THERE’S something reassuring about a trip to Oakwell. About an hour after Barnsley’s match with Coventry on Saturday, a handful of journalists were finishing off their reports in the press room when a ginger tom cat sauntered in, leapt up on a chair and made itself right at home.
It fitted in with the general ambience. Going to Oakwell is a bit like visiting your nan. She may not have Sky – or even Freeview – and the wallpaper’s a bit old-fashioned, but she’s always pleased to see you and you know you’ll get a nice cup of tea.
I should perhaps qualify this before I get too far into Michael Parkinson/Hovis ad/Pros-of-today-aren’t-fit-to-lace-Skinner-Normanton’s boots territory. Three-quarters of Oakwell has been rebuilt since 1992, and looks like a standard modern football ground; all angular stands, red plastic seats and executive boxes. It’s the main stand, the one that has been around for something like 100 years, which gives the ground its character, with its sloping corrugated roof, its struts and pillars, its uncovered seating and its outside toilets.
Barnsley’s outdoor loos
A few feet behind the stand is a turnstile wall which must be 12ft high, topped with broken glass to stop people climbing their way in. (There was nothing, though, to stop that ginger tom – presumably a resident of one of the houses neighbouring the ground – sneaking underneath one of the turnstiles once the crowds had dispersed. He didn’t seem to have a ticket, either.)
That cat must have sneaked in through here somehow
The press room is a white cabin placed between the glass-topped wall and the back of the main stand, about 20 feet from the outdoor gents toilets. It’s homely enough, but it caused a bit of a stir among the national press reporters when Barnsley beat Chelsea in the FA Cup a couple of seasons ago. The story goes that a reporter, looking to find somewhere to recharge his laptop, found a plug socket – only to be told by a club official that he couldn’t use it, because it was needed for the kettle to boil the half-time cuppas for the press.
I’m not sure how much of that story is true. When I was there on Saturday, a reporter from the Coventry Telegraph needed to recharge his laptop before the game, went to the press room, unplugged the kettle and had no problems whatsoever – and the press still got cuppas at half-time.
Coventry’s stadium could hardly be more different – the main entrance at the Ricoh Arena is all glass walls, polished floors and echoing voices; a cross between a car showroom and an airport departure lounge. Yet Barnsley and Coventry are two teams with similar ambitions in the Championship this season – mid-table stability is the priority, and anything more is a bonus.
On Saturday’s evidence, Coventry are more likely to achieve that target. After the teams had run out to a mysterious synth-pop number pitched somewhere between a 1983 New Order B-side and the backing track to a corporate health and safety video, the visitors settled down to play the better football.
Oakwell old and new
Leon Best’s thunderous eighth-minute free-kick, which seemed to go through the Barnsley wall, set them up nicely. (“He’s been practising them in training all week,” said Coventry manager Chris Coleman in his press conference afterwards, moments before the ginger tom made his entrance.)
Barnsley failed to manage a single shot on target for 75 minutes, and weren’t helped by an attacking formation which seemed to bamboozle their players. Someone on the Barnsley coaching staff had clearly told wingers Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Adam Hammill to keep swapping flanks in order to confuse Coventry’s full-backs. But the two men swapped wings so often – sometimes every couple of minutes – that they ended up getting caught in the central midfield battles as they crossed over.
As a result, Barnsley had no width, and Coventry’s Dutch left-back Patrick van Aanholt, on loan from Chelsea, was frequently left unchallenged to make attacking runs.
To make matters worse, Barnsley’s Maltese striker Daniel Bogdanovic (actually born in Libya to Serbian parents, but a Malta international nonetheless) seemed to have forgotten the art of staying onside.
This game was no fun to watch for a home fan, and Barnsley’s players didn’t enjoy it much either. Left-back Rob Kozluk’s frustration got the better of him, as he was booked twice in three minutes – first for clattering Stephen Wright, then for sending Aron Gunnarsson flying through the air like a Total Wipeout contestant. Barnsley manager Simon Davey had no complaints about the red card.
The one bright spot for Barnsley was the return as a second-half substitute of Iain Hume. The striker fractured his skull nine months ago in an horrific collision with Sheffield United’s Barnsley-born captain Chris Morgan, and needed emergency surgery in Manchester to save his life. Saturday’s match was his first competitive appearance since then, and the standing ovation he got as he entered the field was heartfelt.
He couldn’t help Barnsley find an equaliser, though, and with nine minutes left, Clinton Morrison swept in Isaac Osbourne’s right-wing cross to seal a 2-0 win for Coventry. As the only team to win their first two Championship games, Coventry top the league. Not that Coleman was getting carried away.
“We’ve won two games, Barnsley have drawn one and lost one, but we’re both in for a tough season,” said Coleman, with justification – Coventry’s squad is so stretched that all seven of his substitutes on Saturday were aged 18 or under. “The Championship is so tight that a few good or bad results at the crucial time can dictate whether you’re pushing for the top six or being in the bottom six. It’s two games. We’ve got another 44 to play.”
Davey was honest about Barnsley’s shortcomings, insisting that they will have to play better. The ginger tom, meanwhile, declined to comment.