With this season being the 20th anniversary of THAT promotion, we’ve spent time with some of the men who helped us make history. For WSB14 & WSB15 we serialised an interview with the Chairman of the time, Mr John Dennis. Here’s the interview in full – grab a brew, it’s a long but fascinating insight into John’s life first as a fan and then as Chairman – ups and downs.
WSB: Why’s Barnsley your club?
JD: Barnsley’s my club because my father took me there when I was about 7 years old. He had been involved as an officer of the old supporters club after the war and during the 50s had been a director on a couple of occasions.
I think the first game I went to see was a friendly against Arsenal – in those days, clubs that had got knocked out of the 3rd round of the cup would arrange friendlies on free dates. I remember that Arsenal played in green shirts with white sleeves, rather than red with white – and they beat us 6-0.
My first league game was the following season against Grimsby and we won 3-1 – that season, 58/59 – we got relegated from the old second division. First away was Boxing Day at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough. I think Brian Clough was playing for them that day.
My next away game was at Hillsborough – we were already relegated, they went up as Champions & we got beat 5-0. In a little 8 year old that sowed the seeds of many bad feelings towards those boys in blue & white stripes!
I saw a Barnsley team put on the best 45 minutes of football at Hillsborough, in a 2-2 draw & that was the McCarthy/Evans/Glavin/Banks team. We absolutely destroyed them – went 2-0 up, Derek Parker got done, he did his knee & to this day Derek tells me that he never recovered his career from that game.
It was just natural to support Barnsley – you supported your home town club in those days. We’re talking about the era before replica shirts & if you were brought up here you supported Barnsley.
WSB: When did that change?
JD: The formation of the PL & the commercialisation of football gathered pace in a remarkable way. There were always people that supported other clubs – in the time I’m talking about, the 50s & 60s, our dear football club suffered some tough times but there always used to be buses that would leave Park Road to go to Old Trafford, in the Dearne Valley Barnsley battled to keep fans from Sheffield clubs & even Rotherham & Doncaster. South Emsall etc still have branches of Leeds United supporters clubs. In the late 60s & 70, it’s difficult to imagine the force Leeds United were in not only British Football but European football too. It was trying supporting Barnsley & I used to get a lot of stick for it at school – I went to school at Worksop College with Forest/Leicester & Wednesday fans but not too many Reds!
I remember playing Leicester in the FA Cup 6th Round, season 60/61, and we won the Giants Killer trophy for that incidentally, & I remember walking round & round the rugby pitch with a friend who was a Leicester fan & we had one of those big transistor radios! We drew 0-0 & lost the replay at OAkwell which was heartbraking. My Parents used to send me the green un & the Chronicle every week to keep up to date with what was going on. Barnsley is basically in my blood!
WSB: Who was your hero when you were growing up?
JD: My first proper hero was a man called Tony Leighton, a centre forward we signed on a free from Doncaster & sold him to Huddersfield for 20k a couple of years later. He was a big bustling centre forward who scored goals. He was one of my early heroes.
Alan Hill the goalkeeper another one. I’d seen him play for Barnsley Boys & saw him coming through the ranks. He then got sold to Rotherham for a few quid & a keeper in return. He then went to Forest & he was at Forest for years and became chief scout there. He was instrumental with taking Carl Tiler & David Currie to Forest – he’d been my hero & then I got to meet him, in fact I still used to see him at Oakwell after I left the board.
WSB: What’s your favourite memory of that period?
JD: There weren’t a lot! They were tough times, relegation in to the 3rd division – we were there for a few years, we were then relegated to the fourth. Slightly bizzarley, the one that jumps out is one I wasn’t even there for – when we got promoted from the 4th Division we had to go to Chester on the last day & not lose to guarantee going up. We drew 1-1. I was playing Cricket that day & it was during tea interval that the scores came through. So the results are on, it drops quiet for 1st Division, people start talking for the 2nd Divison, more chatter for the 3rd & then the 4th & everyone is chatting away! Then I hear ‘Chester 1 – 1 Barnsley’ & I jumped up, the crockery went everywhere & people were looking round thinking ‘there must be a lunatic!’ but it meant a lot.
Beyond that, anyone who was there when we beat Grimsby to get promoted out the 4th Divison with the Allan Clarke team was a wonderful night at Oakwell. I think there were 21,000 there, Grimsby had been the team to beat that season but it was a great night – in fact, we went to the Tommy Tread & met friedns there. We invited friends back to ours at Pogmoor when the bar closed & we’d been given champagne as a wedding present to use when our first born came along – unfortunately Sarah missed the boat & we drank it that night!
Those are great memories, however, that particular one is tinged with some sadness as it was the last game my father attended as he died that summer. He was still chairman when he passed & I think his last act as Chairman was to sanction the signing of Ronny Glavin so he didn’t do too bad!
WSB: There must be some sadness that a man who supported Barnsley all his life never got to see one of the greatest sides in our history in the late 70s, early 80s.
JD: The best team I’ve ever seen was the one that got promoted to the Premier League. The team that could play the best football was that Glavin/Parker/McCarthy team. The difference was when they were on song they were outstanding but they didn’t have the resilience that the promotion side had, or that this team has today actually.
Some great memories of watching that team – it was just before I got involved & there was a group of four or five of us travelling together. We went all over the country & football watching wise they were carefree times enjoying seeing a really good team and of course one or two of those I’ve got to know & become friends with after. That team was exceptional & could, and should have, done better but my favourite was the team that got promoted
WSB: How did you come to join the board?
JD: Before my father had died he’d asked if I’d like to become a director. Obviously yes I’d love to but I was only around 29 at the time so was just a baby. He & his colleagues were of a similar age & background felt they needed some younger people on the board. My father passed, I’d got the business, was recently married with our first daughter so it wasn’t something that occupied my mind until my fathers successor Geoff Buckle came to see me at my office. He said that the offer to join the board was still there & when the time was right, he’d be in touch. Nothing really happened & then in January of 1983 Geoff rang to ask if I’d like to be interviewed with a view to becoming a director.
WSB: What brought about the offer at that time?
JD: I think that they realised they were getting on, they were all in their 60s & 70s so they invited myself & Barry Taylor to join and we joined on the same day.
WSB: There’s a 5 year period between you becoming a Director to becoming Chairman, what’s your memories of that period?
JD: If you look at the stats, we were playing in the 2nd Division in front of crowds of 5/6k so it was a difficult time with the strike. My first role was around ground development which was laughable considering we never had any money to develop the ground – in fact, the first thing we did was build some toilets behind the John Smiths stand. I remember when I became Chairman & I had a meeting with the supporters club & one man said ‘Mr Dennis, we’ll piss in ditches as long as you get us good footballers!’
Soon after I joined the board, Norman Hunter was sacked & Bobby Collins took over as caretaker. He did ok, kept us up but Barry & I were quite disappointed that the board just wanted to give him the job on a permanent basis. Bobby then lasted a year, at the start of the season we had a horrific start so we weren’t sure he’d last that long! We then went on a long unbeaten run – 19 or 20 games – so went from bottom to 5th or 6th & the points gained then helped us to stay up.
Us younger ones were disappointed & felt that a change was needed & we decided to bring Allan Clarke back in. I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t quite the same manager that second time round – he did ok but we didn’t set it alight! It was felt as time was passing that we were drifting down again.
WSB: So how did you become Chairman?
JD: Bonfire Night, 1989 we lost at home to Portsmouth. After the game, I was asked to arrange a meeting at my home for the Monday to discuss the situation. At the time, our major asset was David Currie and it came to light that we we’d accepted £100,000 plus Imre Varadi & Steve Whitton from Sheffield Wednesday. Those players had been at Hillsborough a couple of years & were ok but we were selling our star player & getting two humdrum players in return.
So, the other Directors came to my house & I then informed the rest of the board of the proposed deal. We asked the Chairman if he was aware & he said it was something the manager wanted to do. One of the board said it was then a back him or sack him situation. I was very clear that we weren’t meeting to discuss that but the Chairman was very clear that if the board sacked Allan Clarke then he’d resign. Someone then said if you do that, we’ll have John Dennis as chairman. Without a word of a lie, that was the first ever suggestion that I’d be chairman. Geoff had to leave and the rest of us continued, we all unanimously agreed Allan should be sacked.
