Warming up

MAYBE it’s a sign that I’m getting old, but my first thought on seeing the scantily-clad female cheerleaders at Oakwell ahead of Barnsley’s match against Portsmouth yesterday was: “For Christ’s sake, put some jumpers on – you’ll catch your deaths of cold out there.”

They’re obviously hardy souls in Barnsley. For the Tykettes, as the club’s cheerleaders are known, didn’t lose their rhythm once – before the game or at half-time – on an afternoon when I thought I might lose my fingers to the cold. Impressive, even if cheerleading’s not really your thing. (It’s not mine.)

The Tykettes carried on dancing through plunging temperatures. They carried on dancing through a particularly ropey cover version of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ early 1990s Saga holiday favourite ‘I’ve Had The Time Of My Life’. And they even carried on dancing through a medical emergency on the other side of the pitch, when a middle-aged chap in a grey suit was knocked out by a stray football during the warm-up.

It actually looked a bit scary for a few moments. The poor chap, who appeared to be a representative of the club, was on the pitch overseeing a pre-match photograph of the mascots when Portsmouth defender Greg Halford hit a loose ball and accidentally struck him on the head.

The stricken man was flat out on the floor, not moving, as a group of paramedics surrounded him. Thankfully, after a few moments, he was able to sit up, and was eventually helped to his feet and led towards the tunnel. Fifty-odd yards away, facing the opposite stand, the Tykettes didn’t miss a step.

There’s a page devoted to the Tykettes in each edition of this season’s Barnsley programme. A cheery-looking young lass (well, they are cheerleaders – the clue’s in the name) answers a series of lifestyle-type questions of the sort that used to be put to footballers in Shoot magazine in the 1980s. (The difference being that none of the Tykettes have listed Only Fools And Horses as their favourite TV show. They’re more X-Factor and Skins types.)

The most intriguing feature in the programme, though, is the listings guide for Barnsley Player, the official website’s TV channel. In every programme, it deliberately carries last week’s listings, with the heading: What have you missed on Barnsley Player?

Nowhere in the programme does it give any clue as to what might be on next week. It’s like bringing out the Christmas issue of the Radio Times on January 7. The final item in the listings offers live and exclusive audio commentary on Barnsley’s match at Ipswich. No point subscribing specifically to listen to that game, though, as it was played last weekend.

Mark Robins described the 3-1 win at Ipswich as Barnsley’s best performance under his management. And after a little bit of a wobble, Robins’ side are on the up again. Yesterday’s 1-0 victory over Portsmouth wasn’t a classic, but it did bring a third successive win and lift the club to mid-table.

It also underlined the class of winger Adam Hammill, whose clean right-footed strike – after Garry O’Connor’s cross had been flicked back towards the edge of the area by Goran Lovre – was his seventh goal of the season.

Hammill is thriving, and Robins has taken to jokingly brushing aside suggestions that the former Liverpool trainee will be moving back to the Premier League in January.

“We don’t want to talk about Adam,” Robins deadpanned in the post-match press conference. “It was a great goal, wasn’t it? I think he’s had more shots on target than anyone in our division. He’s on fire.”

At that point, Hammill walked into the press room ready to speak to the media. “Oh, he’s here, let’s shut up about him now,” Robins said. “He was average.”

A journalist then asked: “Is he good enough to play in the Premier League?” At which point, the modest Hammill offered to leave the room until his manager had finished.

Robins, understandably, wants to hang on to Hammill for as long as possible – which, realistically on current form, means the end of the season. The 22-year-old’s creativity could be the key to ensuring Barnsley can spend the second half of the season looking up the Championship table rather than down it.

Not that they are a one-man team, as Robins was eager to point out. He was thrilled that his defence managed to keep Portsmouth’s front two of Dave Nugent and Dave Kitson quiet, along with the wide threat of John Utaka on the left and Liam Lawrence on the right.

“This was a strong, battling performance, and we had to cope with the threat from their game,” Robins said. “We had plenty of high balls in the air to win against Nugent and Kitson.

“I thought the back five were superb. Not many players get much change out of Utaka and Lawrence. They’re both on fire at the moment. I think that’s the quietest they’ll be all season.”

Portsmouth, who these days resemble a once high-profile MP trying to rebuild their career after a major scandal, are slowly getting their act together. Their first XI could live with anyone in the Championship. But they have next to nothing beyond it. When you’ve just come out of administration and still have some players on your books earning Premier League salaries, a deep squad is an unaffordable luxury.

Utaka is earning nowhere near the £80,000-a-week salary quoted in some quarters. But the £35,000 a week or so he does earn is still a lot for the club to pay in their current state.

Pompey, who climbed away from the foot of the table with four straight wins, have since gone four without victory, although they have come within seconds of beating title hopefuls QPR during that run. As Robins hinted in his comments, Pompey had few chances yesterday.

Their manager Steve Cotterill suggested that if Portsmouth had played as well yesterday as they had in their last two games – in which they draw with QPR and lost at home to Doncaster – they would have won at Oakwell.

Asked if that inconsistency frustrated him, he said: “Yes, a little bit. But if we could all sort that out, we’d be psychologists.”

Which begs the question as to who is best placed to help a team discover winning form: The psychologist or the cheerleader? No one’s come up with a definitive answer to that one yet.

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