Barrow AFC and AFC Workington are the Cumbrian old guard, both former Football League sides who were voted out and sent into the non-league wilderness back in the ‘70’s, long before the pyramid system came into being. Neither have troubled the door of the league since, and in one of the most remote coastal areas of England, just surviving is commendable. I paid both clubs a visit in 2014-2015 for a Football Weekends article published in December 2015, and recently updated for blog readership!
While the histories of both clubs are very different, they are connected, not solely for their proximity, but because of other league teams delighting in getting rid of lengthy treks to the back of beyond as they would have seen it. As soon as either troubled the re-election zone, the bottom four of the fourth division, sadly the knives were out for them both. It was ironic that they were both voted out in a period when the region’s “big” team, Carlisle United were at the peak of their powers, even briefly leading Division One, a good four decades and a few years ago now!
Barrow were founded in 1901, and they joined the Football League in 1921. They are based in Barrow-in-Furness which is situated on the coast at the most south westerly point, beyond the Lake District in Cumbria. The club spent the majority of their 51 league seasons in the bottom league, but they did enjoy two promotions to the third tier, the second of which in ‘66/67 saw them stay up for three seasons, until returning to the basement in ‘69/70. Rather harshly, given some clubs were serial re-election seekers, in finishing in the bottom four in ‘71/72, Barrow were ousted in favour of a distinctly more southern club in Hereford United, a club with its own very chequered recent history, but in those days they were trading off “that” Ronnie Radford FA Cup goal versus Newcastle United in the Edgar Street mud that still gets trotted out every year!
As alluded to earlier, geography played a part in voting out the isolated Bluebirds as they are known. It appears as though the Barrow directors were contemplating putting a speedway track round the Holker Street pitch, and this was frowned upon by the beaks, which may also have hastened their departure, albeit, the track was never built, and having been at the stadium, I have no idea how they could have even managed it, as the ground is hemmed in by roads on two sides.
Even though no pyramid system existed in those days, Barrow dropped into the Northern Premier League, but even at what is now the seventh tier of the English league, they were only going to be accepted as a participant if they dropped any notion of a speedway! They remained in that league until the Alliance Premier was formed, essentially the fifth tier forerunner of the National League as it is known today. Barrow were founding members, and while they were subsequently relegated back to the Northern Premier League, and in a yo-yo-ish existence, the climb back to the fifth tier has seen five subsequent relegation’s back to the sixth tier which is now the National League North. Yet, despite occasional financial issues, they have never gone any lower than the sixth level.
While it is true that they have rarely threatened to make a return to the league as yet, ambition has been on the rise, especially since September 2014, when Dallas based Barrow boy Paul Casson bought the club for £600,000. He celebrated his first season as owner with Barrow winning the sixth tier, and they have been in the National League ever since. Earlier this season Mr Casson decided to step away as the travel from Texas on a regular basis was too much. The club is going down the route of fan ownership, and despite his departure Barrow are having their best season for many a decade, and had it not been for a poor start to the campaign they might have made a play off place, but that will be just out of reach come May I suspect.
Going into non-league today is not the end of the world that it probably felt in the ‘70’s. In the more regionalised leagues, travel is less arduous but stepping into the fifth tier removes the regional aspect and the distances stretch to Dover at the most southerly point, but the more populated, richer southern satellite towns of London have a significant foothold at this level. All these trips add burden to the finances of such a northerly club, as well as making it trickier to entice quality players to Barrow-in-Furness with long bus trips. A fabled piece of chat is there are proposals to build a causeway bridge across Morecambe Bay, and should such a construction ever appear the Bluebirds fortunes could take a real upturn, as such a bridge would take significant time of journeys, and averting the Lake District day tripping chaos to Lake Windermere as the road just off the M6 presently suffers.
While the clubs cup CV is about as uninspiring as the league performances, Barrow do have a unique claim to fame, in that they won the FA Trophy twice in more modern times in 1990 and 2010. The first at old Wembley versus Leek Town, and the second at the new Wembley seeing off Stevenage on that occasion. To date they are the only club to have lifted this trophy at both! Another recent cracking day for the club was in 2009 when they reached the FA Cup Third Round, making the “relatively” short cross country trek to Sunderland, well ahead of the Black Cats own downward spiral. A 3-0 loss for Barrow that day, but they played very well, backed by a great away support. They may have lost, but they won many new friends.
The club play at Holker Street, ignoring any nonsensical sponsorship deal that may alter that name for a brief period. It is a well maintained “classic” small English ground, but with Health and Safety restrictions now the capacity is just 4,400 with exactly a quarter of that number seated in the stand. It is very much changed days from a record crowd of 16,874 that were shoehorned in to see an FA Cup tie versus Swansea Town in 1954. While the ground will never see the likes again, the future is continuing to look bright for Barrow.
