At the end of 2016, a great deal of attention was given to the seemingly never-ending roll call of high-profile celebrity deaths that marked what many deemed to have been an annus horribilis. As the year bowed out, and as Wham’s George Michael, Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt and Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher joined the long list of publicly mourned stars, I looked in vain for the obituaries of a footballing legend whose seven decades in the game neatly summed up the rise and fall of its traditional heartlands.

Barnsley’s Norman Rimmington died on December 29 aged 93. A good innings, as they say. Of course he was a lot older, and considerably less famous, than the myriad musicians, actors and TV presenters whose passings provoked such an outpouring of existential angst; whether it was Bowie or Wogan, Rickman or Reynolds, each obituary felt obliged to lament the disappearance of a golden age of music/acting/TV presenting and so on.

And, yes, in the year of Brexit and Trump, it did seem that we had reached the end of an era. But perhaps the lack of column inches given to Rimmington’s life was, in its own small way, a symptom of the marginalisation that had contributed to such seismic shocks in the first place.

Let me explain. Rimmington “embodied”, as an official Barnsley statement explained, “everything good about our town and people”. He had been at Oakwell since 1945 – if you ignore his two lost years at Hartlepool United – making 27 appearances as a “fearless goalkeeper” before serving in various capacities, including first-team coach, assistant manager, groundsman, physio and kit man.

He was helping out in the club’s laundry when I interviewed him for my book, A Yorkshire Tragedy, shortly before his retirement in 2013. He talked, at great length, about all the battling Barnsley sides he had known. In a sense he was the Tykes’ answer to Zelig, popping up in Angus Seed’s menacingly tough post-war team, sparring with Bill Shankly on the touchline in the 1960s, refusing to join Allan Clarke when he jumped ship to become Leeds manager two decades later and advising Danny Wilson’s Premiership underdogs to ditch the fancy football at the end of the nineties.

Seed’s side were particularly famed for their fierce tackling and never-say-die spirit. Their intimidator-in-chief was a local legend immortalised in a series of well-known essays by Michael Parkinson. “If you want to invent a local football hero of the time,” wrote Parkinson, “someone who worked in the pits during the week and spent Saturday afternoons kicking lumps out of the opposition, you’d invent a man called something like Skinner Normanton. [He] put the fear of God up any member of the human race who didn’t wear a Barnsley shirt. He played at a time when the game drank deep from its tap roots and although there were more skilful and talented than he was there was no one who better represented what you were up against if you took on a collier from Barnsley… Nowadays they talk of image. There was a time, when Skinner was a lad, when it had soul.”

To those of us who share Parkinson’s anxiety that the game has lost its soul, Rimmington was the last product of a footballing generation defined by the optimism and idealism of an era which saw the birth of the modern welfare state, full employment and the nationalisation of hundreds of privately owned mines.

The post-Second World War football boom, which saw a huge increase in attendances, greatly benefited Seed’s team. “The impact of economic conditions on sport was perhaps clearest in the late 1940s and early 1950s,” writes the social historian Martin Johnes. “Full employment and a desire to forget the horrors of war created a high demand for entertainment but material shortages and the government’s need to export manufactured goods meant there was little for people to actually spend their money on. Spectator sport however was both cheap and easily accessible and attendances thus reached an all-time high in this period.” In the 1947-8 campaign, Barnsley averaged home crowds of 21,050. According to A Study In Football, an account of the club’s resurgence in the 1950s, by the end of that season fans “clung tightly as buses rolled in from mining villages.”

In the 20th century, football – and, in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire, rugby league – replaced traditional village sports like cockfighting, fox hunting, coursing and shooting, potshare bowling, handball and quoits. With the raising of the school leaving age from nine to fifteen children were exposed to the game for a much longer period of time, playing with anything they could lay their hands on: rags, cans, tennis balls and even pig’s bladders. By the time they went down the mine, the game was already dominating their lives. Although they failed to match the success of the pre-war years, Seed’s squad was renowned for being built on young local mining talent. Nine local lads, most of them pitmen, played in a 1957 fifth-round cup tie watched by the England manager Walter Winterbottom.