The following evening, I rang the Chairman and he was unmoved that if Allan left then he’d resign. We agreed that we’d have a board meeting the following morning at Oakwell where the decision would be formally ratified. The meeting was very short, the decision to sack Allan was unanimous, he then resigned. He then asked if he could deliver the news to Allan personally. By this stage, I was Chairman and it was my duty to sack Allan – I said it wasn’t appropriate for him to as it was my job to do so. As a compromise, I accompanied him to deliver the news to Allan who was in his office in the room next door. Allan already knew all about it as part of the problem was that the Chairman & his wife had become very friendly with Allan & his wife which is why he hadn’t wanted to sack him. So I accompanied Geoff round to the office, there was a bottle of champagne on the desk & I remember Geoff’s words were ‘well they’ve done it Allan, they’ve done it’.
It was difficult for me because my father had brought Allan to the club originally, Allan had had a great deal of respect for my father & been very patient when he was ill. In fact, I remember speaking to Allan at my fathers funeral. So I’m the upstart son who on the day I became Chairman had sacked my Dad’s man!
Allan opened the Champagne and said ‘Chairman, would you like a glass of champagne’ but he wasn’t talking to me!
I went back next door, held my first board meeting where we agreed to advertise the position & left the room as Chairman. It’s funny as people suddenly start saying ‘Good morning Chairman’ where as a young Director it’s more ‘who’s he?!’
WSB: Do you look back and think of that week as a sliding doors moment?
JD: I knew what was going on at the club wasn’t right & if you’d have been around during the 60s & 70s you’d have never wanted that to happen again & I was worried it would. When I said to Geoff we need to talk after the Portsmouth game, I hadn’t considered Allan leaving. I know that sounds ridiculous, even to me now. However, contrary to popular belief there’s not an awful lot of tools available to a board of directors to affect change on the pitch & it’s very easy for pundits to preach patience but when it’s your club, it’s different. That’s not to say that Barnsley was mine in terms of ownership, just that it’s my football club as much as it is anyone who’s reading this. However, if you’ve started to lose faith in the manager there’s not an awful lot else you can do. During my time, I tried to be as supportive as I could with every manager but there’s come a point where a doubt pops into your mind, you try to live with it but someone once said to me, when you get that you may as well do it as it’s rare it to go away.
Back to Allan, it was a very sad moving day – would I have changed anything? No, it was the right thing to do. We got stick but you get stick anyway & the very act of letting Currie go for £100k and those two players would’ve had a major impact on what happened later considering we sold David Currie for £700k.
So that’s how I became Chairman, I can honestly say there was no plotting in smoke filled rooms – I’d have quite enjoyed it if there was, particularly with a few beers – but that didn’t happen & it came out of the blue. I was a very lucky boy – I was made ad irector when I was 33 when I assumed I’d be in my 40s and Chairman at 39 when I aspired to that much later on in life.
I actually became the 2nd youngest Chairman of all the 92 league clubs & it was daunting. You’re at Football League meetings & I’d be sat with Arsenal & Aston Villa as a 39 years old without any experience of these meetings – it was very daunting.
For the record, Michael Spinks who was our Secretary, was a fantastic support for me and I couldn’t have been a non-executive chairman without him. He’d sit with me during meetings in the early days & would help guide me where in the end I think he wished he’d not as I’d then not stop talking as I got older & more confident!
WSB: Your first appointment was Mel Machin – how did that come about?
JD: We advertised, we got applications in – some credible, some not – one of them being Martin O’Neill who was at Grantham. There was a piece in the paper saying John Rudge at Port Vale was interested in the role. At the time, Rudgy had done an amazing job at Port Vale – outstanding. The Directors agreed that we should approach Port Vale to speak to him about the position. I was young & naivie – I thought I’ll ring the Chairman, Bill Bell, and ask for permission. I called their Chairman & said ‘can I have persmission to speak to your manager’. Bill said ‘why would I do that young man? Would you be surprised to know he’s just signed a new deal & the stuff you’ve put in the paper has cost me another £30k a year. No, you can’t speak to him!’ Phone down. We’d obviously been played by John!
So, it’s back to the drawing board. We went through all the letters but then Manchester City sacked Mel Machin – they’d beaten Man Utd 5-1 a couple of months before. I’d met Mel a few years before when he was assistant manager at Norwich and they’d slaughtered us & he was a really impressive man. I spoke to the board who thought it was unlikely we’d get him. I agreed but said I’d give it a go. I called him, asked if he’d be interested & he said he would be however, he had to get his compensation agreed with City & at that point he would speak to us & if we wanted him, we’d have to wait. I asked how could we be sure he wouldn’t take another job, he gave me his word that before he did anything at all he’d call me first.
So this is the end of November, there’s a little bit of unrest – Eric was in charge, we’d brought in Mark Smith & Brian McCord on loan, performances were better and senior players wanted us to give the job to Eric. However, we had a plan and we waited for Mel.
Fast forward to Boxing Day, I met Mel at my house round about Christmas time & we agreed terms quickly. I got him a ticket to the game that day against Watford which we lost 1-0 and quickly appointed him. His first game was home to Leeds United a couple of days later which we won 1-0. Something happened that day which no one remembers – Mel had picked his team and was going to play 442 and dropped Paul Futcher. Someone dropped out of the warm up so brought Futch back in and moved to 3 centre halves. It went well and he played 3 centre halves for pretty much all of his time at Barnsley.
As a young inexperienced Chairman I don’t think I could’ve had a better bloke to be manager. He was honest, looking back I’ve no reason to believe anything untoward ever happened, he was thorough & hardworking & laid some of the foundations for what happened later.
Mel was always a better manager without money than when he had some. He asked if he had any money when he joined – I basically said no but we’d tried to do whatever we could so we signed a few. Mark Smith was his first signing, £80k at tribunal – we got Tags from City for £70k with 50% sell on fee, Garry Fleming and Andy Saville. He was a good manager & we went for the best we could possibly get. We paid him £40k when previous managers had been on £30k. His next contract went up to £60k.
We avoided relegation, one of the great memories was beating Leeds who were flying – the Vinny Jones, Mel Sterland era. The atmosphere at Elland Road was very, very unpleasant & intimidating. I wouldn’t want to say that the club deliberately engendered that atmosphere but it wasn’t pleasant. We went 1-0 down, the manager made two magical subs & brought Archdeacon & Brendan O’Connell on who both scored to give us a 2-1 win.
Our fans were kept penned in the ground & Leeds fans were throwing bottles & bags of human faeces, fireworks – everything. It was frightening. According to Mel, the away dressing room is nearer to the tunnel than the home & the Leeds players went out first banging on the door & trying to intimidate us.
We then went to Middlesbourough – they were in the shit & we needed to win. We won 1-0, Paul Cross scored & Andy Saville had the best game of his life up front on his own. After the game, I walked over to thank our fans for their support & applauded them. This police inspector collared me, asked who I was and what I was doing. I said I’m chairman and I’m thanking the supporters for their support as it’d been a stressful night and a difficult season & we’re now safe from relegation. He said ‘Did you know you could cause a riot? If you don’t shift I’ll arrest you!’
WSB: 1990/91 was a good season wasn’t it?
JD: We came quite close to getting into the Play Offs and we sold Carl Tiler at the end of that season, utterly bizarrely. Alan Hill & his colleague Ronny Fenton had been to Oakwell week in, week out to see Carl. Barry & I used to joke with them about getting a season ticket!
Around February, my phone rings in the office & it’s Mel. He tells me he’s turned down a £1 million bid for Carl from Nottingham Forest – I was a little surprised to say the least! I asked why & he said we’d get more and he was absolutely confident of it. We never saw Ronnie & Alan again until the last few games of the season.
That year, Spurs played Forest in the FA Cup final – the Gazza injury. I’d invited Mel & his wife to London with my wife & I to go to the final. The Saturday morning I get a phone call in the room – it’s Mel. I asked ‘what’s up?’ ‘Oh nothing, just to let you know I’ve sold Carl Tiler to Forest – £1.5 million’. So on the morning of the FA Cup final, Cloughy is still buying a selling players! So, we sold him, Mel got a bit of money & the rest went into the East Stand.
WSB: The Taylor report had stipulated all seater stadia & we only had the upper tier of the West Stand at the time. You’re being forced to invest in Oakwell & make it all seater – how did you go about it?
