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27 May 2020



27 May 2020

On the 14th anniversary of our 2006 League One Playoff Final triumph in the Welsh capital, we caught up with the skipper of that side!

Tell us how your move to Oakwell came about.

I think my move to Barnsley started to come about at the back end of the previous season. Martin Wilkinson had been manager at Northampton Town where I was playing and had then joined the recruitment team at Barnsley. I believe that Martin brought Paul Hart to Sixfields to watch a couple of other Northampton players but I happened to catch his eye as well. I finished the season at Northampton and captained the team to a playoff campaign which ended in us being beaten on penalties.

I started the next pre-season with Northampton really keen to try and get past the disappointment of the playoff defeat; leaving wasn't on my agenda.
During our pre-season trip to Seville I was told by the manager, Colin Calderwood that Barnsley were interested in me. At this point it still wasn't in my mind that I'd be joining Barnsley. From here things moved extremely quickly. I was informed that a fee had been agreed and I had permission to talk to Barnsley. I spoke with the then-chairman, Peter Risdale via a telephone call and arranged to meet Paul Hart as soon as I returned from Seville.

Once Northampton made it clear that they were happy for me to pursue things with Barnsley it was a bit of a whirlwind.
I met Paul Hart and spent the day at Oakwell to discuss everything. Before I left I had agreed to join Barnsley but I requested that nothing was released as I owed it to Colin Calderwood to speak to him first. 
I loved my time at Northampton, I was captain, I'd bought my first house and I was really enjoying my football.

Speaking to Paul Hart and seeing everything around Oakwell made me decide that moving would be a chance to be in a great environment and play at a higher level.

I remember that we had a number of new faces at the club and I had joined mid way through pre season. 

My debut at Milton Keynes was blazing hot! I recall that I was playing centre mid and gasping for breath despite all the hard work that had gone into-pre season! I spent most of that season switching between centre mid and centre half.

I managed to score from a corner which was a great way for me to start my Barnsley career. The game was quite disjointed and lacked any real flow, a typical first game of the season and we were content enough with a point. 
What was that first season like – was it as it looked, a transitional period?

The first season was extremely frustrating because we clearly had good players but struggled to find any kind of rhythm. We would put a couple of decent results together and follow them with a few disappointing performances. Players were talented and a good group but we struggled to gel with all the new faces being integrated at the same time. On a number of occasions that season, I and a few of the other senior squad members, exploded at the team because we were so frustrated and feared that we may even start looking over our shoulder at the wrong end of the table.

Having someone like Michael Chopra was a huge help because even when we weren't great he was capable of popping up with a goal and getting us a result. It felt like we huffed and puffed but couldn't get a settled team through a variety of reasons.

With the benefit of hindsight and experience I might have approached this period differently. I recall being extremely short-fused and constantly angry at us underperforming. I probably wasn't great to be around at times, it was pure frustration that I had come to the club to achieve success and it wasn't happening as I'd hoped.
I had ended the previous season as captain of a playoff team. This season ended in the damp squib of mid-table obscurity, even recalling it now is transporting me back to that feeling of emptiness at the end of season. I just wanted the summer to be done so we could start again.

Andy Ritchie was heading into his first full season in charge the following summer. What do you recall about that time, did you sense something good was on the horizon?

I knew that we'd be better off for the experience and the time we'd spent together as a group the previous season. It just felt more natural, friendships had been formed and trust had been built. I wouldn't say that any of us were steadfast on the view that promotion was the minimum requirement. I got the sense that we all agreed that last season was unacceptable and we had to improve on that. We all knew that on our day we were capable of beating anyone, especially at home. We just needed to have our day much more often.
We all truly liked Andy, his number two, Rick and the other staff. The team spirit would grow and grow but the unity of everyone was outstanding from the start. Between Paul Hart and Andy we managed to recruit good players who also had good characters. We had players who would scrap/ battle, players with pace, players with vision and a real togetherness. 
I'm not sure anyone truly believed we could get promoted at that start of pre season. The disappointment of the previous season took some time to dissipate, at least that's how I felt.

I think Andy and the staff were discussing strategy and how promotion was to be achieved without putting too much pressure onto us. I think they skilfully realised that we were good players, working hard and had a togetherness. They didn't need to bog us down with the details. They just had to get us physically and mentally right to play each game because we all knew that we went into every game knowing we could get a result.

