WINS have been a rare commodity for Bolton Wanderers on Barnsley soil – almost a century separating the successes of 1908 and 2001.
But by pure coincidence, both victories came in seasons in which the Whites played their way back into football’s top flight.
Neither was a promotion-clincher as such – the 1908 win coming in only the second game of a campaign in which they bounced straight back from relegation to take the Second Division title by a single point while the 2001 win at Oakwell came when Sam Allardyce’s Wanderers were effectively resigned to taking the play-off route back to the Premier League.
Nevertheless, it was a landmark occasion – Michael Ricketts’ 56th-minute goal securing a 13th away win to break a club record that had stood since 1905.
The promotion odds were stacked heavily against Wanderers, despite their formidable away statistics, claiming one of the top two spots – runaway champions Fulham already having taken the first automatic slot and second-placed Blackburn holding a four-point cushion with just two games to play.
But Big Sam’s Whites – beaten in controversial fashion by Ipswich in the previous year’s play-off semi-final – at least made sure they went into the last week of the season knowing they were guaranteed at least third place and still had a mathematical chance of going straight up.
So the general feeling was one of pride at having broken such a long-standing record, which the manager described as a “fantastic achievement”, rather than frustration at what might have been had they not dropped so many points at the Reebok – notably against teams in the lower reaches of the division.
Being the consummate professional, though, Allardyce insisted: “It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get the ultimate prize.”
Prominent in his thoughts were the bitter disappointments of three semi-final defeats a year earlier – they had also lost to Tranmere and Aston Villa in the League and FA Cup last four respectively – as he bid not to be the nearly man this time round.
Yet at half time at Oakwell he must have wondered whether his players shared the same belief. They certainly didn’t play like a team that still had a chance of automatic promotion, knowing three points would pile the pressure on Blackburn who were playing Portsmouth the following day.
They didn’t muster a single shot on target or a pentrating move of note.
Like Barnsley, who were already assured a mid-table finish, they appeared to have nothing to play for.
But the introduction of Dean Holdsworth seven minutes into the second half when winger Nicky Summerbee went off with a shoulder injury, changed the approach and the mood dramatically.
The combative, sometimes misunderstood and often under-rated Londoner sparked a more hostile attitude that transformed what was heading for a bore draw into a memorable Roses battle.
Holdsworth’s impact was instant. Suddenly there was an urgency and a purpose about Wanderers. Barnsley defenders found themselves seriously tested and the Tykes’ newly-crowned player of the season, goalkeeper Kevin Miller, finally got to see the whites of his opponents’ eyes.
Within four minutes Ricketts, whose only contribution had been a first-half snapshot that flashed wide, was celebrating his 21st goal of the season – a supremely confident finish after Bo Hansen’s incisive pass gave him the chance to run the last defender – the sort of opportunity he thrived on but wasn’t presented with often enough.
It was Ricketts’ first successful strike since he netted the consolation goal in the 4-1 home defeat by Blackburn in February – the game that gave Rovers the psychological edge in the race for runners-up spot. And he would have had a second if he had shown better accuracy after Holdsworth had teed up Matt Clarke’s monster clearance.
Holdsworth and Gareth Farrelly also missed opportunities to make the game safe, which served only to increase the tension and allow Barnsley, handicapped by the 66th-minute dismissal of young midfielder Alex Neil for a second bookable offence, all the encouragement they needed to give their fans a rousing end to their final home game of the season.
To their credit, Nigel Spackman’s side took it to the wire – five nailbiting minutes into added time.
The Wanderers back four – missing the injured Colin Hendry – had hardly given an inch and, apart from a couple of awkward long-range efforts from Mike Sheron and fruitless appeals for penalties when Gudni Bergsson, Ricardo Gardner and Simon Charlton halted Barnsley attacks with magnificent tackles, they had kept the door well and truly shut.
But when Charlton was booked for kicking the ball away after Gardner’s trip on Neil Shipperley just outside the box, referee Graham Laws imposed a 10-yard “penalty”, moving the free kick two yards inside Clarke’s area.
Memories came flooding back of a similar situation in the game at Crewe 10 days earlier when Dean Ashton had fired the Alex winner – a result that inflicted serious damage to Wanderers’ promotion prospects – and the tension increased as Barnsley took an age to take the free kick. Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside was too nervous to watch and left his seat in the directors’ box. But Barnsley didn’t have the same subtlety as Crewe in their set-piece repertoire and the wall did its job.
Wanderers kept the clean sheet they deserved, ended one of the longest jinxes in football and took their place in history.
More importantly, they showed Blackburn and all other interested parties that they would be going right to the end . . . and beyond, if they had to.