JD: Nobody who was involved in football & saw Hillsbourough could be in any doubt that drastic measures were needed & crushes at games weren’t isolated incidents. I went to watch Leeds v Forest, Leeds won 7-0 & I got really nervous there, Millmoor I took my wife. When you came out of the main stand, you went in to a thin tunnel where all spectators filtered into it. My wife was pregnant & I was terrified for her.
The stance we had was that we knew something needed to be done but we needed to work out how we’d do it. I think it’s been wrongly reported that we protested against the ruling – we didn’t, we made representations to the Home Secretary to request some leniency in terms of timescale as we simply didn’t know how we’d finance it. The Carl Tiler money, along with other bits of pieces meant we had around £2.5 million available to spend on a stand. We gave that budget to the clubs architect to see what we could get. We wanted as many seats as possible, some hospitality facilities & boxes. Our aim was to get around 10,000 seats that meant worst case if we could never afford to do anything else ever again at least we had a single stand that could get 10,000 people in which, in those days, we barely got anywhere near.
The final cost was around £2.3m – it equated to £300 a seat which was great value, clubs were paying up to £750 a seat. We built it to try & future proof it as much we could – the structure can accommodate another level if desired & the hope was that we’d put another floor in there that would host events all week, the new boardroom etc.
WSB: Back to Carl Tiler, you’ve given Mel some cash at the start of 1991/92.
JD: We signed John Pearson, I begged him not to sign him! We signed Stuart Rimmer & Mel wanted a big lad for Stuart to play off & John was available at Leeds. I’d seen him plenty of times for Wednesday/Charlton & Leeds & I was always disappointed & I told Mel. Our mantra was to let the manager do what he wanted within the financial constraints. We signed him, Williams from Aston Villa, we signed Andy Rammell & a few others. As I say, I think Mel was better without money! We paid some reasonable fees & didn’t get value for money. Mel was a cautious manager so as the season went on we became more & more cautious. I remember a game at Charlton and we had Biggins & Currie up front, hitting it long for those two run on to – anyone that remembers those two would tell you that they were more flair than workhorses! We drew 0-0, it was awful & the fans gave the manager dog’s abuse after the game. He came in to the boardroom bloody steaming – ‘what’s the matter with our fans, we’ve got a great point’ blab la. By that stage I’d realised not to argue with a manager straight after the game – you saw it with Guardiola the other night where he made a complete idiot of himself!
That was getting towards the end of the season and I must say, it was my colleagues on the board that saw the regime running out of steam before I did.
We got to the penultimate game of the season & I rang the board to say we couldn’t keep this up as Mel was about to release the retained list for the following season. It was a very emotional moment for me & hopefully I handled it well as we’re still friends. We put Eric & Mick Wadsworth in temporary charge & a very important decision was reversed by those two – Nicky Eaden was to be released by Mel. In fact, there were two full backs on that list, Nicky & another called Barry Eaton, a left back. Barry went on to be a very successful Rugby League stand off!
So, we need a new manager. Once again we felt we were at a low ebb & we wanted to bring some excitement back to the place so we thought we’d look for a high profile player manager. In those days, whilst there was a gap in wages between the Premier League & Division 1, it was nowhere near as big as today.
WSB: Why a player manager?
JD: It worked for other clubs, Allan Clarke came as a player manager too. And there was one man who we thought would fit the bill perfectly – Gordon Strachan. There’d been talks of him leaving Leeds as his contract was up & he was looking to move into management.
By this stage, I was a little less naïve than I was with John Rudge and I’m ashamed to admit it but I contacted Gordon Strachan directly to see if he would be interested in prinicipal – he was so I went to see him at his home and we discussed the role, what it would entail etc. He was disappointed to not have been offered a contract by Leeds yet and it was nice to be wanted by someone. He gave it some thought & I went back to see him later to discuss money. I then heard this voice offering £180,000 a year and it turned out to be me! It was a big jump considering Mel’s last contract was £60k a year, however, I found out what he was on at Leeds at the time & that was his salary. The thought process was we were getting a manager & a top, top player.
I made the offer & he said to me ‘you’re not spoiling me with money then Chairman’ & I thought ‘you’ve no idea how far I’ve gone pal!’. We then agreed he’d come to Barnsley, he had a meeting with Leeds that week where he’d inform them of his decision to leave & that he’d call me after that meeting.
I rang the directors as I drove home & said I thought we’d got him but whatever we’ve offered, Leeds could piss all over but if he’s true to his word then we have him. He went to see Leeds, told them & they offered him a lot more money & I never got the call. I then rang him – he said that they’d told him he was important to Leeds & he felt he had another couple of years left at the highest level playing. I think he’d have been a fantastic coup for us but a difficult manager to work with as his expectations & ambitions were higher than we could’ve had supported at that time but it happened, I have no ill feeling towards him whatsoever.
WSB: And so you appoint Viv & maybe more importantly, Danny
JD: So it’s back to the drawing board, we still wanted high profile & player manager. There’d been talk of Viv’s future at Wednesday – I spoke to Dave Richards who said they were only offering him the same money & for another year & they were fine with us approaching him.
I arranged to meet Viv at a hotel in Ainley Top…
WSB: I bet you’ve had some meetings in hotels these last 40 years!
JD: That’s right, whenever I went to meet a prospective manager I tried to do it away from prying eyes! So I met him & I’d got a little inkling in my brain – Viv was lively, bubbly & interesting to talk to, fitted the profile etc. People asked me at the time if we were trying to make statement in bring a black manager in & I can assure you that never crossed my mind.
I went to watch Wednesday against Manchester United in the League Cup final – I’m walking away & I bumped into Frank Barlow who was on the coaching staff at Hillsborough. He started talking about their players & mentioned Danny Wilson and gave him a glowing recommendation as both a player & a man. So I’m with Viv & ask about his staff, he wasn’t sure and I suggested his mate, Danny. Viv seemed open to it & he went away to speak to him.
WSB: So you planted the seed of bringing Danny then?
JD: Absolutely. I left it to Viv to come back to me – he rang me, said Danny wanted to speak to me too. We then met in some pub on the moors in Derbyshire.
WSB: What were your first impressions of them both? Did it cement your belief he’d be your manager?
JD: We went a long time without an appointment. I know now when I see clubs doing similar that they’ve got someone in mind that they’re waiting for or they’re going for someone that they can’t get & it’ll never happen. By waiting, you back yourself up a one way street & we’d really no one else in mind other than Viv. First impression was he’d need some experience which meant Eric Winstanley would be instrumental to us.
So, they’re both interested & it was down to money. Viv said they both wanted £100k a year before I could make an offer – I’d never heard of an assistant getting the same as a manager! They came in, Spinks said to me on the day of the press conference that I’d dropped a bollock & got the wrong one in as manager, meaning Danny should’ve been the manager and I think I knew that then too.
Viv was a lovely guy, great fun to work with but I don’t think he was ever cut out to be a manager. He came in wanting to play 442, play himself at centre half alongside Gerry Taggart. Early part of the season, we kept getting hammered. Away at peterbought Gerry and Viv got sent off and Viv is raging as he’s coming off the pitch. I’m in the directors box & I thought ‘I best go down there’. He’s going mental, I’m telling him to calm down & go and get showered – I thought there’d be a riot!
So we won a few games in and amongst & we played some quite nice stuff but we then got smashed at Stoke – I think we scored 3 own goals – and I was beginning to get concerned. Danny had come as midfield general and was getting slaughtered by supporters. He was just finding his feet at a lower level – previously playing with Waddle, Sheridan etc – and found it difficult to adjust plus it didn’t help we were conceding left right and centre!
After the Stoke game, I went to see Viv. I rarely tried to dictate to a manager but I said that there’s been too many people who have worked too hard for us to be where we are to get relegated because you want to play 442. We’ve played 3 centre backs for a long time & you need to consider it. He wasn’t too keen, I said it was his decision but I said I’d do what I needed to do to protect the club.
He relented & started playing 3 at the back. Around that time we did one of the best pieces of business we ever did – Lou Macari became Celtic manager & wanted to take Wayne Biggins with him who he knew from Stoke. He called up & offered us £100k for Biggins – he was a great player, a bit of a lad & if you looked at his career he always had a good 18 months at a club and then he moved on. He cost us £80k on tribunal so it was a decent offer. He was popular with fans though & on his debut he scored two screamers but he hadn’t really been doing it & he’ll have no doubt been aware of Celtic’s interest. However, Viv was adamant that he wasn’t selling him for £100k as he’d be difficult to replace at that money. I then suggested Andy Payton who had scored goals at all his clubs & Celtic paid around £900k for him all in all. I’d read a piece that said he had family problems & wanted to come back south to Yorkshire. I asked Viv to call Lou Macari & suggest a straight swap – he said he wouldn’t embarrass himself, so I did! I knew Lou so I gave him a call & got the usual ‘I bet you fucking would’ nonsense but eventually we did a deal where we gave them £100k & Biggins for Andy Payton which was a fantastic deal. Andy had a reputation about not being great in the dressing room but we never had a moments problem with him & he scored somewhere near 20 in every season with us. We then sold him for £312,500 to Huddersfield.
