THE ROAD TO OBLIVION FC
by Graham Murphy
The road to ruin is paved with good intentions. Or at least that's what they say. But in the case of Barrow AFC, who are teetering on the edge of the cliff that leads to total extinction, there are precious few good intentions to be found.

On 24th January, Barrow AFC were wound up in the High Court following the action of a diverse group of creditors who included a building company that had installed crush barriers to meet Conference ground grading regulations, the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and a former player. They are now in the hands of a receiver who is allowing the club to complete its fixtures provided no further debt is incurred. A consortium of eight local businessman have put up enough money to ensure that this can happen until the end of the season. But what then? Seven first team players have left and Barrow can't claim a penny for any of them. Since the club was wound up, all the players are out of contract. The new manager (we'll come to the old manager a bit later) hurriedly registered five reserves with the Conference to ensure we can find eleven players to turn up every Saturday. Some supporters are bringing their boots to the next game just in case.

How on earth did it come to this? Only last May Barrow were on the crest of the wave after a marvellous season in which they were UniBond Premier League champions and reached the last eight of the FA Trophy (only to lose the Replay on penalties). We didn't just win the UniBond; we dominated it, reaching top position in October 1997 and keeping it until the end of the season. At one stage we were twelve points in front of second placed Boston United. The fans flocked to Holker Street. That Trophy Quarter-Final Replay was watched by over 4200 with more than 1000 unable to get in. Nearly 3000 came to see the League game against Boston in which Barrow claimed the victory they needed to clinch their place in the Conference after a long absence of six seasons.

And now it looks like we're headed back there quicker than a man in a lead overcoat drops to the bottom of the local docks.

The story starts with the acquisition of the club in 1995 by a Liverpool boxing promoter by the name of Stephen Vaughan. He bought the shares from the retiring Chairman, the late Bill McCullough, and set about restoring Barrow to its days of former glory as a Football League club. Yes, that's what he said. He wanted to take a football club from the nether regions of the non-League pyramid right back into Division Three. He said he was a millionaire and money was no object. He told the manager, Tony Hesketh (now assistant manager at Morecambe) to buy the players he needed without worrying about the finance. Notable amongst his signings was ex-Everton and England u-21 player Billy Kenny. But Billy had a problem. A severe problem. He took drugs and had spent the previous twelve months fighting a cocaine addiction.

Hesketh couldn't build a team that would win the UniBond, so after a brief caretaker spell by ex-Bury manager, Mike Walsh, now at Swindon, Vaughan appointed fellow Liverpudlian, the little known Owen Brown, whose main claim to fame had been a season as manager of Prescot Cables in the NW Counties League.

It took Brown two seasons to build his championship winning side. Again, money was no object and during the build up to our first season back in the Conference, Brown assembled an expensive squad that has cost us over £5000 per week in wages. The most costly of these was ex-Wolves striker, Andy Mutch, rumoured to be the club's highest paid player ever on £450 per week.

Vaughan said he needed crowds of 2100 at home games to pay the bills. This seemed a little reckless, to say the least. The average home gate in the UniBond had been 1400. Not bad. But a long way from break-even. Nonetheless, the fans responded and three of the first four home gates reached the magic break-even figure.

Stephen Vaughan was no stranger to controversy. He'd already resigned once as Barrow chairman, in late 1997, during a Customs and Excise investigation into his financial affairs. He was suspected of laundering the profits of drug deals set up by Europe's biggest drugs baron, Curtis Warren, who is currently doing time in a Dutch jail. Vaughan denied the charge. He knew Warren and had used bouncers supplied by Warren's security company at some of his boxing promotions. He'd also acted for him as a middle man in some property deals. But money laundering? No way, exclaimed Vaughan. Some cynical fans suggested that this must be the reason why Vaughan was able to throw his money about on an obscure non-League football club in the far north-west. But Customs and Excise subsequently dropped the charges and Vaughan was free to return as chairman just in time to see Barrow get promotion back to the Conference.

Now, at the start of this season, he decided he needed help on the financial front. He offered to sell his 180,000 shares at £1 a share to any takers. Fans sent in money, but they never received any share certificates. The Fraud Squad launched an investigation and Vaughan's solicitors advised him to suspend the share sale. He resigned again at the end of November 1998, this time for good. He'd had enough, he said. People always put obstacles in his way and he wasn't going to put up with it anymore. And off he went, taking the ground with him.

Not literally, of course, but it came as a surprise to a lot of people when Vaughan announced that he held the title deeds to the Holker Street ground in return for the £400,000 he'd put into the club over the last four years. Since that money had not been repaid, he now owned the ground. But didn't the articles of Barrow AFC require a shareholders meeting to approve any sale of the ground? No such meeting had been held, but it didn't stop Vaughan. He sold the ground to another Liverpool property developer, one James Oliver, who is reckoned to be the father of the actor who plays Tinhead in Brookside. Vaughan pocketed upwards of £250 grand from this nifty piece of footwork.

The remaining Directors were now really up against the wall. Vaughan had been funding the day to day expenses of the club, predominantly the wages of five grand per week. He announced that he'd been waiving the weekly £450 per week rent on the ground, but this would now have to be paid in full. The club was more than £200,000 in debt despite Vaughan's promise some two years back that he would clear all the debts by making a CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement) with all the club's creditors.

The players had not been paid since October. The Board found the money from December's home games to pay the players for those, but most were owed six weeks' money. Manager Owen Brown was instructed to cut the wage bill just before Christmas. Instead, he went out and increased it by signing a new player. After the 2-1 home win over Welling in mid-January he was sacked for failing to act on the Board's instructions.

Shane Westley, ex-Lincoln City, has been appointed as the new manager, with his old mentor, John Beck, standing behind him as and "adviser".

The winding-up order was made forty-eight hours after they were appointed. When seven players walked out in the next week, the wage bill was slashed by more than half. Unfortunately, it also left us without a team good enough to stay in the Conference.

The receiver reckons that Vaughan may have acted improperly over the sale of the Holker Street ground. He is investigating. Since that is the only worthwhile asset it's quite important that the true legal owner is identified. If it does belong to the club it could be sold to clear the debts and satisfy the winding-up order. True, we'd have nowhere to play, but maybe Barrow rugby league club would take pity on us and let us groundshare.

There is a lot of doubt over whether the local businessmen will be able to keep the club going until the end of the season. If the receiver has any doubts over the club's ability to continue without incurring any more debt, he will stop the club from fulfilling its fixtures and then Barrow will be thrown out of the Conference.

The only way back then is to do an Aldershot; reform at the lowest level of the non-League pyramid and claw our way back. What a horrific prospect, playing at Congleton and Farsley Celtic in front of two men, a dog, and a flock of sheep. We'd even have to renew our acquaintance with our old adversaries, Workington.

So with the club in the hands of a receiver, it's very much touch and go whether Barrow AFC can stick around long enough for the next game, let alone to the end of the season. And it all came about because we trusted a boxing promoter from Liverpool, who, like the fairy story, promised to make our dreams of a return to the Football League a reality. And we believed him. He took us all for suckers.


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