Rough Guide to... Barrow

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

12 July 2010

Well, hello there, Barrow. Let's talk about you.
"What a day!!!" emotes the introduction of the YouTube video of Hereford beating Newcastle in 1972. Those of us past 45 do not have to watch the clip: the goals replay themselves in our heads. The images became the archetype of an FA Cup giant-killing – a muddy field, people hanging from houses, trees, telegraph posts, for a view of the action, the innocent exuberance of a pitch invasion, from a time when if "some people are on the pitch", it was nothing more sinister than a spontaneous eruption in response to the joyously unexpected. Ricky George, Ronnie Radford, the whole Hereford team were heroes throughout the land, except in Newcastle.

If Hereford's feat remains fresh to this day, how insistent its tug must have been when the clubs came to vote on the membership of the Football League that June. Barrow, having finished the season 22nd in the fourth division, were applying for re-election for the 11th time in their 51-year League history. This time they were unsuccessful – their place awarded instead to Hereford United. The reputedly unlovely town beyond the most lovely scenery England has to offer, with its precarious reliance on an old-fashioned industry, must feel a lonely place. Seldom more so than in 1972.

To love your local team is to pay attention to the detail, to cherish 'if only's and occasional small victories, to harbour the memory of defeats and disappointments unnoticed by others. Who beyond Grimsby cares about Wayne Burnett's golden goal, or the record attendance at Old Trafford? It is our private pride. Hereford are almost unique among local teams in having such a moment not only to cherish but also to share; that Hereford team were national heroes, except in Newcastle, and then Barrow. The Bluebirds were on the flip side of a history being written by the winners.

Barrow v MorecambeBarrow (in white) in a friendly at Morecambe last summer. The Bluebirds overcame their Football League neighbours by a goal to nil. Photo:Warren Pilkington (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

A town easily dismissed by those who have never been there, Barrow has much in common with Grimsby, from a certain knack for being the founder members of different leagues and divisions down to the symmetry that in 1974, when Grimsby was being wedged into Humberside, Barrow was torn out of Lancashire into the new county of Cumbria. It has something to teach us. To an outsider, their Football League history seems to have been little more than a tenacious struggle for survival; since leaving, they have stored up several of their own moments of private pride: a league title, winning Wembley appearances, the fastest goal in professional football. They can even take pride in the very survival of the club.

Do you come here often?
On leaving the Football League, Barrow initially played in the Northern Premier League. In 1979, they were founder members of the Alliance (now the Conference) but struggled to retain a place in it amid a series of short-term managerial appointments.

Ray Wilkie was appointed manager in in March 1986 and although he was unable to prevent relegation from the Conference two months later, by 1989 they were back, as NPL champions. Next season, Barrow won their their first FA Trophy, beating Leek Town 3-0. Two of the goals came from Kenny Gordon, playing his last match before emigrating to Australia. The third came from Colin Cowperthwaite, who had made his debut in 1977 and holds the Bluebirds' records for most appearances (704) and goals (282). On 8 December 1979, he scored just 3.55 seconds into a match againstKettering, arguably the fastest goal ever in a professional match. If you read nothing else about Barrow, read the excellent interview "Cowps" gave in 2001. Ill health forced Wilkie's resignation in 1991, and he died the following year. Barrow went back to short-term managers, and back into the NPL.

In 1994 the club was bought by Stephen Vaughan, with consequences that will be all too familiar to anyone taking a passing interest in the demise of Chester City. The success he bought – a new stand and promotion to the Conference in 1998 – was tainted with allegations of money laundering. Vaughan withdrew support for the club midway through the 1998-99 season, and was revealed to have transferred ownership of the Holker Street ground to his own company. In January 1999, the club was the subject of a compulsory winding-up order, and remained in administration until 2002, when the legal dispute over the ownership of the ground was resolved and a new members' company was allowed to take over the running of the club. Barrow had been thrown out of the Conference in 1999 and a new manager, Kenny Lowe, had to assemble a new squad before they were allowed to start the 1999-00 season, back in the NPL, a month late. That the Bluebirds did not suffer further relegations, or worse, was something of a victory in itself.

In 2004, they became founder members of the Conference North. The next few seasons were notable mainly for their FA Cup exploits and misadventures, including the imprisonment of Bluebirds defender James Cotterill for an assault committed during a first round-match. However, the appointment of the current managers, David Bayliss and Darren Sheridan, saw the club winning the Conference North play-off in 2008. The last two seasons have been largely fought in the lower half of the league table, leavened with a third round FA Cup tie at Middlesbrough and their second FA Trophy win: a 2-1 victory over Stevenage last May.

Barrow's marvellous run to the third round of last season's FA Cup

Haven't I seen you somewhere before?
Both founder members of the Third Division North, Barrow (winners of the Lancashire Combination Division A the previous season) met Grimsby for the first time on 21 January 1922. Jimmy Carmichael scoring twice to give Town a point – and seven days later he scored all four in a 4-0 win at Blundell Park. This set something of a pattern: the Bluebirds were to wait until 1967 for their first and only points at Cleethorpes, and Town's record at Holker Street is not much better.

That solitary Bluebirds victory at Blundell Park came during their most successful spell in the Football League. The previous season they had achieved their first and only promotion, prompting Town to nick their manager, Don McEvoy. It did us no good: McEvoy resigned halfway through a season that saw Grimsby relegated, while Barrow came eighth in the third division, their highest ever finish.

In the FA Cup, the clubs had met in the first round in consecutive seasons in 1964 and 1965. Grimsby eventually went through both years, but in 1964, they needed a second replay, played at Old Trafford before an attendance of 9,292. Barrow were going through a financial crisis at the time, and the turnstile operators donated their fees to the club.

Our last encounter was on 18 December 1971. Mike Hickman and Matt Tees scored in a 2-0 win on our way to the fourth division title, in what, thanks to Hereford, would be Barrow's last season as a Football League team.

What can we do when the sun goes down?
For centuries, Barrow was a hamlet near Furness Abbey, which had been the second richest Cistercian monastery in England, its remains set in an attractive valley. It grew rapidly in the 19th century, the wealth that steel and shipbuilding brought being reflected in a smattering of the grand buildings which the Victorians liked to leave for posterity. Although the decline of the town is evident, Barrow has more to recommend it than certain southern prejudices would have you believe.

It will hardly escape your attention that the journey there will take you within sight of the Cumbrian fells. Coniston, the corner of the Lake District nearest to Barrow, boasts the grand Old Man (an 800-metre fell), a beautiful lake and the Black Bull Inn, home of the splendid Coniston Brewing Co.

Barrow is a long way to go just for a football game, so make a weekend of it.

Furness AbbeyThe haunting medieval grandeur of Furness Abbey. Photo: Mike Lawrence(cc by-sa 2.0)

Vital statistics
League placing: 15th, Conference Premier, P44 W13 D13 L18 F50 A67 Pts52
Home and away rankings: 15th and 14th in the division
Average attendance: 1254 (rank: 12th in the division, 111th in England)
Mileage travelled: 5,422

This season
Squad size: 19 (as at 12 July)
Odds on winning the league: 66/1 (Blue Square; prices go as long as 100/1 with some bookies)

Do say
"I firmly believe in the importance of Britain maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent" (keep your fingers crossed behind your back if you like).

Don't say
"I hear some bloke in Australia scored a goal in two seconds."

Do you know the Barrow area? We want your recommendations for local pubs, cafés or B&Bs, to feature in our pre-match factfiles during next season. Use the Cod Almighty feedback form to send them in – or to share any other thoughts you might have about our Rough Guide to the Conference.