WSB: Why such a strange figure?
JD: Huddersfield used to rotate their Chairmanship every year & this year it was Malcolm Asquith who I knew really well. Malcolm rang me & asked what we wanted for him – I said £350k. Danny and I had said previously of the players he wanted to shift around and Andy Payton was one of those he was happy to lose & if we can get £300k, we might be able to raise around £500k in the market.
Huddersfield then offered £300k, I refused and suggested £320k minimum. They wouldn’t move, then suggested splitting it at £310k. I said £315k, they refused & I suggested splitting it again – £312,500 & that was the deal!
The season carried on being up & down & Viv left us towards the end of that season. That season included Bromsgrove away which was almost a major humiliation. It was a non league ground, they’ve pissed all over us, the Chairman of the FA is there, Michael Parkinson lots of photographers. We’re losing 1-0 in extra time before pulling it back to win 2-1. Before that, I’d got it in my mind what I’d say to the press and how I’d handle it. My father suffered two humiliations in the cup – Rhyl after a replay and Marine. Rhyl wasn’t too bad as we lost at Old Trafford but Marine was horrendous, and I mean horrendous and I’m thinking I’ve got another one of these!
After the game I went in the dressing room & Viv is bouncing off the walls! He looked at me and said ‘what you looking miserable about Chairman, we won!’ & I said ‘if we’ve to win like that every fucking week and I’m not sure I want to!’ and walked out.
So we get to middle of February & I went to see him again to discuss the upcoming fixtures. Between middle of March & May we had a really tough run – all the top teams. I said we need to have our 50 points well before the end of April because the last 4 or 5 games will be very tough. Viv said I worried too much!
We then went on a little run & got to about 46 points by the middle of March & he reminded me about worrying too much. I said there’s still plenty of time & we weren’t at 50 points. From memory we didn’t win another game until the end of April in a rearranged game against Wolves to stay up.
So we get to the end of the season & there’s lots of speculation that Bryan Robson was going to join Wolves as manager which obviously didn’t happen. However, I knew Jack & Jonathan Hayward at Wolves. Jonathan rang me at work as said that when discussing with Bryan Robson the job, he expressed a wish to bring Viv in as his assistant. Apparently when they were at United they had an agreement that if someone got a job the other would go as assistant. Week or two later, Robson is talking to Middlesbrough. I’m not too sure how long Viv would’ve stayed in post at that time – we might not have sacked him straight away but it wasn’t working particularly well.
The next thing was I got my usual 09.30 call from Viv – he lived in Hale and would call me on his drive in. He said ‘I’m sorry to break this to you but I’d like to leave’ – I asked why and he talked me through the Robson agreement & whether it’d be ok to terminate his contract. I said fine but there is a claus in there that says how much you’d get if we terminated the contract & what we get if you terminate it. ‘Oh right – so you’re going to stick to that?’ I’m sure if we sacked him he’d expect his money!
He said that it was Middlesborough not him – I was clear the clause was against him not the club but he could speak to Boro to sort it if they chose to. Keith Lamb rang me, Chief Exec at Middlesbrough saying ‘You’re not really gonna make us pay are you?!’ and I said we absolutely were or we wouldn’t be releasing him. He said everyone in football was saying we’d sack him and I said ‘well, everyone in football is wrong!’. Quite quickly they sorted it out & then Viv was on his way once we’d got our compensation!
WSB: Was Danny the obvious choice?
JD: Without doubt. We’d seen him at close quarters for a year, despite a difficult start to his career at Oakwell he’d come through and voted fans player of the year. In a way, it was a massive weight off our shoulders when Viv decided to leave as we may have been faced with a difficult decision early on the following season.
Barry & I had a meeting with Danny – he was as he always was, strong, ambitious, independent & determined. He asked about budget, he got the answer most managers got which was none & that didn’t daunt him. He wanted someone in as his first team coach to help Eric but that didn’t happen & off they went on the 3 year journey to the Premiership.
DW: Was Danny’s impact immediately obvious?
Yes. Danny was clear sighted and a good communicator and got through to the players immediately. I think that in all walks of life people like leadership, even if that leadership is misguided & in Danny’s case it wasn’t. And in that season we came within a whisker of getting to the play offs. We came 6th but it was the season the Premiership was reduced from 22 to 20 teams.
WSB: That’s the most Barnsley thing in the world, having your most successful league position ever the one season you don’t have a 6th place play off
JD: That’s right – you go back to the early 20th century & we miss out on the first division on goal difference. It is Barnsley – those of who us have followed Barnsley all our lives, on the terraces or in the directors box has these character forming experiences & that’s certainly one of them.
WSB: What did Danny do differently with a very similar squad?
JD: You were starting to see Eaden/Liddle/Watson & Jackson coming through & I think that he had a clear idea of what he wanted which he communicated well. His enthusiasm rubbed off on his players & the younger lads saw an opportunity whereas before they couldn’t and he was a breath of fresh air.
WSB: There’s a little bit of business the following season, particularly signing Arjan De Zeeuw? A significant signing at that time?
JD: He cost £180k from Telstar in Holland. He got a recommendation, sent a scout & asked if we had any money – he got the usual answer but I said we’d see what we could do so Arjan came across with his agent – Humphrey Neumann & his father in law. We met in the East Stand Executive Lounge & there began one of my more difficult days as Chairman! His agent was dogged & determined and asked straight up what we’d pay – I offered him the top salary at the club which was £80k a year which was met with derision. I wasn’t embarrassed by things like that as it had happened plenty of times before! We eventually agreed a contract & Arjan was the first ever Barnsley footballer that was paid a 6 figure salary.
Arjan obviously became a key member of the promotion team – he made his debut against Wolves & for the first 20 minutes I could feel the eyes of the other directors boring into me as he looked a little like a fish out of water! But thankfully he grew into it & became a fantastic player for us and a really good man.
WSB: We finished mid table that season (which included the infamous Ipswich game) and at the end of that season there was a significant shake up of the squad:
JD: Whilst meetings with the manager was a regular, day to day occurrence, Danny did ask me to go & see him early in 1996 as he wanted to talk about changing the squad around. There was very little business done in his first two summers & we had a group of players who had been around for a while & Danny felt had taken us as far as we could. Particularly players were identified and we thought we could raise around half a million in fees from the sales of Brendan O’Connell, Andy Payton, Owen Archdeacon and a couple of others. Add that to the £700k we were getting from the new TV deal would give us a few quid to spend on players and be more competitive on wages.
We did well with recruitment – both incoming & outgoing – as it happened early on in the Summer. From memory we had the 5 signings in early doors – I liked to do that, as did Danny, as the earlier they were assembled the more of a chance you had for the following season. The board had also ratified the decision to freshen the squad up so we were all singing from the same hymn sheet.
WSB: Did you ever have a feeling of what was to come?
JD: Throughout my time at Oakwell, the minimum ambition was to stay in the Division. When the fixtures came out I was like every supporter, looking to see where the 50 points would come from and whether there were 3 teams worse than us! We also wanted to make one thing better every year – be it the new toilets in the John Smiths stand, floodlights, landscaping. On the playing side, even for us as directors the Premier League was like a far away land. I don’t mean in terms of we were star struck but it was the reality – it was a long way away. So to answer your question, I didn’t particulatly think we were on to something, just a summer of hard work and maybe we could have another go at the play offs – how wrong can you be?
WSB: Considering the sad news of Norman’s passing, what’s your favourite memory of him?
JD: Just the fact it was very comforting to have a man at the club who had seen, done & knew everything! He could smell bad things a mile off, he could recognise good a mile off too. He had been a friend to my father and in his time as chairman they were seriously bad days from 66 onwards. I know my father found the support & encouragement of Rimmo to be important as did I. He touched the lives of so many people who passed through Oakwell and all the tributes have been paid but he was just a really, really good man.
