family's health and wellbeing in these strange and dangerous times. Thankfully, so far, I'm glad to say that we are all okay, and I hope that all of those reading this post also find themselves and their families safe and healthy. I would also like to express my condolences to all of those who may have lost family members or close friends during this crisis.
Finally, once again, I'd like to thank you for asking me to do this little post. I hope that for those Barnsley fans who read it, hopefully you will have enjoyed being taken back to a joyful time in the history of OUR football club as hopefully, it evokes much happier, almost carefree times when we all felt we were able to take on the world.