I like Barrow. I’m not sure why – it’s one of those irrational soft spots you develop for teams which have no particular rationale behind them. They just exist. However, I think it’s the fact that a trip to Holker Street quite early on in our time in the Conference illustrated neatly one of the positives of following your team in non league football.
Please don’t tear me apart for saying that. I know there are lots of drawbacks to not being in the Football League. Yet the away trips can offer an element of compensation. In contrast to the identikit grounds, catering and welcome you tend to get from Football League clubs, the fifth tier offers idiosyncrasy, character and the sort of personal welcome you get from clubs who represent their fans and their community, because the relationship between the two are symbiotic.
My first trip to Barrow encapsulated much of this. It was fun, infuriating at times, and felt a lot more like attending real football than the more controlled environments you tend to have foisted on you by clubs with pretentions to one day reach the Premier League, the place where the match day experience becomes homogeneous.
After years of defrosted generic pies from identical food stalls, it was nice to arrive at Holker Street and find the food had been freshly made and wasn’t the same as everywhere else. My delight at getting a Cumberland sausage burger wasn’t even fully dampened when the top bit of the bap blew away!
And then it was on to the press box. Disappointment awaited. Thankfully it has been improved since, but on this occasion a structural problem was in store.
The box is located inside the home end, stretching across the back of the terrace. However, there was only one row of seats in those days, and my name wasn’t on any of them.
Not to worry, I was told: I could help myself to a spot in the overspill area. It was a generous offer, but I wasn’t too keen to take it up when I actually saw it. The overspill was standing in amongst the hard core Barrow fans, alongside the press box. My protection from the fans’ ire when I spouted my Wrexham-centric commentary was a chain which was attached to the front of the box and stretched to the back of the stand. Call me old-fashioned, but this didn’t quite seen like an impervious, sound-proof barrier to me, and I wasn’t sure how well my words of wisdom would go down with the Bluebird Ultras!
So what was I to do? In the end I decided that my only option was to go into the away end, which was handily located along the side of the pitch, and commentate from there. The experience was brilliant, if a little weird: every time I’m required to do something like that I wonder if people assume I’m simply some nut who shots everything that’s going on during the match for my own entertainment!
It was a crazy game too. We dominated it like you wouldn’t believe, but that wasn’t the only remarkable feature of the game: our hideous finishing was also off the scale. So the pattern was predictable: we’d created a sitter and then miss, again and again and again. Create, miss repeat.
Inevitably, we were made to pay, and found ourselves in the final moments of the game staring the most ludicrous defeat in the face. However, irony had one final card to play. Having failed to score from close range so many times, with moments left we scored from thirty yards, Jeff Louis letting rip from distance to snatch a point in the grand manner. As I was in the away end, commentating on it was a scream. Literally. If I’d been where I was initially told to be, I suspect it might not have been!