WSB: Do you think we’ll see the likes of Norman at our club again?
JD: It’s hard to imagine, especially considering the modern world appears to be so transient. When a new manager joins a club new 6 people lose their jobs & 6 come in who have no connection to the club so its highly unlikely and I think football is poorer for it. Norman represented a lot of what is good about Barnsley Football Club and the Club is a poorer place for his loss as is the world.
WSB: We start off pretty well in 1996/97 don’t we?
JD: We’d got the business done early so when the lads reported back the squad was pretty much assembled. I’d missed a lot of pre season due to a family holiday & I remember being sat at The Hawthornes that first game & I turned to Barry Taylor and said ‘what’s going on Barry, it’s pretty good this!’ & he turned to me & said ‘we’ve been like this all way through pre-season – we’ve been excellent’.
We then won 5 on the bounce – other than West Brom, the game I remember most clearly was Manchester City away where we won & Clint Marcelle got both. I did know then that we’d be ok & it just carried on.
I spoke to Neil Thompson a few years later and he just said that everyone knew what their job was. We’d signed good experienced players, the youngsters came in to their own & it just evolved from there.
I always felt that the squad was a little thin, as did Danny. After the first few games I told Danny we had a few quid if he wanted to do something – the thinking being that it would send out a real signal of our ambition that we were serious after a great start. He immediately said he wanted John Hendrie to partner Paul Wilkinson again as he had at Middlesbrough. Danny spoke to Viv & they quoted us a million quid but I knew Keith Lamb, the CEO really well, and gave him a call. I got my usual ‘now then trouble, what do you want?’ & we talked about John. The price was then £500k – the usual ‘because it’s you lads and we like you’ stuff. I said I was hoping for a free transfer! After a few chats, we agreed a deal for about £250k including add ons – John joined us for less money
WSB: What impact did he have?
JD: He had an impact in the dressing room because he was bright, lively & funny. I’m sure some of the lads who were on the wrong end of his pranks didn’t find it that funny though! The other impact was with our supporters & our rivals – it was a statement of intent. It showed we were serious & we were going to have a go because John Hendrie was a very good player. He made his debut, looked horribly out of shape but John at his best always looked out of shape, as do the best of us! His first goal was away at Port Vale, 25 yards, outside of his boot in the top corner. John was the catalyst to take us that stage further. The season kept on rolling, we get to Christmas playing great football & the expected collapse hadn’t happened. It was around then that the supporters started to believe too – we’d started with 7k attendances & even as late as November we were getting 4 figure attendances. After Christmas, they grew & it was just amazing.
WSB: Barring Bradford, what’s the one memory you look back on fondly?
JD: There’s a blur of wonderful memories but perversely the one that struck home was losing away at Portsmouth.
WSB: Danny said exactly the same.
JD: We lost 4-2, bloody Lee Bradbury who it feels like scored 100 goals against us got a hat trick. A nightmare! I’d driven down with other members of the board & it was a dirty, horrible Tuesday night. We’d done ok but we’d lost – it really did then feel that we might have blown it. But the night after, Wolves played Grimsby at home. I’d got home from work, told my family that I don’t want to know the score and I’d check teletext when it was done. My daughters had gone upstairs to apparently do their homework & came bounding downstairs to tell me Grimsby had equalised just before half time. I then spent the entire second half glued to Teletext which made it clear – beat Bradford on Saturday & we’re promoted.
WSB: Tell me about the build up to Bradford
JD: The manager had instilled a calmness around the football club – we knew it was big but there was a definite calmness and it was one of the only occasions in my time of watching Barnsley that I never felt we’d lose. Some of that came from Danny, some from blind faith but mainly because I knew we were a better team than Bradford.
WSB: Memories of the day?
JD: Well, the morning of the game I went in to work early as usual. I then got to the ground a little earlier & it was late morning onwards that the tension built up in me. The only preparation that I’d asked Michael to sort was to hide a few bottles of champagne around just in case.
I remember Paul Wilkinson’s goal, I remember them hitting the post & then Clint, one way, the other & bang.
WSB: What’s going through your mind?
JD: Well, you know you’ve done it. We’d done it. I’m saying this calmly now but calmness was nowhere to be found then! Pitch invasion, players up to the director’s box & the odd tear. There was also some sadness for me, a nod to my father that we’d finished what he’d started with his colleagues in ’66 we’d finished thirty years later. But there was joy that we’d achieved something. I say we, the players & coaching staff had achieved it – it was our job as administrators to create the best atmosphere possible to allow success on the pitch. But we’d done it in style. It wasn’t lucky. No fluke. It was brilliant.
WSB: And that night?
JD: Bloody hell! Having finally had a quiet word with Danny & soaked with Champagne by those in the dressing room I did the press and got into the boardroom around 6 o’clock.
Usually, on a match day we had a duty Director who took responsibility for sorting drinks for the visiting directors – this time we asked Ian Potter to arrange for his son’s to sort that for us. The champagne had been opened but the glasses had been used when I arrived – I asked for a glass, Simon, Ian’s eldest son said there weren’t any left and I pointed towards a pint pot in the corner and said ‘oh yes there is son!’
We then decided it was a good idea to join the party in the Legends Suite which was in full swing! We then headed to Town at around 11pm & I can safely say I don’t recall buying a drink all night! I do remember being surrounded by supporters who were just chanting we are Premier League constantly, too! We then arranged a taxi home before I became a complete disgrace, I was thankfully only a part disgrace at that time!
WSB: When does the planning for the next season start?
JD: We had the game at Oxford & then the planning started quite soon. The Premier League contacted us & gave us a rough outline of the finance we’d expect & how it would come through to us. Then it’s discussions with the manager about what he wants, the GM about the logistical side of things – for example our Press Box wasn’t up to scratch so we did that, as it stands today. Also, up until that season the club used to operate a male only board room with a separate room for women. Thankfully we realised, belatedly, that was unacceptable so we made changes to the boardroom too.
Everyone can remember the rush for season tickets & the fantastic atmosphere. The capacity that season was around 18.5k – we sold just over 16k season tickets. Unbelievable support.
Hospitality boxes were sold out – we were loyal to existing customers but we were getting calls from London agencies offering us three or four times the money for Premier League football.
WSB: What challenges did you think the club had as we moved up, apart from the playing staff?
JD: Because it was our first time in the league we were a little blind in terms of what to expect. We had a good relationship with Bolton at the time who were promoted with us but also who had been up & down before. Their GM said to us that you’ll be as ready as you can be, but you just don’t know how big it was and he was right. And I wonder, twenty years on, how big it is now.
Our payment from the PL turned out to be just over £6 million – it’s over £100 million now, even if you come bottom. We wanted to maintain our ethos of a friendly club who did things properly & I think we did that. By the end of it all, we were mentally & physically exhausted because it was huge.
The big thing for me was I wanted us to make our people & the Town proud – I didn’t want to be humiliated. Occasionally we were, Chelsea at home, United away etc – but we competed.
WSB: Was the gap in terms of money/wages noticeable then?
JD: I’d spoken to other Chairmen to understand the money players were earning in the league & my feeling years later is that we tried to spread that cash across a number of positions too thinly. Possibly, one or two players who had served us well could’ve done us a job for that season & were discounted too early. Ultimately, we didn’t get it right as we got relegated.
The most important thing was that the Town & fans had backed us in both their support & desire to buy season tickets & we’d have failed them if we hadn’t had a go – it was our duty to do all we could. Whilst we had the summer signings, during the season we brought in Ashley Ward, Jan Aage Fjortoft and Peter Markstedt, so we kept having a go.
WSB: And the pairing of Ward & Fjortoft gave us a chance with a great run after Christmas
JD: We won something like 5 out of 9 which brought us back into contention to stay up which only ended after that Liverpool game.
WSB: What’s your memories of that game?
JD: It’s a long time ago, I’m now far more objective than I ever used to be – as a fan & Chairman I used to feel every moment of every game like you wouldn’t believe. It used to make me smirk when supporters would challenge me and say ‘you don’t know what it’s like’ & I’d smirk to myself & think ‘listen pal, YOU don’t know what it’s fucking like!’. In the context of that, the Liverpool game was beyond belief, really. I’d never seen a referee lose control like Mr Willard did. Three sending’s off, all arguable but again, we still gave it a go in the game losing only to a late winner.
WSB: What was the aftermath?
