I remember very clearly the first time I went to watch Barnsley FC play. It was a cold, wet night one February, against Preston North End – rivals from across the Pennines. What I will remember for the rest of my life was the way the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when the Barnsley fans began chanting, “Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!” in unison at their Lancashire counterparts. To this day, that sense of pride in the county and pride in the town still triggers the same tingling sensation whenever I’m at Oakwell or amongst the Barnsley fans at an away match.
I believe Barnsley FC is a fundamentally important part of our town. The fact that thousands of committed fans descend upon Oakwell week in, week out, come rain or shine, through thick – and more recently – thin, not only shows the level of interest and affection for our club, but also the power that sport has to bring people together in the interest of a common cause.
I’ve always believed that football, and sport more generally, are important to our communities and I’m passionate about the way they can be a positive force for good in people’s lives – particularly young people. I’ve seen the benefits with my own children, and the sense of enjoyment and achievement they get from taking part in the Barnsley Park Run in Locke Park on Saturday mornings.
Sport, especially team sports like football, rugby and hockey, whether they be played inside or outside of school, provide young people with the opportunity to come together to learn, forge friendships and develop their ability to work within a team. Sport can develop communication skills and encourage self-confidence; all whilst helping to maintain a basic level of fitness, which helps people stay healthy and improve their overall wellbeing. The importance of this should not be underestimated.
The power of sport is not limited to match days. Sport is on the up in Barnsley, thanks to the pioneering work of Team Activ who help promote the role of sport within our community, and the recent opening of a new 3G artificial pitch at Oakwell. State of the art facilities will ensure that our young people are given the opportunity to engage with sport and exercise, whilst encouraging greater participation, especially at grassroots level. Outreach projects such as these, combined with the continuing great work of Barnsley stalwarts like Bobby Hassell, will both inspire our young people to get involved in sport and go a long way in tackling some of the issues that affect the town: unemployment, public health and educational attainment.
On the pitch, it has been another difficult season so far for the Tykes and we are again in another real fight for championship survival. Relegation would be terrible, both for the club and the town. Not only would it dent our collective confidence, there would be a significant impact on the town, with turnout to matches decreasing and, as a result, less money being spent on the high street and in our shops and pubs.
Oakwell sits at the heart of my Barnsley Central constituency and I will be doing everything I can to get behind Danny Wilson and the team. I urge that everyone in the town does the same, by calling on that strong sense of pride that runs through Barnsley, so that hopefully we can avoid the drop and enjoy a better season next year.
This article was first published in the Barnsley Independent on 26 February 2014.