Today in 1991, the Oakwell pitch was filled with delighted supporters at the end of a season for one of the few times in history but, unlike the other occasions, the party did not go on into the night and the cheers died in their throats as they realised they had nothing to celebrate.
Barnsley believed that their 1-0 final day win over Middlesbrough meant that they had finished seventh in Division Two and so would be playing play-off football for the first time, with the chance to make more history by reaching the top flight after a wait of more than a century since formation. The stadium announcer had made it known on the loud-speaker that Brighton and Hove Albion had failed to beat Ipswich Town, meaning the Reds were in the play-offs, so the fans flooded onto the pitch.
The Chronicle match report described it as a ‘colourfully kaleidoscopic crescendo of celebration’ and compared it to the pitch invasions more than a decade earlier when first Allan Clarke then Norman Hunter took the Reds from the Fourth to the Second Division. The players began climbing the steps of the West Stand to gain some elevation over the hordes of delirious supporters while champagne corks started to fly, in scenes which would be replicated six years later after the famous win over Bradford City. But, unlike in 1997, this joy was cut agonisingly short as the news came through that Brighton had scored a last-gasp winner.
John Dennis, who was the chairman at the time, said: “It was hugely frustrating. Clearly the guy that made the annoncement had got it wrong. I remember thinking, when I heard it, that I should check it was definitely right and I was very soon disabused of the idea that we were in the play-offs. We had to make sure that the truth got out there as soon as possible. I know the fans were bitterly upset and annoyed with the club for allowing that announcement to be made – and quite rightly so in my view. It was a very stupid mistake. We had to have some words afterwards.”
Gerry Taggart, who was at the end of his first full season at Oakwell, added: “It was surreal and like nothing I have come across before or since. We were all popping the champagne in the directors’ box and the corks were flying. We thought we were in the play-offs and we were elated. Then we received the news that Brighton had scored and the whole place just went immediately flat. The fans all left within a couple of minutes and we just walked back to the dressing room. Everybody was really disappointed and confused. One minute we were thinking ‘see you on Monday’ then it was ‘see you in July.’”
The Reds’ secretary Michael Spinks had to issue an official apology for the loud-speaker announcement, saying it had been based on information from a radio reporter who believed the game in Brighton had finished. Ian Banks added: “Talk about highs and lows. It was just pure excitement and elation then being brought back down to Earth. This was before mobile phones so everyone was listening to radios on their shoulders. The fans all ran on the pitch after the final whistle and we joined in. The fans obviously heard the news from Brighton and it came over to us that we weren’t in the play-offs.
“The only thing I can compare it to in my life is when my son Ollie was given a start at Wembley (for Chesterfield in the 2014 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) then broke his foot eight minutes in. It was the best and worst I’ve ever felt, and similar to that day at Oakwell. We were very, very close. If we got in the play-offs, anything could have happened and I would have loved to have played in the top flight with Barnsley. You can dream about these things, but they never happened.”
It was Mel Machin’s first full season as Barnsley manager and he saw Andy Rammell, Andy Saville and Brendon O’Connell all reach double figures for goals. Despite a seven-game winless run in autumn, they were on decent form for the majority of the season as they enjoyed 5-1 wins over both Ipswich Town and Swindon Town then a 5-0 success at Wolves, while they reached the area semi-finals of the now-defunct Zenith Data Systems Cup in which they lost to top flight Everton.
In a frantic end to the season which saw them play 12 matches in six weeks, the Reds suffered three straight losses to Blackburn Rovers, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday but a win at Swindon and a home draw with Newcastle United meant they still had a chance of the play-offs with a game to spare. Visitors Middlesbrough were three points clear of Barnsley but, due to the North East club’s superior goal difference, the Reds needed to win by four goals to overtake their visitors in the table. A more likely route was that Brighton would fail to beat Ipswich, allowing Machin’s men into the play-offs with victory.
They gained that win thanks to an impressive header by teen star Carl Tiler which was the only goal of the game. But Brighton’s late goal meant that Barnsley finished eighth, in the days when three sides were automatically promoted into the 22-team top flight and the next four entered the play-offs.
Taggart said: “We had a good season and a decent squad. For a team like Barnsley just to get to the play-offs would have been an immense achievement in those days. “We weren’t much-fancied. “For me personally, it was my first full season with the club and it would have been awesome to have a chance to play in the First Division.”
Star players Tiler and Steve Agnew left that summer and Machin’s sides would finish 16th and 13th in the next two campaigns before he left in 1993 and was replaced by Viv Anderson then Danny Wilson. Ironically, one of the Middlesbrough players on that day in 1991, John Hendrie, would enjoy a genuine celebration at Oakwell six years later when Wilson took Barnsley to the top flight. Dennis said: “The frustration now, all these years later, is a lot less because we know we eventually got there in 1997. “But, at the time, it was not a nice experience and very difficult to take.”