JD: The Hearing was held in the East Stand and we were ultimately handed a punishment from the FA. I can’t actually remember what it was but it wasn’t life changing because I think anyone who saw recordings of the game saw a referee on a day where it all went wrong. Gary Willard was responsible, in part, for losing control of events that day.
In terms of the impact, it was massive. 3 players suspended. We lost at Blackburn on the Tuesday in the last minute & lost to Leeds on the Saturday losing Adie Moses too. So in a week we’ve lost 3 games, had 4 men sent off and it started to look a bit bleak.
By the end of the season we were knackered – I think now looking back with the physical and emotional strain of the Liverpool game that it was actually that day that we got relegated. Even after all these years, all of us will have felt – even the rational, sensible ones –‘they’ were bloody biased against us. The players felt it. On the pitch, to Teddy Sheringham refs would be pally ‘Teddy, come over here please’ whereas to our players it’d be ‘here, number 10 I want you’ – different. And of course they didn’t know our players but it’s a psychological, bull shit thing – I know it is, I’m a rational man but a little part of me did think like that.
WSB: What was your favourite moment of that season?
JD: My favourite memory of all time, bar Bradford, was beating Manchester United. I hear it said that the cup’s a nice distraction – that night, it was a great one.
I loved winning away at Aston Villa & Liverpool. Both 1-0 wins and to say we didn’t deserve the wins is the understatement of the decade – we got battered! Ashely Ward, getting both goals, was an absolutely giant for us – I loved winning at Anfield. The Liverpool folks didn’t take all that well if I’m honest!
WSB: Tell us about the call from Sheffield Wednesday
JD: It was slightly more complex than that! Danny obviously had done well at Barnsley, being named Manager of the Year in 1997/98 & there was talk about whether Danny would stay with us.
After the Leicester game I asked for a quiet word – funnily enough, the only place we could find was the away dug out at Filbert Street. I said ‘Are we gonna go again? Are you staying with us?’ Danny asked if we were going to sack him and I said don’t be so bloody stupid! He said he’d like to give it another go with us and then he went off on holiday.
The now Sir Dave Richards, Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday, chose half time of extra time in England’s World Cup game with Argentina to ring me with the immortal words ‘Ayup John, this is a call I never wanted to make’ to which I replied ‘well don’t fucking make it then Dave’. He asked formally then if he could have permission to speak to Danny. I said ‘No you can’t, I can’t believe you’re ringing at this time of night during the game so fuck off & I’ll ring you tomorrow’.
To give some context, people need to be aware that I had a gentleman’s agreement with Danny that if I was ever approached by another club for his services that I would inform him in the same way that he ever got tapped up he would inform me. It had happened before, I’d been approached by Luton Town and West Bromwich Albion and Danny had also been approached by Everton. People say ‘well, why didn’t you just say no’ so that context is important.
I spoke to the board the following day – they knew I was duty bound to tell Danny so it was then a question of whether Danny wanted to speak to them. I went back to Sir Dave, I said I will be talking to Danny to let him know of the approach but you will not receive permission to speak to him until we’ve agreed compensation. When we got promoted Danny got an automatic salary increase & one of the decisions the board had made just after the season had finished was to keep him on that salary for the following year in Division 1. Dave Richards asked what we were looking for, I told him a million quid, he spluttered & told me to do what I’d told him to do the previous evening but he would come back to me.
After a lot of discussion, I managed to get exactly double what it said in Danny’s contract. Fair play to Danny in this because I asked him as his last act of manager of Barnsley to not disclose the details of his contract until compensation was agreed and as ever, he was as good as his word. So we got double what it said in his contract, I then gave him permission to speak to them – I said to him that whatever money they were going to give that if he’d let us know we’d try & do something along those lines. He came back and said ‘Chairman, it’s my club. I want to go’. And that was that.
WSB: How did you feel after that? It was the end of an era.
JD: Was I sad & emotional? Yes, of course. The strength of our friendship is that we’re still on good terms today. We were never in each other’s pockets when we worked together & we aren’t now but like anybody that’s been through any major event in life, whatever the circumstances, that group of people tend to create a bond & that’s what we have.
The summer had seen some out of work managers snapped up, Danny agreed his terms with Sheffield Wednesday on the Friday & the players were due back on the Monday morning. We as a board got together & felt we needed to get something sorted quickly – we had two years parachute payments that we would use to look & get back to the Premier League. We felt at that time there was someone in the club who could take it on which was John as he was a real leader of the lads, in many ways. There was though the fact he was integral to the dressing room banter & dynamics.
John Hendrie had returned from holiday on the Saturday, I spoke to him that evening. We met him on the Sunday at the Post House at Bramhope. We talked it through, he wanted to think about it. We put a proposal to him about how his back room staff may look which was Peter Shirtliff as his assistant, Eric – who was coming back from open heart surgery – as his first team coach & it had a nice feel to it.
People in football were surprised but we felt that it was a way of achieving continuity with a bubbly & popular personality and yet with the solid experience of Eric & Peter alongside him as John wanted to continue playing. We got it agreed, and off we went on the John Hendrie era.
WSB: Would you make the same decision if you had your time again?
JD: Probably not, but at the time supporters needed reassurance and a quick appointment was necessary. In fairness to John, he worked hard – he told me he’d never worked as hard in his life, telling me he never realised there were two 9 o’clocks in a day! But it was difficult for him transitioning from that joker in the pack to the manager.
There was speculation about Ashley Ward from the off as he’d been an absolute giant for us in the Premier League & we lost Neil Redfearn who needs no introduction so circumstances for John were difficult. In fairness to him, when you look back he brought in some good players – Kevin Richardson, Robbie Van Der Laan, Dyer, Hignett etc. Maybe we’d been hasty appointing him & maybe in hindsight we were hasty in ending his run. I look at the players he brought in and we had a good squad but felt at the time that we weren’t getting the best out of them. Maybe, if we’d given John another full pre-season it might’ve turned out differently.
WSB: How did the sale of Neil Redfern come about?
For his previous contract, he had negotiated it himself, and done a good job on his own account. However, as captain of a Premiership club and as a goal scoring midfielder in a struggling team, his profile dramatically increased during the Premiership season. He chose to appoint an agent, a man called Mel Stein, who was then very high profile with some high profile clients including Paul Gascoigne.
As I remember it, Neil had another year left on his then current contract. Mel and I agreed that he would fax me through some proposed Heads of Terms, which I received and which I found to be very demanding. Mel had also made it clear that his client was attracting interest from certain Premiership clubs. As I remember it, he and I had a number of conversations, as well as me talking to Redders direct. We didn’t really get very far, but as I was going to be in London for the Football Writers Annual Dinner at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, I suggested to Mel that he and I should meet at his offices to try and resolve it one way or the other. I also suggested that it would be easier to negotiate if the player wasn’t present. I used to prefer to hold contract talks without players being around because when they were, the discussions could get a bit emotional, rather than being purely about the business talks that they were supposed to be.
In the event, when I arrived for the meeting, both Neil and his then wife Sue were present. I made it very clear that I would like to find a way to get a deal done, but that the proposals as put forward were too much of a financial burden for us. The meeting wasn’t easy, because it seemed to me that their position had hardened a little bit, and I found it difficult to negotiate any meaningful concessions to their original proposals. I got the feeling that Mel had in all likelihood got a deal in principle sorted out with another club, but obviously that was only speculation on my behalf. The discussions broke up with no real conclusions, other than me saying that I would discuss things with Danny and my colleagues at Oakwell. Soon afterwards, I was advised by Mel Stein that he could find a club for Neil on a contract that was very favourable, so would I allow him to negotiate a fee on our behalf. In circumstances such as those, I always preferred to try and do our own deals, but in this case, I suggested to Mel that there was a figure under which we wouldn’t be prepared to go, so sadly, a deal was concluded with Charlton Athletic for around £1m.
I was very sad to see Neil Redfern leave Barnsley. He had epitomised our rise to glory. He had been with us for a long time (in footballing terms) and was a man whom I had got to know and like very much over the years. I felt then, and feel even now, that Barnsley Football Club was and is his footballing spiritual home. He played his best football at Barnsley, he scored many great goals and when he was captain led from the front and became an inspiration to his colleagues and the fans. His father Dave was his great inspiration and he attended very game that Neil played in. I had many a long chat with both of them after matches and it was very obvious where Neil got his strength of character from. I have seen it said that we didn’t really try very hard to keep him at the club. That simply isn’t true. What is true is that we weren’t able to compete with the kind of contract that he was looking for and which he eventually got. We could, of course, have tried to insist that he saw out the final year of his contract, but I believe that that would have been very poor treatment for a player who had performed so admirably for so long for our club.
