It seems to me the soul of English soccer is on the terraces. And it…
Seeing a Game at Barnsley FC
(This post was written in March 2017, when Barnsley and Huddersfield Town were both in the Championship. For the 2021-22 season, they are back there again.)
Going to a game at Barnsley FC is right around what I call the “sweet spot” of watching English soccer.
Allow me to explain: For me, the big Premier League clubs offer amazing quality but, sometimes, an overpriced and overly commercial experience. At the really big clubs, I often feel like one of so many tourists in attendance.
At the other end of the scale are the tiny clubs — your Burton Albions, your Dulwich Hamlets, and your Boreham Woods. These are fantastic, but the quality is nowhere near the same, and while it does have a family and community feel to it, seeing a game at these clubs can sometimes be too small.
Somewhere in the middle, there is a sweet spot, just the right combination of a fairly big club, dedicated fan base, intriguing fixture, class stadium, and quality on the pitch.
For me, that is where the 2017 Yorkshire derby I saw, Barnsley vs. Huddersfield Town, landed.
Meet Barnsley FC
Many non-Brits may, like I once did, get Barnsley and Burnley confused. (I also used to struggle with Bradford City / Brentford and Blackburn / Blackpool, but I’ve improved.)
Barnsley is a town of 91,000 in Yorkshire, an almost generic, nearly all-white English place without much else going on — and, as such, their football club is a pretty big deal in town. (I had spent the day of this game wandering around Barnsley a bit.) They won the FA Cup in 1912, which hardly counts after 105 years, but have not spent much time in the top tier of English soccer. Their nickname, The Tykes, comes from a Yorkshire character, hard working and traditional. But more often they are just called the Reds.
When I showed up in 2017, they were in the second-tier Championship, having been promoted via the playoffs from League One the year before. Here is a guide to all the leagues and cups. That year, they had also won the Football League Trophy, a cup tournament for Leagues One and Two. So they had won two trophies the year before at Wembley, and had started the 2016-17 season quite well. By February they had faded to the point where even making the playoffs for the Premier League looked out of range.
In fact, at the end of the following (2017-18) season, Barnsley were relegated back to League One. But they are in the Championship again for the 2021-22 season.
Meet Huddersfield Town FC
Their opponents on this day would be Huddersfield Town FC, another club which I, anyway, had never heard of until the year or so before. They hadn’t been in the top tier since 1972, and they were in the third tier from 2001 through 2012. But they started out like a house afire in the Championship, playing an attractive style of football and getting away wins against Newcastle and their archrivals, Leeds. They were third in the table when I saw them in Barnsley and would go on to win promotion that year. After two years in the Premier League, they went back in 2019.
For me, seeing one team in the playoff places against another one just outside them was attractive; what really got me excited was that these clubs are only 18 miles apart. While neither of them seem to consider the other their biggest rivals — for Huddersfield it’s all about Leeds, and for Barnsley it’s Sheffield Wednesday — that still meant a good chance for a cracking atmosphere, as the Brits would say.
So I was even more excited when I heard someone say, as I walked to the ground, that Town were bringing more than 4,600 fans!
I liked Oakwell before I even saw it, simply for the name. In America, where I live, everything is named for a corporation, or maybe a person, but Oakwell? Ashton Gate? Loftus Road? Outstanding.
Then I saw Oakwell, from my walk into the upper part of the town, and it just seemed to fit right into the scenery, as a football ground should. Also, I saw a rusty corrugated iron, which turns out to be from the West Stand, which dates to the early 1900s. In fact, some of the seats in there are original! Good on the club for keeping these touches around. That stand holds 4,752 people.
The East Stand, where I sat, holds 7,492 and, because this is all on a hillside, there’s quite a walk up to that upper tier. But the view is tremendous, like you’re right on top of the pitch, and there was even good legroom.
The CK Beckett Stand (4,508) holds the hardcore Barnsley supporters, and the North Stand (6,257) is given to away supporters. On this day, the official count of visitors was 4,619.
It’s a comfortable, modern ground that still feels old — just as I like them. A major complaint, though: Yorkshire is known for pies, Barnsley in particular for pork pies, and the stadium sells … Pukka Pies. Having skipped lunch in anticipation of a local treat, I was disappointed to have to huff down a lame Chicken Balti Pie with Sprite before heading to my seat.
Some more scenes from around the ground:
Here are the teams coming out; I do wish they would drop the official pumped-up music and select something more appropriate to the surroundings. The empty seats on the far side were unclaimed by the visitors.
As usual, the away fans were making all the noise, and they had one particular song that seemed to be their signature, called “Smile a While,” ending with “We’re Yorkshire! (clap clap clap) We’re Yorkshire!” Here they are singing it from another game:
If, like me, you got nowhere with those lyrics, here they are (the first two lines aren’t in the video):
There’s a team that’s dear to it’s followers,
Their colours are bright blue and white,
They’re a team of renown, they’re the talk of the town,
And the game of football is their delight.
All the while upon the field of play,
Thousands gladly cheered them on their way,
Often you could hear them say,
Who can beat the Town today?
Then the bells shall ring so merrily,
Every goal shall be a memory,
So town play up and bring the cup,
Back to Huddersfield,
Huddersfield that year were a terrific team, which was apparent from the off. I also love the way they played; pressure the ball up high, with two big lads up front who can run all day, and look to break at pace whenever they can. Here, they were all over Barnsley and got a goal from a corner after 18 minutes.
That seemed to wake Barnsley up a bit, but all their adventuring going forward only created more chances at the back, and Huddersfield could have easily been up by two or three more at the break. I grabbed a candy bar and coffee and moved to a seat with no neighbors, as I had followed up the cramped terraces at Burton Albion the night before with two large neighbors who were dominating possession, as they say.
In the second half Barnsley were better and got their equalizer around the 75th minute. That brought the whole game to life; suddenly the home fans were up for taunting the visitors, who in turn raised their volume level to try and get a winner.
For these last 15 or 20 minutes I was right in the middle of what I had hoped to see: a competitive, end-to-end and spirited derby match. And a good thing, too. I was about to write off the whole day as something of a disappointment, with the town being a bit dull, the ground’s pies unsatisfactory, the local viewpoint tower locked up, the weather crap … I try to keep things in perspective (I could be at home driving a taxi, after all) but all I asked was some exciting football for my efforts. The last 20 minutes delivered.
Of course, nobody scored and it ended 1-1, the second tie in a row I had seen. (And I would get another the next day in Norwich!) Here are the official highlights:
After the game, things got a little weird. I thought I knew the direction to head, so I followed some others down a dirt trail … which became muddy and dropped further down the hill, then towards what looked like a woodlands …
… and finally came to an old canal with a paved path.
Turns out I had added quite some distance and elevation to getting back to the station.
Then my train ride to Norwich turned into a nightmare, with a missed connection and signal troubles on the way meaning I didn’t drag into Norwich until 1 a.m.
I’ll head back for another game at Barnsley some time — maybe when the weather is better and Sheffield Wednesday are in town.