There seems to have been three main reasons why a football club would be voted out of the Football League in the days before automatic promotion and relegation with the Conference:
1. Being so spectacularly bad that there was no earthly reason why they should have been allowed to carry on playing professional football.
2. There just having been a non-league club that had caught the media’s attention, somehow.
3. Being from a geographical location that was a bit of a pain in the arse to get to.
Barrow FC fell foul of the second and third of these conditions, and lost their place in the League in 1972, even though they had been challenging for a place in the Second Division just four years earlier. The drama at Holker Street didn’t end with their demotion, either. Over the last thirty years, they have been to Wembley and a suffered a financial meltdown in 1999 took three years to resolve fully and took them to the brink of liquidation.
It’s fair to say that the vast majority of Barrow’s career in the Football League was unspectacular, to say the least. They only managed three seasons outside of the bottom division in their fifty-one years, in the mid-to-late 1960s, and seldom (if ever – the club’s own website is rather scant on information regarding their history) got any further than the Third Round of the FA Cup. Once relegated back to Division Four in 1970, however, they went into a rapid free-fall, which saw them finish bottom of the League the following season, and then third from bottom in 1972. That summer, they were replaced by Hereford United. Quite whose fault this rapid fall from grace was is open to question. Some blame their manager Norman Bodell, who arrived at Holker Street during the 1968-69 season and immediately saw the team tumble down the divisions. Others blame the introduction of speedway, which ruined the pitch drainage (personally, I’m not buying this as an excuse – if the Barrow team were used to it, it would, if anything, give them something of an advantage at home – over-watering the pitch was a tactic regularly used by managers until it was outlawed by the Football League in the 1930s).
Hereford United had become media darlings with their FA Cup run during the 1971-1972 season, during which they beat Newcastle United in a Third Round replay and held West Ham United to a draw in the Fourth Round before losing the replay at Upton Park. Strangely, some Barrow fans still hate Hereford United for being elected into the League in their place. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that Hereford’s promotion into the League wasn’t, strictly speaking, deserved. They’d won the Southern League just once, in 1965, and had only finished second in the season in which they were voted into the League. However, to continue to blame Hereford United for applying to get into the League in the only way in which they could at a time when the Football League effectively acted as a cartel, and finding that their luck was in. The vote was a tight one – Barrow and Hereford scored the same on the first ballot, before Hereford won the second one and, with that, Barrow were out.
A further blow would come to the status of the town of Barrow-in-Furness in 1974, when the 1972 Local Government Act kicked in, shuffling Barrow from Lancashire into the newly-formed county of Cumbria. Barrow FC were more fortunate than most other former League clubs as they were invited to join the Alliance Premier League in 1979. They were unable to build on this, though, and spent most of the 1980s bouncing between the Conference and the Northern Premier League. In 1988, though, they reached the FA Trophy semi-finals (going out after two legs and two replays to Enfield), but went a stage further and won it at Wembley two years later.
The good times weren’t to last long at Holker Street. In 1996, they were taken over by a Liverpool-based businessman called Steven Vaughan. Vaughan, to put things mildly, could be described as an unsavoury character. A long time friend of the convicted drug trafficker Curtis Warren, it was widely believed that Vaughan was acting as a front for Warren, and in January 1999 the club was suddenly wound up and a protracted investigation was launched to establish exactly who the owner of their stadium was. Demoted from the Conference in the summer of 1999, they were placed into the Northern Premier League upon the request of the FA. It took three years for them to complete the purchase of Holker Street. Since then, Barrow have struggled on the pitch, though they have managed to retain their Conference North status. Their last brush with controversy came earlier this year, when one of their players became the first to be jailed for an on-field offence, when he was sent away for punching a Bristol Rovers striker during an FA Cup match. It’s not ideal, but it must be better than having to worry about whether the man running your club is a convicted drug trafficker or not.
Five Bluebirds Of A Feather
Peter Withe – The European Cup-winning Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest striker played one match for Barrow in the 1971-1972 season, their last in the Football League.
Mike Marsh – Formerly of Liverpool and West Ham United, Marsh was playing for Southend United when he picked up a serious injury, the insurance policy for which meant that he could never play League football again. He played for Barrow in the 1998-99 season.
Colin Methven – Voted in 1998 as Wigan Athletic’s greatest ever League player, Methven, who played over 500 matches for Wigan, Carlisle, Walsall and Blackpool, finished his playing career at Barrow in 1994.
Tony Parks – The Spurs reserve goalkeeper, who saved the winning penalty in their 1984 UEFA Cup win against Anderlecht, also played in the financially ruinous Barrow team of 1998-99.