Barnsley FC vs Chester FC
FA Cup Second Round
Sunday 7th December 2014
Oakwell, Barnsley, South Yorkshire
From the moment Trevor Sinclair appeared on my TV screen dressed as Jamiroquai on Friday night, I knew I’d made the right choice for the Second Round.
Four weeks earlier, Martin Keown had conspired with the laws of probability to draw every surviving non-league side out of the hat either away from home or against one another. As TV executives scratched their heads, trying to work out where the next big shock would be, I awaited the replays to decide where The Underdog Blog would venture next.
Out went Portsmouth, removing the possibility of a trip to the South Coast to see the fallen 2008 winners face Rochdale from the division above. Maidstone United’s heroics against famous giant-killers Stevenage was impressive, but thwarted a tantalising meeting between two underdogs of old, with Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground awaiting the victors.
As cameras gathered around Victoria Park to see Blyth Spartans overcome Hartlepool United, I still felt my choice not to attend would be vindicated. Trev was a good omen and I’d be heading to Oakwell.
The cameras hadn’t deemed Chester FC’s visit to Barnsley worthy of coverage. The phoenix club, rising from the ashes of Chester City’s demise five years ago, became the first club in English football history to achieve three successive promotions in 2013.
That momentum was halted last season, if not perhaps as severely as it might have been. Relegated on goal difference, they were offered a late reprieve at the expense of Hereford United, the side immediately above them, who were expelled to the seventh tier over financial irregularities. Poor old Ronnie Radford.
Now faring a little better in the Conference, and sitting closer to the play-offs than the relegation zone, the trip to South Yorkshire would see Chester go head-to-head with a side almost 50 places above them in the league ladder.
Alongside me would be my old school friend, Tom. A lifelong QPR fan, he remembers Trevor Sinclair’s sensational overhead kick against today’s opponents in the FA Cup only too well; in fact, he used to wind me up about it.
With half of my family hailing from Barnsley, I’ve always been fond of the Tykes. I used to attend the occasional game with my dad as a kid, and my gran’s bungalow sits on a hillside overlooking Oakwell. A keen football fan at the age of 93, she’s as dismayed with the form of her hometown team as many a season ticket holder.
We call in for a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake before the match. She’s listening to a Daniel O’Donnell CD when we arrive, something she laughs off with slight embarrassment on realising I’ve brought a friend. Even grandmas can spot a grandma cliché when they’re in one.
I haven’t the heart to explain that we’re sitting in the Chester end for the benefit of a football blog based in cyberspace; we’ve only recently mastered the red button. We chat about Barnsley’s chances before leaving her to enjoy an afternoon with Ronnie O’Sullivan as we head out into the sleet and hail.
Back under the guidance of Danny Wilson, Barnsley are treading water in League One after relegation from the Championship last season. Long gone are the Premier League glory days of his first spell in charge, when he led Barnsley to within a couple of victories of surviving their maiden, and indeed only, season in the top flight.
A play-off final beneath Wembley’s twin towers ended in a 4-2 defeat to Ipswich Town a few years later under Dave Bassett’s breathtaking “we’ll score one more than you” brand of football. I was there that day, and it remains one of the best games of football I’ve ever witnessed.
Since then, it’s largely been downhill. A League One play-off final victory over Swansea City (where are they now?) briefly stopped the rot, but they find themselves back in the third tier and struggling to maintain a challenge. Ripe for an upset, then.
One chink of light in recent seasons for the home team was provided by the FA Cup. A famous victory at Anfield was followed by a 1-0 win here against Chelsea in the Quarter Finals in 2008, before a narrow Wembley defeat to eventual runners-up Cardiff City ended the dream.
As we walk through the narrow terraced streets leading towards the ground, Tom spots a billboard advertising a heinous crime. It appears that someone has stolen a ref’s kit. A prisonable offence in 21st century Britain, apparently.
We queue outside the box office to collect our pre-ordered tickets. Inside, a TV screen plays highlights of another famous FA Cup night at Oakwell. Scott Jones’ brace to knock the mighty Manchester United out in a 1998 replay still induces goosebumps in these parts. A young Danny Wilson celebrates on the touchline.
Inside the Club Shop, an elderly gent sits alongside a programme seller offering team sheets for 50p. We’re not quite sure where the donation goes, but purchase one all the same. We make our way around the ground towards the away stand as we examine the lineups.
“Oh no! Not Leroy Lita!” says Tom. It seems that he’s developed a keen dislike for the former Reading and current Barnsley striker over the years.