I headed to Holker Street on the Bank Holiday at the end of August 2015 and I hit those dreadful tailbacks of day trippers headed to the lakes. Southport, another ex-league side who were in town sporting a hideous day glow kit instead of their more Dynamo Dresden shirt, which would not have clashed with Barrow’s white top. Barrow dominated proceedings but could only muster a solitary goal for the win on a gloriously sunny day. Barrow the town is distinctly down at heel, and it might be by the sea, but industry and shipbuilding use every inch of coastline.
One interesting footnote between the two clubs in this article came to light following Manchester City’s destruction of Burton in the League Cup Semi-Final 9-0. Those pesky multi-millionaires pushed a Cumbrian League Cup mauling off the roster of the top three biggest League Cup wins, when Barrow beat local rivals Workington, 9-1!
Some 60 miles north of Barrow-in-Furness up the unspectacular and industrial Cumbrian coastline is the town of Workington, home to the local side sometimes known as Workington Reds. While they are in the seven tier, the Northern Premier League, the Reds were also once a league club for a good number of years, having been admitted to the Third Division North for the ‘51/52 season. There inaugural season largely set the blueprint for the majority of their 26 league seasons, finishing bottom, and second bottom the following term. In 1958 they made the third round of the FA Cup, hosting Manchester United at Borough Park which drew a record crowd of 21,000! Such an attendance will never be repeated when you consider the capacity is now just 3,100, with seating for 500. This cup tie was just a month before the tragic Munich air crash that claimed the lives of so many talented United players who had won 3-0 at Workington that day.
The clubs heyday was in the mid-60’s when they were promoted from the bottom tier in 1963/64, even managing a giddy fifth place the following season just missing out on promotion to the Second Division. Alas, this was as good as it got in league terms, but in the same period, the Reds made the League Cup Quarter Finals two years on the trot, losing out to London giants West Ham, then Chelsea the year after, but only after a replay! The highlight of these cup runs and maybe the best result in the clubs history came on 22nd October 1964, when Workington, complete with Keith Burkinshaw and player-manager Ken Furphy beat Blackburn Rovers 5-1 at Ewood Park in the League Cup Third Round.
The end of the “league” years had a familiar and inevitable ring to it, following Barrow in being voted out just four years later in 1975/76, a devastating blow for Cumbrian football. Finishing second bottom in 1974/75 wasn’t improved the following season finishing one place worse at the very bottom of the pile winning just four games. The re-election process had run its course, and Workington also dropped into the Northern Premier league.
Unlike Barrow, the Reds’ journey downward did not stop there with a further demotion to the Northern First Division in 1987/88, and then the lowest point in the clubs history, tier 9 and the Northern Counties League ten years later. They bounced out of the ninth level at the first attempt, a league title that remains the clubs only Championship trophy! Reconstruction of the non-league scene aided their return to the Northern Premier even from finishing 7th in 2003/04! There was more joy the following season as they won the first ever play offs at that level to step up to National League North, a modern day high in the sixth tier. They stayed there for a few seasons before going back to the Northern Premier, and have encountered a number of hard luck stories in attempting to return. A few seasons ago, having amassed 91 points it was only good enough for second place and they lost in the play off semi-finals. The following year the encountered ambitious Salford City in the play off final, and leading 2-1 with 11 minutes to go, they ended up losing 3-2 with a heartbreakingly late winner. Those near scrapes have gradually dwindled to merely flirting with the play off zone until this season, when they have nose dived into the relegation places, and it will take a level of consistency they haven’t as yet shown this season to dig themselves out of this particular mess, but I for one hope they do!
Borough Park, like Holker Street is a cracking throwback to how football stadia used to look. Unfortunately a fire claimed the main stand, and while the underbelly remains the changing rooms and social club, the exterior seating has never been re-built, replaced with an odd slanted red corrugated roof which gives an unusual appearance to one side of the stadium. I went along to Borough Park to see the Reds host Mansfield Town in an FA Cup qualifying tie when the Stags were still non-league themselves in October 2012. Workington gave it a good effort, a despite a late flurry of near chances Mansfield progressed 2-1. Sadly 2018/19 is the last season of Borough Park, as next season the club will move across the road to share with the Workington Rugby League side while a new stadium with a 6,000 ish capacity and office space will be built. The new construction will house both codes, the football and the rugby league with the rugby ground being sold for development. The town has been chosen to host Rugby League World Cup matches so the new facility needs to be ready for 2021.
Cumbria’s most famous non-league duo are alive and well. Two leagues apart at present, and with differing priorities, but with moments of magic along the way, both form part of the rich tapestry of the English game, and for those who especially remember their league days, Barrow and Workington somehow continue to conjure up warm recollections of how football used to be!