David Flitcroft’s Reds were seven points from safety – the same gap Gerhard Struber’s men are trying to claw back – but survived on the final day of one of the most dramatic seasons in memory. Luke Steele famously kept the ball at his feet in injury-time of their last match at Huddersfield Town to ensure both teams survived.
Tom Kennedy said: “We were cannon fodder for the first half of that season and we were written off by January, but we always believed. We were a team who probably shouldn’t have stayed up but we achieved the impossible. I have been promoted a few times but that is up there with the greatest achievements in my career. It was like a Rocky movie, the way we came back. All the players and the fans bought into the idea of the great escape and it was a very special time.”
Jim O’Brien said: “I never thought I would celebrate avoiding relegation but it was such a big achievement with the budget we had, and where we had been. It was special.” Stephen Foster added: “It was a surreal season with some really memorable games. Flicker gave us an amazing team spirit and we never gave up. It was a fantastic achievement.”
The season began reasonably well for Keith Hill’s Barnsley who won four of their first 11 league games, all with clean sheets including a 5-0 success at Birmingham City. But – in a season in which Mido and Champions League winner Jonathan Greening played for the Reds – an 11-game winless run brought just four points and left them in the relegation zone. They won at Millwall before Christmas but then suffered home losses to Birmingham and Blackburn Rovers, after which Hill was informed by general manager Don Rowing that he had lost his job.
Hill’s assistant and best friend Flitcroft took over, bringing in Micky Mellon and Martin Scott as coaches. His first game was a 2-1 loss at Peterborough United on New Year’s Day which left the Reds bottom and four points from safety. Reds hero Craig Hignett was expected to be named manager and had had conversations with owner Patrick Cryne but a 2-0 home win over bitter rivals Leeds United, inspired by a Chris Dagnall brace, got Flitcroft the job until the end of the season. That was the start of an extraordinary run of eight wins out of nine in all competitions including six in a row in which they mainly used a 3-5-2 formation and were slightly more direct than under Hill.
Kennedy said: “The Leeds win was a really good one and it was when we started to get momentum. We started to really get after teams and press them. We played some good stuff and beat a lot of top sides. We just kept chipping away at the gap and the belief grew.”
The Reds’ FA Cup commitments meant the gap grew to seven points by January 29 but new signing Jason Scotland scored three in three as he secured a home victory over Millwall then got late winners at both Blackpool and Middlesbrough. Scotland and Marlon Harewood’s names started to be sung by the galvanised fanbase as did the Bob Marley lyric ‘every little thing is going to be alright.’ Chris O’Grady, who had scored a controversial winner for fellow strugglers Sheffield Wednesday at Oakwell in December, joined during the window while the Reds sold top-scorer Craig Davies and future England defender and £47million man John Stones. By February 19, when they secured a midweek win over Dean Saunders’ plummeting Wolves and an exhausted Flitcroft pretended to fall asleep on the physios’ trolly, the Reds were 20th and the division’s form team.
Midfielder O’Brien had come off injured in the Leeds match but then scored the opening goals at both Blackpool and Middlesbrough. He said: “Stonesy sold me short on a pass and I think it was Lee Peltier who smashed me. I remember coming off and sucking gas and air on the bench and seeing us go 2-0 up. We had momentum after that and we just rode the wave. We weren’t pretty on the eye. We had a simple plan to get the ball up to the strikers quickly and with quality then we would play off them. We had good athleticism.”
Barnsley were plunged back to the bottom of the division after a 5-3 loss at Bristol City, who were 4-0 up after 55 minutes, then a 3-2 home defeat to Flitcroft’s hometown club Bolton Wanderers. The FA Cup run, which saw them beat Hull City, Burnley and MK Dons to inspire the league form, ended with a 5-0 quarter-final thrashing at Premier League champions Manchester City.
But, in a huge four-day spell, they won at home to the promotion-chasing duo of Brighton – thanks to a late Steele penalty save – and Watford, with Bobby Hassell heading in the only goal to move his side up three places from last. Another victory over a Premier League hopeful, Leicester City who had Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane as unused substitutes, was followed by a goalless draw at eventual play-off winners Crystal Palace where Flitcroft turned to two veterans.