“He always celebrates in front of opposition fans. He’s an idiot. Same goes for Andy Johnson. I once saw him empty a goalkeeper’s water bottle while waiting for a corner to be taken for no reason at all.”
I wasn’t aware of this but I sympathise; I’ve a similar disdain for Darren Bent.
“I’d rather go for a drink with Jack Wilshere than Leroy Lita,” he continues. “Actually, no, I take that back…”
We make our way through the old turnstiles and into the North Stand. The far end is closed, meaning more than 2,000 travelling fans are packed into one half of the unreserved seating area. We find a spot about a third of the way up and join in the raucous singing.
“You’re supposed to be at home!” chant the away end at the sporadic looking home crowd. With a capacity of 23,000, the stands are sparse, with little over 5,000 home fans here.
Another huge roar goes up as both teams leave the tunnel located in our corner of the ground. Each Chester player applauds the huge travelling support, while manager Steve Burr lingers a little longer to show his appreciation.
The singing is upped a notch as the two teams gather at the halfway line to remember the Christmas Day truce a century ago. It’s a nice idea that’s happening across all fixtures this weekend, and a gentle reminder that football can help and heal, despite all of the bad publicity it sometimes receives.
“I hope that’s the real ref”, says Tom, as we squint to check if Darren Handley has led the two teams out. We’re only semi-confident that the real Mr Handley isn’t actually tied to a chair in a local warehouse, as a one-man crime wave, on the run from police and armed with a tin of spray foam and a Graham Poll fetish, is about to get the game underway.
“Come on City! Come on City!” chant the fans. It might be the kind of stick that Celtic fans beat Rangers with, but I’m firmly behind reformed Clubs deserving to retain their original identity; Chester FC and Chester City are clearly one and the same.
Barnsley create the first chance in the fifth minute. Brad Abbott has the ball taken bravely from his feet by ‘keeper Jon Worsnop, who takes a heavy knock to the head for his troubles. He looks mildly concussed, and with little wonder, as play stops for a few minutes so he can receive treatment for a cracked cheekbone. He also lost a tooth.
Over the tannoy, several inaudible messages are addressed to the away end. A mixture of raucous singing and a strong South Yorkshire accent make them unintelligible, and the man in front of us turns around.
“What’s he saying?! He’s worse than Cleggy, isn’t he?”
We nod, despite not knowing who Cleggy is. We assume he’s the Deva Stadium’s announcer, rather than being a pseudo-political comment on the incoherent policies of the Liberal Democrats. Or something.
Both sides try and get the ball on the floor, not least because the swirling wind plays havoc with anything above head height. Kane Hemmings tests the groggy Worsnop’s reactions in the 14th minute, a neat interplay with Lita forcing a smart stop low to his left.
A girl a few rows in front of us attempts to take a crowd ‘selfie’ of the impressive support behind her. Her smartphone picks up my face in the crowd and snaps an unflattering picture. It’s as if she has an app that spots the Blue and White army outsider, and she turns to show me just how lacking I am in the photogenic department.
It’s true that I feel a little nervous. I’m still unsure about how I feel cheering on any team playing Barnsley; but I’m about to find out.
On 21 minutes, Craig Mahon’s direct approach down the left sees him beat his fullback and shoot across the goal. Ross Turnbull does enough to push the ball onto the top of the crossbar via a deflection, and Barnsley clear their lines.
“GOOOO ONNN!”, I find myself screaming, caught up in the unremitting noise from our end of the ground. The atmosphere is incredible and it’s impossible not to get involved. It’s a good reaction save in the end from a goalkeeper who picked up a Champions League winners medal just two seasons ago.
Another player with a slightly more tenuous Champions League connection almost forces the opener deep into first half injury time. John Rooney’s dangerous corner, via a glance off the head of Hourihane, is cleared off the line by Joe Dudgeon, but only just. Replays later prove impossible to confirm whether the whole ball did cross the line.
Still only 23, the younger brother of England captain Wayne has taken the well-worn journeyman path of Macclesfield, Bury and a short spell at Barnsley via Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls. He’s leading the line for Chester today despite a slightly less impressive goals ratio than his elder sibling.
I briefly chat to the man beside me at half time. We agree that the pre-match odds of 7/1 are looking rather long, and that there’s every chance of a big upset here, especially with the wind behind the visitors in the second half. There’s a good chance this stand could suck the ball into the net with a concerted effort.