As George Orwell pointed out between the wars, “Our civilisation is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.” Mining was uniquely dangerous work. Explosions killed 361 men and boys at the Oaks pit near Barnsley in 1866; pit deaths did not fall below 1000 a year until well into the 20th century. And yet the industry, particularly in the north-east and south Yorkshire, swelled the talent pool of many small-town clubs. Even big-city clubs from outside these regions drew upon the area’s “raw material” for their success. None more so than Wolverhampton Wanderers, the dominant English side of the 50s, who were particularly dependent on Cortonwood miners. The colliery, whose closure sparked the 1984 strike, not only produced the Barnsley pair Malcolm Graham and Henry Walters but, as a result of hiring out its football ground every Saturday morning to Wolves juniors, developed future First Division stars such as Ron Flowers, Cyril and Peter Knowles and Terry Cooper. The Robledo brothers, who were brought up in a village near Cortonwood, went on to star for Newcastle after leaving Oakwell. The most famous product of Seed’s youth system was Tommy Taylor who, according to John Roberts, author of a book on the Busby Babes, learned his skills in Barnsley on “the bog, a rock-hard piece of ground where local boys played in clogs, pit boots or bare feet.” When he signed Taylor for Manchester United in 1953, Matt Busby wrote a cheque for £29,999, giving the remaining pound to an Oakwell tea lady, so as not to burden the youngster with a £30,000 price tag. Taylor went on to win two league titles, and score 16 goals in 19 England games, before losing his life, along with another Barnsley-born youngster Mark Jones, in the Munich air disaster.

Before the 1970s, the Battling Barnsley mentality tended to be evoked every time a side embarked on a cup run or earned a promotion. But after the release of Ken Loach’s low-budget masterpiece Kes, at the beginning of that decade, the spirit of Billy Casper – rather than Skinner Normanton – was invoked. “Kes has become the town’s creation myth,” explained Ian McMillan, the club’s poet-in-residence, “our Things Fall Apart or War and Peace.” The film, like the Barry Hines novel it was based on, offered a glimpse of what it was like to rise, soar even, above a hopeless situation. You do not have to accept your fate, know your place or be battered into submission, especially on a football pitch by a Manchester United-supporting bully. In the movie’s most famous scene, Brian Glover’s callous PE teacher, Mr Sugden – “I’m scheming this morning, all over the field, just like Charlton used to do. Anyway, Denis Law’s in the wash this week” – insists on being both referee and team captain, taking every free-kick and blowing his whistle whenever he’s tackled. The iconic poster for the movie, featuring Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute, aptly summed up not only Barnsley’s but the White Rose county’s penchant for sticking it to The Man. It was so striking that it was included in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. I’m not sure what the millions of television viewers around the world made of the clip from a gritty, grim-up-north film featuring a scrawny school kid and his kestrel, but it was clear to me that the director was paying homage to Yorkshire defiance. “Whether you’ve seen a film like Kes or not,” Boyle explained, “it’s part of your culture, your heritage. It’s running in your veins. It’s an invisible fingerprint that everybody carries, whether you ever sit down and watch it or not.”

This invisible fingerprint helps, in my view, to explain two seemingly unrelated early-21st century northern narratives: the road to Brexit and the decline of Yorkshire football. Since the evisceration of the communities which sustained its teams, and drained away its economic lifeblood, huge sections of old industrial Yorkshire have been disenfranchised by new, globalised orders (sporting and political) which are perceived to be bullying, out of touch and capricious. Just like its great mining and steel industries, many of Yorkshire’s great football teams have never fully recovered from the harrowing of their region. Although enjoying fleeting success during the boom years of the 1990s, several big names have lurched from well-publicised financial disaster to despair. Both the Premier League and Champions League have come to be seen, like the EU, as ruthless global organisations dominated by a small group of mercenaries.

As an ardent Remainer, I was not particularly surprised that almost two thirds of people in South Yorkshire voted for Brexit. As I discovered while researching my book in the region, there was huge support for the Leave campaign in Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham – and even a narrow majority in the former Socialist Republic of Sheffield (still twinned with Donetsk). In fact, throughout the six-million strong county, thousands of 21st-century Caspers delivered their own up-yours verdict on three decades of near-invisibility. Since the appearance of Loach’s classic, many of Yorkshire’s towns and cities have experienced the continuing demise of their industrial culture. The gap has widened between rich and poor, haves and have-nots and north and south. The destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining communities, accelerated by a 1980s’ manufacturing collapse which wiped out almost a fifth of Britain’s industrial base and left large swathes of the broad acres trapped in hopelessness, almost put paid to a collectivist culture based on extended family life, warmth and neighbourliness.