Additionally, he was by that time in his early thirties, so to deny him the opportunity to go and earn some big money would also have been harsh. I am delighted to say that, whatever the manner of his leaving may have looked like to the watching world, I have had frequent contact with Neil in the intervening years and he has only fond memories of his time at Barnsley Football Club and of the people he worked and played with.
To use a well-worn phrase, the word “Legend” is severely overused these days, but in the case of Neil Redfern, he is up there with the true greats who are Oakwell Legends.
WSB: Ashley Ward’s sale was the biggest you received in your time as chairman wasn’t it?
JD: It was a saga! We were blessed in that more than one club were interested – Leeds United, Leicester City & Blackburn came in. The questions I’d been getting on a daily basis from journalists were always the same – what’s happening with Ashley Ward, how much do you want? My answer was always the same – we don’t want to sell him & I can’t put a price on something I don’t want to sell. But the papers were full of ‘The £2 million rated Ashley Ward’. In fact, David O’Leary rang me and said ‘I want to buy Ward, I’ve got £2 million and don’t ask for any more’ to which I said ‘that’s not going to happen David’.
Then something strange happened – Blackburn had agreed to sign Dion Dublin for about £4 million but he failed his medical. The next day I got a call from a journalist to ask for an update on Ward and I said the usual but added ‘Blackburn have just tried to sign Dion Dublin at £4 million when Ashley Ward is younger, scored more goals & is better’. It had the right impact as the next day it was reported he was the £4 million rated Ward!
Eventually, Blackburn came in & we agreed a fee of £4.25 million plus 250k after appearances but the agreement stipulated if he didn’t make the appearances they had to pay anyway so £4.5 million guaranteed over a couple of years.
Ashley’s agent was in my office when I agreed the deal the day before Christmas eve. I said to him, ‘get yourself off & sign that contract’ to which he said ‘we’ve not agreed anything’ which I found hard to believe.
The next day, Christmas Eve, I’m at work early – busy with the business. I called Blackburn to check it had gone ok – they said it hadn’t & they’d not agreed terms & if it happened, it’d be after Christmas. I rang the manager & gave him the update. Ashley had been out injured & John said that it was good news because he could then play against Stockport on boxing day! This is the only time I ever remember interfering with selection – I told John he wasn’t playing him because the deal will happen & I don’t fancy seeing £4million stretchered off!
I bumped into Ashley at Stockport – he’s a great man, really nice bloke – who said that he’d sorted it & was signing the following day. We then signed Mike Sheron at the end of January to replace him who was a really good player who should’ve had a better career than he had.
WSB: So then comes Dave Bassett
JD: Really it was a question of finding someone with a track record. I had a long chat with Mick McCarthy who was in charge of the Republic of Ireland and he thought they wouldn’t be renewing his contract. They eventually did but Mick had been very keen,
We then decided to approach Dave Bassett. He wasn’t a particularly popular appointment – his long ball reputation & association with Sheffield United being two key reasons. However, I will say he was the best prepared manager I’d ever interviewed. He was vastly experienced with a great track record. The brief was simple – get us promoted.
WSB: And it was an eventful season that ended with Wembley
JD: Interestingly, I rang him at lunch on the first day of pre season to see how his first day had gone on. He said ‘it’s been ok but ‘you know that fucking Hignett, if you can get a million quid then fucking do it!’ I thought not a chance Harry! To his credit he then found a way to integrate Hignett into the side and he was outstanding. The season was a lot of fun. We conceded nearly 70 goals but scored something like 90!
WSB: Another first in your stewardship – what’s your memories of Wembley?
JD: It was a mental few days between the second leg of the Play Offs & the game. Mental in a nice way – unbelievable ticket sales & lots to do. We all agreed the board would go down on our bus & leave the playing staff to do their own thing. We all went on a bus with our families on the morning of the game so were part of the convoy from South Yorkshire down the M1!
WSB: Sense of pride when you take your seat in the Royal Box?
JD: Parts of it were unbelievable. As Chairman I had an AAA pass so I took advantage, I walked round the track to get to the dressing room before the game. Went to the Royal Box early & I’m looking at a sea of Red & White and it was wonderful. You sit there and think ‘we’ve done that’.
WSB: Memories of the game?
JD: We’d been smashed at Portman Road August Bank Holiday that year & we’d lost at home, too so I thought it’d be our turn. We then went one up & I thought ‘we’re going to be ok’. And then they got the two and Darren misses the penalty before half time which was a seminal moment. That really was the moment when an awful lot changed for our Club – not that day, but the events that followed a few years later.
I knew after we lost that things would be different. I was absolutely devastated. After the game, I reached across to shake hands with their Chairman, David Sheepshanks who was my biggest friend in football.
Our lads come up & then obviously theirs follow. I’m stood there & I let myself down a bit. I shook three hands & I just couldn’t do it anymore because I was so, so sick. It was obviously disrespectful but I was just absolutely, unbelievably gutted just like you lads in the seats.
WSB: Did you know then that the financial situation would change significantly?
JD: Absoultely. With Hignett, I’d had a phone call from his agent in January who told me he could sell Hignett for me. I told him no chance – he’s stopping as the only thing we’re focussed on is getting promoted. He said he could get so much a week etc & it didn’t work like that. After some chats I said he was stopping but what I would do is give him a new deal if we got promoted. If we don’t get promoted, I’ll sell him. He then said that Craig will miss out on so much between now & then with the wage rise on offer elsewhere. I agreed with him then that depending on the fee that we get that I will give Craig a slice of the fee but he had to stay focussed on getting us up.
After Wembley Harry went off on Holiday and after he returned we met & he offered his resignation to which I told him no. I later learned that he’d been tapped up by Wimbledon so it wasn’t a totally honourable gesture! In all seriousness, I wouldn’t want anyone to think negatively of Harry because that season he’d been approached by Blackburn Rovers who’d offered him a serious chunk of money to replace Brian Kidd & he stayed with us. It cost us a few quid but nothing silly after I found him a bonus at the end of the season.
In my mind, he was the perfect man to manage the situation of bringing in lower paid players, spending less on transfers etc. The first game the following season we beat Norwich 1-0 with Lee Jones scoring and Alex Neil, Carl Regan, Anthony Kay & Brian O’Callaghan making their debuts. After that I’m thinking that’s how I expect us to be – hard to beat, not attractive but we’ll do ok. But I think the fire had gone out of Harry’s belly if I’m honest.
WSB: What was the thinking behind him leaving?
JD: I once said to someone that Dave Bassett joined Barnsley as a stranger & left as a stranger – he wasn’t loved by the fans, he was respected for his achievement but there was no love there. The way the season was unfolding was disappointing in terms of performance & results. The board and I felt that we needed to act sooner rather than later because it was coming to the point where we’d have needed to bring a couple of lads in.
WSB: Nigel Spackman – why?
JD: I wanted Steve Bruce. The Directors disagreed. Our next choice was Dave Jones.. I got in touch with him, came for an interview with Barry & I and he was brilliant. I’d met him many times before & he always gave me the same impression. He got us fired up & likewise. We talked money & everything but we just couldn’t get him to sign. I think we even said ‘we’re locking the door until you sign!’ but we couldn’t get him to.
Subsequently he became Wolverhampton Wanderers manager. After that, the board’s view was Nigel Spackman was our man. Nigel interviewed very well – nice, family man with a good track record at Sheffield United. Funnily enough, a popular appointment with the supporters & a more popular appointment than Steve Bruce would’ve been.
We played Burnley away in his second game after signing Steve Haywood. You could see our fans visibily get interested as the game unfolded – we passed it well & did ok & it felt better. It felt like my Barnsley. We signed a few more and had a good run to take us safe from relegation before the season fizzled out.
Eric also left the club when Nigel joined. Nigel favoured the more scientific approach & wanted his own people and he made it very difficult for me because he felt that Eric wasn’t part of his vision for the club. I felt very uncomfortable about that, it’s easy for those on the outside to say you should’ve told him to fuck off but you don’t, he’s your manager and that was horrible and I’m glad Eric has forgiven me for that.