Chester are immediately on the front foot in the second half. Kingsley James, a pony-tailed central midfielder, is trying to dictate play from the centre circle. Tom and I are split on our opinions of him, but I attempt to romanticise his attempts to spread the ball to each flank as that of a non-league Pirlo. Tom claims he’s more Robbie Savage, and he’s sticking to it. He loses the ball in a dangerous area as we discuss it, and I stand down from my argument.
Chester continue to find joy down the left hand side, where the tireless Mahon is supported well by former Wales international Gareth Roberts.
In the 48th minute, Mahon pounces on a loose ball inside his own half and runs at the defence, twisting and turning his defender before forcing a brilliant save from Turnbull that narrowly evades the on-rushing Craig Hobson and rolls beyond the far post. The excellent Matt Brown, who’s been a rock in the heart of the defence so far, heads just wide from the resulting corner. Barnsley are rattled, and Chester smell blood.
Barnsley introduce Dale Jennings in the 57th minute, and the former Bayern Munich man immediately makes an impact on the game, forcing another decent save from Worsnop a few minutes later.
It’s not long before a lingering gripe returns to the surface for Tom.
“Look at the strut on Lita!”, he exclaims. “He thinks he’s too good for this. It’s a chore for him to be here!”
I quietly contemplate whether it’s possible that Leroy Lita owes Tom money.
Chester are back on the front foot soon after. Kieran Charnock’s header is cleared off the line following pressure from a corner. They survive a penalty shout a few minutes later, as Jennings’ run into the box is halted by a firm shoulder from Kingsley James, and Chester break.
The brilliant Mahon is again involved, taking control of the ball on the edge of the box to set-up Rooney for the shot. His effort finds its way through to McConville, who lays the ball on for Ben Henegan to find the back of the net from close range. The crowd explodes, but it’s clear both men were offside, even for a refereeing team of escaped convicts.
Lita is subbed, and Tom waves him off enthusiastically as he trudges off the field. “You owe me twenty quid!”, he shouts, mostly with his eyes.
Chances continue to come, with Hourihane forcing a good save from Worsnop, and Mahon floating a shot narrowly over the crossbar in the final minute of normal time. There’s one last storm for Chester to ride, though.
Marcello Trotta’s volley from outside of the box in the second minute of injury time is scrambled away by Worsnop, but lands at the feet of Kane Hemmings, whose strike into the ground bounces high over the goalkeeper’s head. Covering his ‘keeper is the magnificent Brown, who heads the ball clear of the gaping goal.
It’s an incredible finish, and testament to Chester’s approach that they’re almost caught on the break while chasing the win. There’s never a hint that they’re holding on for the replay.
The final whistle is greeted with a huge cheer as Chester reserve their place in Monday’s draw. It’s been a magnificent performance, with Mahon, Brown and Worsnop the standout players in a team full of heroes.
Steve Burr huddles his players in front of the travelling support and lines his players up to have their picture taken against the backdrop of the jubilant away fans. I try and smile for this picture, although this time I’ve got nothing to hide. I’m a Chester FC convert and have thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon.
It’s a replay in front of the BT Sport cameras at the Deva Stadium (which, according to a rather cheeky edit on the Club’s Wikipedia page is ‘over the Welsh border’; those Wrexham fans, eh?) for Chester. They’ve gone from the eighth tier of the league ladder to the third round of the FA Cup in less than five years. It’s some story they’re writing.
As we walk back up the hill and past the little newsagents, we reflect on an excellent match. Incredibly, despite 19 fouls, there wasn’t a single booking. If you are going to nick a referee’s kit, just make sure he’s left his cards in his pocket.
The Underdog Blog Record 2014/15
P 6 W 3 D 2 L 1 F 4 A 4 GD 0
Barnsley FC vs Chester FC
FA Cup Second Round
Sunday 7th December 2014
Oakwell, Barnsley, South Yorkshire
Barnsley 0 – 0 Chester FC
Barnsley: Turnbull, Dudgeon, Nyatanga, Ramage (Brown 20), Cranie, Berry, Hourihane, Abbott (Jennings 56), Hemmings, Trotta, Lita (Treacy 76).
Subs: Davies, Digby, Holgate, Cowgill.
Chester: Worsnop, G Roberts, Charnock, Brown, Kay, James, Rooney, Mahon, McConville, Heneghan, Hobson.
Subs: C Roberts, Touray, Harrison, Greenop, Menagh, Riley, Blake.
Referee: Darren Handley (allegedly…)
Attendance: 7,227 (away 2,143)