Barrow AFC’s Long Road Back

by | Feb 4, 2020

Another weekend, another win. On Saturday, Barrow AFC beat Torquay United by Two goals to one at Holker Street. They’re now seven points clear at the top of the National League, with a game in hand on the teams below them, an just fourteen matches left to play. They’ve scored seven goals twice in matches in 2020 already, once against Ebbsfleet United in a league match on the 4th of January and then again a week later, against FC United of Manchester in the FA Trophy. They haven’t lost in the league since the 26th of October. Barrow could be set for what would be, for the club’s older supporters at least, an emotional and, they might well argue, long-overdue return to the Football League.

In the early 1970s, the League was in the mood to shake up its membership a little. No club had been voted out in a decade, and it was a fair concern that complacency might have been in the air at the bottom of the Fourth Division. The first replacement was straightforward enough. Bradford (Park Avenue) were in a calamitous condition, having finished in bottom place in the table for three successive seasons to 1970 and playing in front of pitiful crowds. They were replaced by the forward-looking Cambridge United that year, receiving just seventeen votes, not only fewer than Cambridge but also fewer than the second-best placed non-league club, Wigan Athletic.

Two years later, though, there was a hint more desperation in the air at the bottom of the Football League. Hereford United’s FA Cup run that season had made major news headlines, and the Southern League club was applying for a place in the Football League. The bottom four Division Four clubs would be in the mix for re-election, and any one of those four could be voted out. In the end, the bottom four were, from the bottom up, Crewe Alexandra, Stockport County, Barrow and Northampton Town. Crewe, Stockport and Northampton were all re-elected comfortably, but Barrow and Hereford tied on 26 points each.

The Football League arranged a second vote, and it was not good news for Barrow. This time around, it swung 29-26 in favour of Hereford United, so Barrow were out of the Football League after 51 years of membership. In some senses, it felt a little counter-intuitive that Barrow should have been voted out. They’d only finished third from bottom in the table, and had been comfortably clear of bottom-placed Crewe, by eight points, and this was under two points for a win. They’d also only been relegated from Division Three two years earlier, and had been in that division since 1967, even if they had finished in bottom place in the Football League at the end of the previous season.

Various suggestions have been made as to why Barrow lost their Football League place in 1972. Some blamed geographical isolation. The Football League had an unfortunate habit of voting out clubs that were difficult to get to, such as New Brighton, out on the Wirral peninsular, in 1951, or Workington, another Cumbrian club, in 1977. The club’s financial difficulties had been well reasonably well-known, and the introduction of speedway racing in order to try and turn their financial position around, were also likely factors. It is also notable that none of the other three clubs seeking re-election had finished in the bottom four the previous season – indeed the lowest placed of the other three the previous season had been Crewe Alexandra, in 15th place in the table.

Ultimately, though, it’s likely that it was felt that someone had to make way for Hereford United, and that Barrow were the sacrificial lambs. It was the culmination of a difficult period for the town, in a general sense. The ironworks closed in 1963 and the and last coal mine three years later. And for communities such as this, Football League status is considered a badge of honour. It gets your town regular mentions in national – even international – media that such towns would likely not be able to get through any other means. This loss of status stings. And at the time, looking back at the previous few clubs to have left the Football League, it would have been understandable had supporters been worried that their club would even continue to exist. Of the clubs to left the Football League prior to them, Bradford (Park Avenue) were in free-fall (they folded in 1974), Accrington Stanley and Gateshead had ceased to exist, and New Brighton were drifting all the way down to the South Wirral First Division, and folded in 1983. 

For almost the entirety of the intervening years prior to this season, there was little to suggest that Barrow were likely to return to the Football League any time soon. Relegation meant dropping into the Northern Premier League, where they remained for the remainder of the decade, before coming one of the founder members of the Alliance Premier League – now the National League – in 1979. Barrow were initially solid performers in the the Alliance Premier League, but this didn’t last and they were relegated in 1983, and became a yo-yo club between the APL and the NPL for the next decade, though they did win the FA Trophy in 1990. By the 1990s, though, the town was in decline, with the end of the Cold War marking a reduction in the demand for military ships and submarines, resulting in almost 9,000 jobs being lost in the shipyards between 1990 and 1995. The momentum behind the football club’s yo-yoing was slowing at the same time, and relegation from what was by called the GM Vauxhall Conference in 1993 saw the club slip back into the relative anonymity.