We weren’t seen as one of the favourites for promotion after a few dodgy years in the third tier. Did that suit us, being a dark horse?

Looking back it's strange that we weren't considered a 'big' club in League One. It never felt like we were a potential scalp whenever we played away for example. I'm not sure why when we had recently been in the Premier League and would get home attendances of over 10,000. 

Was it was the humility we had as a club or the outside perception of us after a few disappointing years? I think that role of 'dark horses' did suit us. We could just approach each game individually without having the pressure of the bigger picture.

We got into our own little bubble. We'd train hard, prepare for a game, play, rest and go again. To me it didn't feel like anyone was getting too far ahead of ourselves. 

Its a classic football cliche but it did feel like each game was the next important event. At times it was like the league table was something of a by product rather than the focus. We made sure we competed on a matchday and the table looked after itself.

When you look back at that squad though, there was some talent in it, players who had good careers at that level or above for many years.

No doubt that we had some talent throughout the squad and a good blend of attributes. It doesn't surprise me that so many had longevity. They were talented, honest and genuine. I actually think that many were underrated. In my opinion, many of the squad could have seamlessly fitted into a team at a higher level but were possibly not 'eye-catching' enough. 

I believe however, that the squad was greater than the sum of its parts. We had talent but the word I always come back to is unity. We had that because we had some great characters and those characters have been able to carry on playing at a good level by continuing those traits.

I felt that Stephen McPhail was that 'class above' that we struggled to replace when injured etc. We had some talented lads but I always felt it was clear that he had that little bit extra. It wasn't always a defence splitting pass or 60 yard cross field ball but his ball retention and manipulation could change the dynamics of a game. We were fortunate to get him and also lucky that he was a great lad without any ego.

When did you think promotion was possible?

Rarely does a season play out in a linear line. We had ups and downs throughout the season. A few moments stick out for me when my opinions changed both positively and negatively.

We got to January in the mix and within striking distance.

We played Walsall in an FA Cup replay in mid-January and we were terrible. We got beaten 2-0. We went into the game after only winning one in six in the league and it felt like the wheels were coming off. I remember doing an interview for the official match programme afterwards and having to try and remain restrained. It wasn't anything particular that was wrong, I was simply frustrated. It was possibly the feeling that I didn't want a repeat of the previous season

After that disappointment, we win three on the spin in the league, including that win against Nottingham Forest. That's when I also started to look at us as genuine contenders.

We tick along and then after a few average performances we get beaten at Brentford and we were poor. I remember that I had 10 stitches down my forehead from the previous game. I hadn't headed a ball leading up to the match to allow it to heal. I then started the game and headed the ball straight from kick off, it felt like someone was stabbing me in the head every time the ball made contact with my forehead! It wasn't my best game and the team got overrun. A mixture of personal anger at my performance and the thought that we were slipping again made me have a go in the dressing room. It was a quiet journey back!

The last four/five games were going to be vital.

The next time I thought that we were in the frame was when I got sent off at Blackpool. We needed a result and in the 92nd minute with a Blackpool player clean through, I deliberately brought him down. The lads dealt with the free-kick and we pick up a point. We hadn't been great but managed to get another point on the board. I fancied us with two games to play to pick up enough points to secure the playoff place.

We make hard work of those last two games but when Nards (Daniel Nardiello) scores a penalty in the last 10 minutes at Walsall you start to REALLY think, this is our year here! It probably wasn't until this point that I truly believed that we could do this. I knew that we were capable of beating anyone and no-one would relish getting us in the playoffs.
Tell us about the semi-final then with Huddersfield Town!

Strangely, I wrongly thought that I hadn't played in the first leg at home! I have a vivid picture of me watching from the bench as they scored late on. I was playing centre half so if I was somewhere near the bench that's possibly the reason why we got beat! I truly remember almost nothing from the first leg, good or bad. I do remember the disappointment in the dressing room and the thought that after all we've gone through to get to this point we've potentially blown it. That feeling had disappeared by the time the second leg came around. It almost worked in our favour because we had nothing to lose and they were already thinking about protecting a lead.
We turned up late to the game after being stuck in traffic which perversely might have also played into our hands. No-one had time to dwell on the task or get anxious. We turned up, got changed and were out doing a warm up inside 15 minutes.

The night was something really special and I've said previously that it ranks on a par with the final for me.