The last time Casper appeared as a cultural reference point in football was during Barnsley’s 1997-8 campaign. “The Reds going up is two fingers to the fat cats,” declared the Tykes fanzine Better Red Than Dead after Wilson’s side had clinched a Premier League place with a 2-0 win against Bradford City. “(It’s) like crashing the posh knobs’ cheese and wine gathering with a party-sized can of Watney’s Red Barrel and spraying it in their faces.” A home defeat against Liverpool, which was distinguished by a notoriously poor refereeing display, seemed to be a re-enactment of Glover’s bullying antics on the hill overlooking the windswept Yorkshire Moors. The Times columnist Mark Hodkinson reported that the official was denounced as “a vindictive agent of the Premiership that wanted to relegate Barnsley and maintain its closed shop.”

Despite this us-against-the-world mindset, Barnsley, like other northern “minnows” who have enjoyed short stays in the top flight – Oldham Athletic, Burnley, Bradford City and Blackpool – became everyone’s second-favourite team. They were relentlessly portrayed as down-at-heel underdogs, cocking a snook at the big-city clubs: a powerless and dispossessed post-industrial town having one last crack at the moneyed elite. Appearances on Match of the Day were invariably sound-tracked by brass-band music and accompanied by images of Casper, his kestrel and cobbled streets. Some sections of the media had great fun with the idea of a grimy, unrefined town, populated by budding Normantons, Glovers and Caspers, and seemingly trapped in a black-and-white, kitchen-sink, social-realist time warp, embracing the brave, new world of the Premiership, then at the beginning of its global expansion. And yet Barnsley’s style owed more to the sweet Samba-style passing of the great Brazilian sides than to Skinner’s thuggery or Glover’s grandstanding. Which is why, as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to their team’s fluid pass-and-move football – and yellow away shirts – Barnsley fans took to singing, “It’s just like watching Brazil”.

Wilson’s aesthetically pleasing, promotion-winning history makers were, though, mostly local heroes, down-to-earth lads like David Watson, Nicky Eaden, Andy Lidell and Adrian Moses. Their most expensive recruit had been John Hendrie, who cost £250,000. “We’ve done it the right way,” said Wilson, “working hard and honestly and playing good football. These fans have seen a lot of hard times here, they deserve this.” In a foreword to Hodkinson’s book, Hines wrote: “I was touched by their pride and loyalty for at last, following years of hardship after the miners strike and wholesale pit closures, the town and its football club had something to shout about.”

However, Wilson’s stubborn insistence on playing stylish, attacking football was blamed for the shipping of 82 goals. “I’d shut up shop if I were you,” Rimmington told the young boss. “Keep kicking the ball into Row Z. You can’t go out and play against them lot, they’re just too good.’” Wilson stuck to his guns and the heavy defeats kept on coming: a 5-0 loss at Arsenal, 6-0 thrashings against West Ham and Chelsea and a 7-0 hammering at Old Trafford.

The “signing” of a poet rather than a competent defender left many fans underwhelmed. “I was walking through Wombwell and this fella wound his window down,” recalled McMillan. “You’re the Bard of Barnsley. ‘Yes.’ You’re on the telly. ‘I am.’ On the radio. ‘Yes.’ You write poems. ‘Yes.’ You’re shite, he said, and drove off.” In the dressing room, as the German journalist Ronald Reng discovered, an “invisible dividing line” had emerged between the Brits and the foreigners. “Barnsley was always a monocultural town,” said McMillan. “And all of a sudden these players from around the world were coming here.” For Macmillan it was “exotic and exciting” but, as Hodkinson noted, others at the club remained, “suspicious of outsiders and slow to trust”.

There is a problem with all Lost Golden Age narratives, whether they reference Hollywood or Oakwell. They tend to romanticise the past, glossing over the unsavoury bits. As Reng noted, and anyone visiting marginalised northern towns during the EU referendum campaign will confirm, there was often a parochial, insular attitude towards outsiders. In such an idealised world it is easy to forget the bigotry, sexism and homophobia that has blotted its political landscape. But, as Andy Burnham said of the referendum campaign, the Remain camp was “far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull”. It failed to engage with a region which, like Casper, felt badly let down by the Establishment.

