Legendary presenter acknowledges that while times have changed there are some things he still holds dear
Watching from his life in exile on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire, there is a long-time Barnsley fan rather enjoying the fact that his side have made it to the Championship play-offs.
“It’s so nice when this happens,” says Michael Parkinson. “Though to be perfectly honest it doesn’t happen that often to us lot.”
In truth, to describe his reaction as mere enjoyment is to downplay quite what this means.
Because for Parkinson, who has followed the fortunes of his hometown club for 80 years, Barnsley’s attempt to gain admission to the Premier League has returned something vital to the sport he loves, something he sensed was in real danger of extinction.
“After all that Super League nonsense it restores a bit of romance to the game,” he says. “Of course none of us Barnsley fans think we can get up there (to the Premier League), let alone stay up there. But the chance to dream is what football is all about.
“Or rather should be about. Not that those greedy buggers who tried to finagle us into their wretched deal will ever understand that. They haven’t a bloody clue. The chance to dream: that’s written into the DNA of the game here.”
Parkinson has been dreaming about Barnsley doing well since he first went to a match at Oakwell as a five-year-old, more than eight decades ago. Things have changed somewhat since.
Back then, the trip into the town took the visitor to the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfield. Pits were everywhere. Coal dust hung in the air. The winding wheel above a mine shaft cast its shadow over what is these days the stadium car park.
Now, where the pithead once stood, is the sleek HQ of a business called NASA Hydroponics. Though Parkinson is not remotely nostalgic about the grime and filth that pervaded the place when he was growing up.
“Thank God the mines have gone,” he says. “They provided obscene working conditions. My father worked underground and died because of it. But I tell you what the pits did give the town and the football club: an identity.”
It was an identity forged by location. The players came from the same stock as the fans. Local was everything.
“I remember when I was really young, getting the bus to the game and the centre-half got on at the stop by the pithead. He had spent the morning of the match working a shift as a miner.
“The crowd were all miners or from the family of miners, united in the cause of working together, and so were many of the team itself. That created a link with the fans that was remarkable, it was a shared experience.
"When you arrived at the place, opposition players and fans alike knew what to expect: they’d get kicked by miners. Hurt one member of the family and you hurt the lot.”
For Parkinson, the exemplar was the hero of his youth, Sid ‘Skinner’ Normanton, the part-time miner, part-time wing-half who terrorised the leagues in the immediate post-war years.
He chuckles at the memory of a man whose name makes him sound like a Monty Python character.
“Oh aye, he did exist, Skinner,” he says. “There was nothing subtle about him. Looking back, basically all he ever did was kick the shit out of opponents. I had a wonderful time watching those guys.”
But the insularity that forged their team spirit, he acknowledges, was a lifetime away. Barnsley FC are now a cosmopolitan operation. The team are managed by a Frenchman, Valerien Ismael, who replaced Gerhard Struber, an Austrian, last summer.
The core of his side were signed from Fulham (in the case of leading scorer Cauley Woodrow), Milton Keynes Dons (full-back Callum Brittain) or Brondby (towering centre-back Mads Andersen). While young playmaker Callum Styles, reckoned by many to be the most exciting prospect in the Championship, was brought across the Pennines from Bury.
Parkinson has enjoyed watching them all, albeit on television.
“I’m really impressed with this fella,” he says of Ismael. “He’s done really well. He’s an imposing-looking guy on the touchline. But the thing is, he’s not stormed his way there, he’s played his way. Great credit to him, his team are a joy to watch.”
Despite never having had the privilege of sending out a team in front of a Barnsley crowd, Ismael has embraced the traditions of the place. Last year, after reading an appeal for help on social media, he bought a new tuba for the local brass band.
“It’s important to acknowledge the history, but that doesn’t mean you don’t look to the future,” Parkinson says. “What has most impressed me about his team is how fit they are.
“These are young lads running around for 90 minutes. I remember in my time you’d often see a midfielder with a little beer belly, or a bandy-legged inside forward who could hardly run after about half an hour. These lot, they’re proper athletes.”
The image of miners in cloth caps with whippets on a lead standing on the terrace watching wheezing hackers dimmed long ago.
“I remember the last time we went up to the Premier League (in 1997) being given a guided tour of the facilities by (then-manager) Danny Wilson. I was blown away by the equipment he had. And the sports science. They were integrating sleep patterns into training then. This guy has built on that and taken it to another level.”
Hwever smart Ismael might be in his use of performance data, Parkinson is not optimistic about how things might go should he pull off the unlikely and get the club promoted.
“They’re a young side, without any big-name players, the business method is to develop talent and sell it on. That makes it hard to compete at the top.
“The days of equal opportunity are dead, the gap between the likes of Barnsley and the Premier League big hitters has never been bigger. You only have to look at the number who go up and come straight back down again. The truth is the game is dominated by millions, and clubs that don’t have those millions cannot compete. Shouldn’t stop us dreaming, though.”
And dreaming he is.
“The last time we went up, I was with (fellow Tyke) Dickie Bird and the partying went on for days.”
Not that such celebrations will happen again this time. Should the team outsmart Swansea City tomorrow and head to Wembley, Parkinson will not be there.
Even without the pandemic restrictions, age has curtailed his football-watching away days. “I’m afraid the days of having a few pints and then making my way to the ground are long gone, and that was when I was working there as a journalist.
“No, I’ll watch on television. I’ll make it a bit of a party. I’ll get the children round. They’ll be sneering and laughing at me. One of them is a Liverpool fan, the other supports Man United. It’s too silly for words.”
He chuckles again at the thought. “But for one afternoon at least I will be dreaming. The players and manager, all of them deserve a huge pat on the back for letting me dream again.”
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited