Nicky Eaden was released twice by Barnsley before the age of 21 but went on to be their regular right-back during the successful 1990s and, despite leaving 20 years ago this summer, is the most recent Red to play 300 games. 

The Hoyland man was let go after leaving school then, after getting a second chance, was released again four years later by Mel Machin before his mentor Eric Winstanley rescued his career.  Eaden said: “When I was 16 I left school and I was pretty much the only player in my Barnsley youth team who didn’t get offered a deal.  I went to college but then, in October, Barnsley offered me a deal. 

“I eventually signed as a professional but I had a tough time under Mel Machin and it was a dressing room joke that he had it in for me.  I used to get both barrels off him after every reserve game.  He released me and I was looking at Fourth Division clubs but, luckily for me, he was sacked and Eric managed to get me a new contract. I got in the team under Viv Anderson the next season and I never really came out of it until I left.”

Barnsley, and football in general, underwent many changes during Eaden’s decade in the Oakwell first team squad.  “You see the facilities and gear the players have now, we used to have to look around just to find a top to train in.  We would be training in the snow in shorts, a t-shirt and maybe a sweatshirt if you were lucky.  But you just got on with it. We only had two pitches for all the senior and youth teams to train on. You’d be training in ankle-deep mud. It was a tough upbringing for a footballer, if there is such a thing.  But you came across a lot of characters. 

“Early on there were people like Tags (Gerry Taggart) and Lee Butler who you look up to as senior pros then you go away on holiday with them to Magaluf and you think ‘wow’. I was lucky to come through the ranks with some top players and play with great pros like Redders (Neil Redfearn).”

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Winstanley was a huge influence of the career of Eaden and his colleagues in the successful youth and reserve teams such as David Watson, Andy Liddell, Scott Jones and Adi Moses. He said: “There was just something about the way Eric coached which clicked with me.  He was teaching us patterns of play which was unheardof at other clubs at that point.  I didn’t realise how good he was until I left. Because he coached me for that long, I thought it was normal but it wasn’t – far from it.  I think Eric had a soft spot for me, even though he never really showed it. I still speak to him every couple of weeks. Eric taught me the game then Danny Wilson added bits to my game, when I played alongside him then under him.”

Eaden was a regular as Wilson guided Barnsley to automatic promotion into the Premiership in 1997, secured with a 2-0 home win over Bradford City. He said: “The Bradford game is obviously the highlight. But the other one that season was beating Sheffield United at home on a Friday night. It was a local derby and both clubs were competing to go up. I set up the first goal, scored the second and got man of the match which didn’t happen very often. It was great to play in the Premiership against all the top clubs and players. We just didn’t quite have enough to stay up.” 

Eaden would play in the 2000 play-off final loss to Ipswich Town at Wembley, his last game for Barnsley before a move to Birmingham City.  In total, he played 339 games for the Reds. 

“I would say my time at Barnsley was my best years.  When I started, we would get crowds of five or six thousand and we were fighting against relegation to the third tier. Then we got to the Premiership and then Wembley which a lot of people would have said would never have happened to Barnsley.

“Getting to the Prem changed the club quite a lot and it had an impact on the town and the fans.  The crowds got a lot bigger and they have never gone back down to the levels of the early 90s. We put Barnsley on the map. We were lumped in with teams like Grimsby Town when I started then, when I left, we were one of the clubs always competing to get into the top flight. It was just a good time to be at the club.  We seemed to improve year on year until the Prem season.” 

Eaden played in the 2001 League Cup final for Birmingham, losing on penalties to Liverpool.  He moved on to Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest before embarking on a coaching career which has seen him work in various roles for Peterborough United, Rotherham United, Leicester City and Coventry City. He has recently had brief stints as manager of non-league clubs Nuneaton Town, Hednesford Town and Kettering Town and is now working for a landscape gardening firm in the West Midlands.  

"I still get on the grass but it’s laying turf now and putting up fencing.  You have to earn a living. I think it would do some footballers some good.  You still get the banter on the building sites.  Hopefully I will get back into football at some point in the future.”