WSB: He doesn’t last long into the next season
JD: He left in the October. I think when things are going well you make more good decisions than bad, more reasonable signings than poor ones. In Nigel’s era we brought in a lot of players, a great many of whom failed to make a lasting impact and some of whom were hopeless.
His big signing that summer was Kevin Donovan, letting Martin Bullock go to get him in. Kevin was well paid as was Kevin Gallen who joined us & Dean Gorre. They’d all got decent reputations. I remember early in the season we lost away at Gillingham. We’d had all the ball but done nothing with it. In the car on the way home I said to my colleagues ‘You need to help me here – were we really good and didn’t defend or were we absolutely fucking useless?’ The latter judgement proved to be fairly accurate!
WSB: You part company and bring Steve Parkin in – I’ll gloss over why and skip to the financial situation at the club at that time. ITV Digital collapsed in March of that Season & we’re placed into Admin some 6 months later. Were you worried about the situation pre ITV Digital collapse?
JD: No. If the contract the Football League signed had been honoured we’d have been ok. It’d have been difficult with relegation because of a change in income level but with that & the selling of players we’d have squeezed through.
WSB: So relegation was in no way connected to our financial position?
JD: Not at all. Completely separate. You’d see the news of ITV Digital collapse on TV, we had a Football League meeting to discuss it but bottom line was we weren’t getting the money which was about £2.5 million a year. As a guide, the first SKY TV deal which kicked in for our promotion season was for about £750k and the SKY offer at that time was about £2 million. It needs to be remembered, ITV Digital was two big companies in Granada and Thames TV. We’d been assured by the Football League that in the contract with ITV Digital there were something called Parent Company Guarantees which means liability for any debts were transferred to those two companies in the event ITV Digital failed. In the event, they weren’t included in the main contract despite being explicitly confirmed by the Football League.
WSB: You suddenly have a big hole in your budget.
JD: You think ‘what are we going to do?’ The season we got relegated WBA bid £500k for Bruce Dyer just before the transfer deadline and at the time you think we could do with that cash but you’re telling supporters that you’ve given up on staying up. Still, I felt that we’d got a fighting chance as we had Bruce, Chris Morgan & Chris Barker who were all doing well. We sold Barker to Cardiff for a reasonable sum after the ITV deal collapsed & I thought if I could sell Barker for half a million I’d get a million for Bruce, a million for Chris Morgan but of course the transfer market just went – it was terrifying. Really, if you think about it, it’s never recovered in the lower leagues to this date. That put us in a great deal of uncertainty.
WSB: How worried were you that preseason?
JD: Terrified. Truly terrified. The board had discussed in great detail the situation from way back. We had a meeting in the January with our bank and explained that if the worst case happened of relegation & ITV Digital collapsing we’d need support. It was a bit scary this particular man, even though he was supposedly managing our account, that it hadn’t occurred to him that we may need their support.
Barnsley Football Club had a reputation of being one of the best run clubs in the league, making a profit 12 out of 13 years I was in charge. In fact, one year I was asked by the Football League to present alongside a representative of Watford a paper on how to run a football club. I clearly declined as it wasn’t my place to tell others how to do their job. But it was a measure of how the club was seen from the outside so to be faced with this challenge was an embarrassing problem. The group & I especially have been accused of being profligate, of taking on contracts we knew we couldn’t fulfil & I can categorically confirm that was never the case. I never agreed a contract or deal where I didn’t have a better than reasonable expectation that we couldn’t fulfil that deal and it put us in a lot of bother.
WSB: Did you seek further help from the bank?
JD: By the time we got to May we had been allocated new managers of our account – Nat West described it as special services. Basically, you are in the hands of people who are familiar with businesses in distress. It is my personal view that in the vast majority of those cases they are only interested in protecting the banks’ assets & the secondary consideration is the wellbeing of that business.
I’m struggling to remember – you’re going to think I have a clear memory of the good stuff but not the bad – but I think our loans to Nat West, in relation to the North Stand development, was about £2 million which wasn’t a massive amount considering our turnover & the fact we were model customers of the bank for many, many, many years.
WSB: Any outside investment you sought?
JD: Yes. We had a number of meetings with potential investors & outside sources of finance. Unfortunately, throughout a very stressful & difficult summer we were unable to conclude any of those discussions positively. I look back & thank those people for their interest and it was obviously a tragedy that a positive outcome couldn’t be found.
WSB: And in October we’re placed in Administration – how difficult was that day?
JD: Difficult doesn’t begin to describe how awful it was. It was awful for the staff at the football club who are concerned about their futures. The vast majority of the people saw it as a way of life rather than a job & their fantastic spirit contributed massively to the relative success of the club during the years. For players, it’s slightly different – their debts become completely protected and are termed as football creditors. The fact we’d been seen as a well-run club and were then in that situation was very difficult.
From my personal point of view I wanted to help in any way I possibly could but ultimately, the appointed administrator – Matthew Dunham – took full control of the club and Directors lost any official capacity they had previously.
WSB: What impact did it have on you personally?
JD: It’s irrelevant, really. The only thing that mattered was the club. I was an unpaid, non-exec Chairman so it didn’t matter. Irrelevant. Just the club that mattered.
WSB: And Peter Doyle then took control of the club
JD: Peter had been the Mayor at that time & he asked if I’d be willing to stay on and help if he could put a deal together to which I agreed. He agreed terms with the administrator and became the owner just after that. Think his first game was Crewe Alexandra away & I was there with him as a Director of the club only.
WSB: Lots of upheaval off the pitch beyond that, you remained as Director for the rest of the season?
JD: Yes. I think Peter wanted to do things in his own way and that generally speaking made my advice & experience irrelevant. I was really only a face in the boardroom to introduce Peter to other boards of Directors from other clubs – that was basically it.
WSB: So your formal association ended when Peter sold the club to the consortium headed by Peter Ridsdale?
JD: My involvement had been limited after Peter took over and I stepped away at the end of that season.
WSB: You carried on visiting Oakwell then as a supporter – how different was it going back to that after 30 years?
JD: It was remarkable. That first game v Colchester I fully expected to feel some, if not all, of the tension & stress I’d felt whilst I was Chairman. And I felt none of it which surprised me greatly & I still don’t feel the same anxiety or stress I did before. I kind of miss it but I suppose it’s to be expected.
It matters, so much – not just to your life but to the wellbeing of the club, its employees & the wellbeing of the fans. Pressure never bothered me in those days, I used to love it, but I was surprised not to feel that stress in that first game & it’s something that is definitely missing from my life watching football.
WSB: What’s your thoughts on the last 18 months or so?
JD: In terms of the last 12 months it’s been remarkable. I think that it was very surprising that the previous manager didn’t get sacked but that probably worked in Paul Heckingbottom’s favour because when Adam Hammill turned us round Hecky inheritied a team that had got to Wembley and done more than just turn a corner. There was an upbeat & positive feel to the place which is very different to how it would’ve been if he’d have taken over in the November.
Paul Heckingbottom has done a remarkable. What enhances his reputation further, in my view, is that all of this has been achieved by having a good go playing exciting football. We’ve achieved what we have this season, being on the fringes of the Play Offs in January, totally on merit & with players who have not come with big reputations but have been motivated, organised & inspired in all cases to play what has been the best football of their careers & probably in some cases the best it will ever be.
I understand the circumstances of January, of course I do but my own personal view was at that point the club was on the verge of something special. I understand why the decisions were made but none the less it’s great credit to the manager and his players for what they’ve achieved.
WSB: How would you describe how it’s made you feel to be Chairman of your club?
JD: Pride. Great joy. The fact that generally since my time & everything that happened I get greeted with kindness & respect by people it’s reassuring & heart-warming. But, amongst the good things we did – including the Oakwell complex & the success on the pitch – it unfortunately ended in a very sour way and I wouldn’t be normal if I didn’t find that very sad and didn’t regret it. But the overriding thing was I a local lad who found himself in a very fortunate position and I tried, as we all did, to deliver on my responsibilities to the club, the people & the town with as much dignity and enthusiasm as much as I could.
WSB: Ever get involved in football again?
JD: I’ve had the opportunity to get involved with one league club and a number of non league clubs. Whilst enjoying watching non league football, getting involved hasn’t ever yet appealed to me. In any event, I’ve been a committed Barnsley fan for almost 60 years, so it would be very difficult to actually want another club to do well. I have known a number of people who have been involved with more than one club, and I always thought it was a bit strange. I’ve always taken the view that a football club is for life, and Barnsley Football Club is that club in my life.