The feeling when I scored was pure elation. I get goosebumps even now as I think back. All I could do was clench my fists and shout as loud as I could, I didn't score often enough to have anything pre-planned! I had lots of friends and family in the away end that night and to score in such an important game was magical. The lads all jumped on me and we were in front of the travelling fans celebrating. I had such a connection with the club, the town and the team that it meant more than just scoring. It felt like I was part of us all being successful together if that makes sense.

The group were (and still are) friends off the field as well. The success we had possibly created a unique shared experience to bond us but we were a unit long before this happened.

What was it like captaining the club at the Millennium Stadium in such a huge game? What was the build up like, did you fancy us to get the job done?

We definitely had a determination to re-focus after the joy of the semi final. We rightly celebrated getting to the final after losing the first leg 1-0 but we also spoke about how getting to the final wasn't enough, we had to go and win it. I remember getting an avalanche of good luck messages and calls in the days leading up to the final. Teachers I hadn't seen since I finished school or people I had known through childhood. It was really nice that people took the time to message me like that.
To lead the team out at the Millennium was my World Cup final moment. I knew the enormity of the day and the consequences of the result. The day was either going to be one of the best days of my life or a constant regret.

Because I felt such an affinity with the people and the club it truly felt like I was leading the whole town out. I literally couldn't have been more proud to lead out a group of friends that I would fight for and represent a club that I felt such a part of.
I'm from Carlisle so playing for them was special but I wasn't there for long. Despite some good times throughout my career it's Barnsley that I consider to be 'my' club.

We intentionally tried to downplay the occasion within the group. We didn't get suits fitted, we just wore our club tracksuits as a normal away game. We didn't do anything special in training during the build-up. We actually trained the day before on a sodden Rugby pitch somewhere with most players trying to score conversions from difficult angles and distances!

That was typical us. Relaxed and focused without getting too uptight with the pressure of the situation.

I would have said that neither team was favourite going into the final and my outlook was the same. It was flip of a coin type stuff with a moment of quality or a mistake likely to be the difference on the day. I knew we had a decent chance but couldn't say that I was confident we would be certain winners.
What do you remember of the game, can you run us through it?

My memory of the game is sketchy. I remember Rory Fallon scoring a fantastic overhead kick and feeling like I should have done better to win the initial header. 

My next memory is Nick Colgan making an error for the second goal. He was clearly gutted. I said something like '**** that mate. I need you now. Come on!!!" Nick was a very good 'keeper and a superb character. He had done so well for us that season and didn't deserve to be remembered for a mistake in the final.

The game seemed to ebb and flow either way but we now needed to get back into the game. The dressing room at halftime was reasonably upbeat considering we had let our lead slip.

I recall shouts of 'No regrets' and 'Everything you've got, its go time!!!'

We get back level through Nards and both teams have chances to win it.

I'm not sure why I ended up at the back post but I had a huge chance at the end of normal time. Martin Devaney crossed it and I headed the ball down and over the bar. I was behind the goal knowing that I had to get back into position NOW or the miss was going to be even more costly.

Extra time seemed to be Swansea on top and us running out of steam a little bit. We had a few players who were carrying injuries and it was starting to show. A number of us made vital challenges and interceptions to deny them the important third goal. I'm not sure we would have got back level had we conceded again.

The lads were unbelievable for the penalties. All very relaxed and confident. 

I thought that it was fitting that Nick ended up being the hero of the day. Nick was often the sensible head that kept the younger players in check. He was extremely professional and dedicated. I was delighted for him, his hard work throughout his time at the club had earned him that bit of luck.

The two weeks after that are a bit of blur!

We chose not to book anything in London after the game. If we lost we all wanted to be at home and if we won we wanted to celebrate in Barnsley with everyone.

We ended up at a Tesco store literally clearing the shelves to stock up the bus with ale for the journey home.

Once back in Barnsley we were all straight out in town. The usual dress code had become redundant, I didn't take my club tracksuit off for the next two days as we continued to enjoy the promotion party!

What are you doing right now and what are your future plans?

My career path after playing has led me to the Academy Director role at Sunderland AFC. I feel very privileged to have a prominent role at such a good club, the same feeling I had at Barnsley all those years ago. 

I have absolutely loved my two years at Sunderland so far and have more I want to achieve here.

I have an obvious and permanent affinity with Barnsley after my spell there and the friendships I made. It will always be the club that I'm associated with most because of the success we shared. It was an honour to be a small part of the journey.

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