Since the Brexit vote, lip service has been paid ritualistically to the “left behind” by a political class belatedly coming to terms with the legacy of three decades of neglect. To understand the reasons for this “disconnect”, we need to go back to the 80s, the decade when a county synonymous with deeply rooted notions of solidarity became associated with division, defeat and disaster. The 80s left a large number of Yorkshire villages, towns and cities permanently scarred by the Thatcher government’s assault on the post-war consensus. In the ensuing years there have been some notable sporting achievements, the occasional Yorkshire triumph even. But the underlying story has been anomie. Just like its great industries, many of the county’s great sporting teams have never fully recovered from the harrowing of their region.

It is true that there was a feel-good factor following the 2012 London Olympics; if Yorkshire was a country, it would have finished 12th in the international medals table. But while millions of pounds have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the game that is most relevant to the everyday lives of ordinary folk – football – there remains a clear division between the elite and its grass roots. Leeds United, the two Sheffield teams, Barnsley, Doncaster, Bradford City and Rotherham have, like their former industrial communities, all been marginalised in the New Football Era. 

As Gary Neville wrote in a perceptive article last year: “A North-South divide is developing in English football that reflects the drift in economic power towards London… We’ve seen the demise of Premier League clubs in Yorkshire… and Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday becoming marginalised. When I was growing up, trips to Elland Road and Hillsborough were among the biggest. They were FA Cup semi-final venues. They had a big club feel. Children today wouldn’t think of Leeds United as a great football club. Or Sheffield Wednesday. Clubs in the south-east who can claim to be within an hour of London seem to be developing a massive advantage.” Neville wondered whether this collapse was “cyclical or is something deeper going on?” The conclusion of my research was that, tragically, it is the latter.

Since the 80s, as London has boomed – it now boasts a quarter of the nation’s economic activity – there has been a reshaping of the sporting landscape, a pronounced southward shift in the balance of power. Football has become as lopsided as the economy. When the New Football Era began in 1992, the inaugural Premiership boasted four sides from Yorkshire: Leeds United, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough. By the time I started writing my book, in 2015, the world’s wealthiest league had virtually become a White Rose-free zone. It was during this period that London’s sporting base, like its economy, underwent a profound change, becoming a place where overseas investors could park their wealth. The richest city in the world began to provide some of its richest football teams, attracting the interest of oligarchs, sheiks and American venture capitalists. With the exception of Manchester, the balance of footballing power shifted away from the big-city northern clubs who dominated post-war football, towards Arsenal and Chelsea.

In his seminal book The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt wrote, ‘For a region that had previously traded on its miserliness, Yorkshire football has proved particularly prey to the temptations of overspending and overindulging. Leeds United and Bradford City ‘lived the dream’ and, in a pyrotechnic display of hubris, exploded… In Yorkshire, the plot lines are all dark.” At the beginning of the 21st century, David O’Leary’s Elland Road ‘Babies’ scaled the heights of the Champions League semi-final before becoming entrenched in a debt that eventually forced them into various administrations, point deductions and relegations. The Leeds board’s notorious recklessness saw them borrowing £60million in the deluded belief they would qualify for the lucrative Champions League every season. Such self-destructive extravagance was not confined to Elland Road. Huddersfield Town, Bradford City (twice) and Rotherham (twice) have all been in administration and Sheffield Wednesday have been close to it on occasions.

This recklessness can be partly explained, but never excused, by a desperate desire to stop the rot, to break into the financial elite’s virtuous circle, to play catch-up after their communities had been devastated. Since the unforgiving 80s many of the county’s shrinking working-class communities, despite – perhaps because of – the ebbing of their power, have remained close, self-reliant and independent in spirit. But the seismic socio-economic changes of that decade, in particular the destruction of the coal industry, the erosion of trade union power and the increasing concentration of wealth in London, clearly sounded the death knell for an edgier, fairer – and, yes, more soulful – version of football.


* Anthony Clavane’s A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse is published by Riverrun.