Foster said: “I never liked playing at Crystal Palace, because I never seemed to have any success there. I was the only fit centre-back and Bobby was put alongside me. It was one hell of a test but we did really well and it was a big point.”
Foster scored a 97th-minute equaliser at champions Cardiff City three days later. He said: “The fixtures were really piling up and I remember thinking during the Cardiff match ‘I haven’t got a lot left’. I don’t know how I was even able to get up the pitch in the 97th minute. It was the ugliest goal I have ever scored and that is saying something. I just stuck a boot out and diverted in the miskicked shot. We didn’t deserve a point but it was very important and a great feeling.”
Barnsley then suffered a shock 6-0 home loss to Charlton Athletic, with both Stephen Dawson and Kennedy sent off. Kennedy said: “It was worrying to be doing so well then have that result which was an absolute collapse. In the dressing room afterwards, there was no shouting, but everyone laid their cards on the table and a few home truths came out. It was make-or-break time but we reacted in the right way.”
Barnsley conceded an injury-time equaliser to Derby County three days later then drew 0-0 at Nottingham Forest so began their final home game of the season second-bottom. But a 2-0 success over Hull City – who would reach the Premier League the next week – meant they took the fight to the last day. The Reds were still third-bottom while hosts and local rivals Huddersfield were one of five teams above them who could have been relegated that day with the others being Peterborough, Wednesday, Millwall and Blackburn. On an afternoon in which both sides were in the bottom three on the ‘live table’, Barnsley took the lead through O’Grady and Scotland but the Terriers levelled each time.
O’Brien said: “I played right-back and I had been getting a crash course in how to do it. I was thinking ‘if anybody is going to let us down, it’s going to be me playing out of position.’ We battered them in the first half and should have had it won. I remember at 2-2 I started to feel nervous for the first time in that whole run.”
The news came through that Peterborough, who had led twice at Palace, had conceded a late winner to Mile Jedinak which meant a 2-2 draw would keep Barnsley up. Foster, whose season had been finished by an injury in the Charlton game, said: “I was in the stands with Rory Delap and some other injured players. The news came through that we only needed to draw to stay up but we could see the staff and players didn’t know. We battled our way down to the dugout and past some stewards to tell them.”
Eventually, goalkeeper Steele kept the ball at his feet, unchallenged by the home players, throughout the final minutes of injury-time to relegate his hometown club Peterborough. O’Brien said: “I was being told to get forward because we needed a goal then suddenly everyone was shouting at me that a draw would keep us up. Two of the weirdest things I have ever seen in football are Steeley keeping the ball for a couple of minutes and also supporters standing on the touchline, in front of the linesman, waiting to run onto the pitch at the end. It was a tough couple of minutes after the whistle, waiting to hear if Peterborough had lost. When we found out we had stayed up, it was one of the best feelings I have had in football.”
Kennedy said: “I remember there was a lot of tension going into the match but it was an incredible end to end game until the last few minutes. I knew a few of the Huddersfield players like James Vaughan and I was standing next to him. He was looking at Steeley and saying ‘I’m going to press him and tackle him’ but he never did. It was a big gamble to do that but it paid off."
Barnsley – who won one and lost one of their last seven games – finished a point clear of Posh, who went down with 54 points which is the highest ever tally for a relegated side at that level. It was hoped that this would lead to a glorious era but Flitcroft was sacked seven months later after winning just two of the first 17 matches of 2013/14 which ended in relegation. The only player to remain at Oakwell for the whole 2014/15 season was Martin Cranie, who is also the only one to have since had a long-term Championship career.
Most of the others drifted down the leagues, mainly playing for North West clubs and – in many cases – reuniting with Flitcroft at Bury and Mansfield, Hill at Rochdale or now both at League One’s bottom club Bolton. But, for that sunny afternoon in May 2013 – when both sets of fans stormed the pitch and chanted ‘Yorkshire! Yorkshire!’ – they were Barnsley heroes.