Enter stage left, Stephen Vaughan.

Vaughan, a boxing promoter from Merseyside, was initially successful and the club won promotion back into the Conference in 1998, but he resigned as chairman after an investigation by HMRC into money laundering and his links with the Liverpool gangster and drug trafficker Curtis Warren. He reinstated himself when he was cleared of any involvement (it was said at the time that he had used security provided by Warren at his boxing events and acted as a middle man in his property deals, but drew the line at money laundering), but Barrow were already said to be in serious financial difficulties and he resigned again as chairman and removed his financial backing in November 1998, although he retained his shareholding in the club.

Barrow were liquidated in January 1999 (a new company, Barrow AFC (1999), was formed in its place) and were demoted back to the Unibond League at the end of that season, but their problems were only just beginning. They almost didn’t start the following season (indeed, they started the 1999/2000 season a month late), but this was a comparatively small problem next to the fact that Vaughan had transferred ownership of the club’s Holker Street stadium into the name of his company, Vaughan Promotions, as repayment for the money that he had poured into the club before this money ran out. The liquidator Jim Duckworth, however, smelled a rat and took him to court over it. In 2002, Holker Street was returned to the liquidators, who sold it back to the new directors of the club for £265,000.

Vaughan turned up at Chester City in 2001, but immediately ran into controversy again when Chester were drawn to play Barrow in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round. Despite the liquidation, Vaughan still owned shares in Barrow and the FA threatened to expel both clubs from the competition. A couple of days before the match, though, Vaughan sold his shares in Barrow for a nominal sum to Bobby Brown, a painter and decorator, for £1. He bought them back after the match (which Barrow won 1-0) and then sold them to the directors of the new company for £29,500, but his links to the club weren’t fully severed until the court found against him over ownership of the ground. The FA’s handling of the matter was widely criticised at the time. Chester City, with the fans having boycotted the club and Vaughan still in charge, folded early in 2010. Vaughan and/or his coterie also pitched up at Bangor City and the rugby league club Widnes Vikings, with entirely predictable results.

Barrow, meanwhile, returned to their yo-yoing ways once he finally left, but on this occasion they built some forward momentum instead. Since returning to the National League in 2015, they’ve finished seventh, eleventh twice and twentieth, with that near-relegation experience coming just two seasons ago. This season’s progress, however, seems to have caught just about everybody off-guard. There’s work to be done on Holker Street, which will need to increase its seating capacity from 1,000 to 2,000 should the club be promoted, though it would have three years to do so. Other work that needs doing includes the installation of electronic turnstiles and CCTV, and increasing its capacity to 5,000. With the club under more than competent ownership, though, there’s no reason whatsoever why this shouldn’t be completed in plenty of time to satisfy the League.

A couple of weeks ago, on what looked very much like a bitterly cold Saturday evening, Barrow demonstrated their chops live on BT Sport with an impressively comfortable 2-0 home win against Bromley, who are themselves pushing for a National League promotion place this season. It was an entertaining match, won by the better team on a night when they might have derailed. It’s worth remembering that Barrow have, for all of their success this season, stayed relatively out of the spotlight, and a live televised match is exactly the sort of occasion when the “realness” of a club’s position can catch up with the players. On this occasion, however, this didn’t seem to happen.

And to return to that small matter of good ownership, the manager who has overseen this transformation, Ian Evatt, was a rookie manager upon his appointment, having only had a few weeks managerial experience from a brief spell as the caretaker-manager of Chesterfield at the end of the 2017/18 season. In his first season in charge, he lifted them from twentieth in the table to eleventh. This season’s further improvement has been all the more impressive than even this, especially in a highly competitive division. But Barrow AFC continue to head in the right direction, and this most unexpected leap to the top of the table might well set something straight that older supporters have been waiting half a century for. They’ve been a long time gone, but it’s starting to look as though the Football League may be welcoming back a very long-lost friend, come the end of this season. 

Photo credit: Matthew Dodd, via Wikimedia Commons.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.