23,676 of the town’s inhabitants had made the first of two journeys in less than two months to Wembley Stadium to watch the Reds beat Oxford United 3-2 in the 2016 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final.
Many others packed into pubs or living rooms to watch on TV as the Oakwell club claimed their first piece of silverware since the 1912 FA Cup and their first ever Wembley win.
Adam Hammill, who scored long-range stunners in that game and the play-off final win the next month, told the Chronicle: “I think the JPT win was more influential than the play-off final. For me, I had seen Liverpool lose at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final the year before as a fan but never been on the pitch. It was really special. My daughter came onto the pitch with me afterwards. I still have both of our shirts from that day framed in our house. I have the programme, matchball and medal all in my little boy’s room because he’s football-mad and I want him to look at them as much as possible.”
Paul Heckingbottom was the caretaker head coach who secured the silverware within two months of replacing Lee Johnson who moved to Bristol City hours after the semi-final win over Fleetwood Town. The Barnsley fan, who had won a play-off final with the club a decade earlier, said: “It was a great day and occasion. Our form was improving and improving but the first Wembley experience helped us a lot towards the end of the season and in the play-off final.
“Because I hadn’t been doing it long, because I was a local lad and I had been a season ticket holder, all the focus was on that from the media. It was an historic day in the club’s history and it laid foundations for bigger things. The players had a lot of motivation and momentum after where they had been earlier in the season and the Wembley win just made that even stronger.”
It is written into Oakwell folklore now that Barnsley were bottom of League One in early December then in the bottom three at Christmas before Johnson won his last six league matches to put them in top six contention and Heckingbottom led them to double Wembley glory. A key moment was the re-signing in November of former star Hammill, whose career had gone off the rails with disappointing spells at Huddersfield Town and Rotherham United as well as some personal issues off the pitch.
After a humiliating FA Cup loss at non-league Altricham, owner Patrick Cryne wanted to inject some ‘Barnsley DNA’ back into the club. So, along with long-serving players Bobby Hassell and Martin Devaney taking key roles in the academy, he broke his own rule of signing only under 25s to bring in Hammill on a free transfer while Aidy White and Kevin Long bolstered the defence.
Hammill’s second debut saw him score and assist as the Reds came from behind to beat York City in the JPT third round, then they ended an eight-match losing run in the league. Hammill said: “The JPT was massive for us that season. I remember when I signed, Lee was under pressure but my first game was the win against York and that seemed to start the turnaround. Then Lee moved to Bristol and Hecky took over and put his own stamp on the team. For me, it was a fairytale for my career because I’d been in a bad place.”
Barnsley had already won away at Bradford City and Scunthorpe United then, after York, triumphed on penalties at Wigan Athletic and Fleetwood to reach Wembley. The interest and crowds grew throughout the rounds then the final was played in front of almost 60,000. t was an entertaining game in very warm weather. Barnsley struggled in the first half and trailed to Callum O’Dowda’s header.
Hammill said: “We didn’t play well in the first half and Hecky reminded us at half-time that it could be the one and only time we ever play at Wembley in our careers. It was a very inspiring speech and we played a lot better in the second half. We showed what we could do as a team.”
Heckingbottom added: “The occasion was getting to them a bit. There was nothing tactically wrong. Sam Winnall and Adam Hammill were playing their normal game but everyone else looked like the occasion was affecting them. At half-time, I had a go at a few players to try to shock them so that, when they went back onto the pitch, they weren’t thinking about the occasion, they were angry at me because of what I said to them. It was an easy half-time because we just needed to change the focus.
“It worked, we were great in the second half and could have won by more goals.” Barnsley levelled within five minutes of the restart, Che Dunkley heading into his own net, then Ashley Fletcher gave them the lead before Hammill made it 3-1. He said: “I just picked the ball up near the halfway line and wanted to drive the team up the pitch. It all opened up for me and I just hit it with my right foot.
“There was a player in my line of sight so I didn’t see it go in but I could tell it was a goal by the noise and reaction of the fans. I think I sprinted straight into Ashley Fletcher and knocked him off balance which would never normally happen because he is much, much bigger than me. The feeling in those celebrations was unbelievable and I will never forget it. By the end, my energy was totally gone and I was knackered. But I was able to feed off that sea of red behind the goal. The fans definitely kept me going.”
Oxford pulled one back but were beaten, with Hammill collapsing to the floor at the full-time whistle. Heckingbottom was more calm as he hugged assistant Tommy Wright, shook the Oxford staff’s hands and then went to celebrate with the supporters. Heckingbottom said: “I had loads of friends and family down there. “In years to come, it will probably sink in a bit more. “It was definitely a great day and one that none of us will forget.”