“We’ve been described as the last outpost of the British Empire. It is a 40-mile cul-de-sac,” the Barrow chairman, Paul Hornby, says of the League Two club’s remote location off the A590. “People say stuff like Barrow is the end of the earth and then on another 30 miles.”
They have heard all the barbs before but hope there is room for a fresh shock when Aston Villa visit in the Carabao Cup second round on Tuesday. Barrow, who returned to the Football League last summer after a 48-year absence, drew top-flight Middlesbrough away in the FA Cup third round in 2009 and travelled to Sunderland of the Premier League a year later in the fourth round, but never have they hosted such esteemed opponents.
“This tie has propelled us into people’s hearts and minds again and the feelgood factor has come back from where it was last year, when we had no fans in the stadium and we were struggling,” says Hornby, a local accountant who put together a consortium that acquired the club almost three years ago.
Hornby is a lifelong supporter, whose formal association began as a sponsor in 2015, and these days the club is something of a family business. “My wife – she is an accountant as well – does all of the books,” he says, and their seven-year-old son Joseph will be a mascot at the game.
“Mum and dad eat, breathe and sleep Barrow AFC and he gets dragged along to the games, travelling the length and the breadth of the country with us. We met Timmy Mallett at Maidenhead, at Woking they did him chicken nuggets, Hartlepool did him tomato soup and at Wrexham we had to put a tie on him to get into the boardroom. He’s loved it.”
The ultimate test used to be whether teams could stomach a notorious midweek trip to Stoke, when gales and gusts would blow in from all angles in subzero temperatures but Barrow, at the tip of the Furness peninsula that faces the Irish Sea, could just be the modern-day equivalent. “Teams come up here and they hate it, they hate the wind,” says Hornby.
“Last week Exeter described it as ‘horrendous conditions’, but that was tame for Barrow. The romantic in me feels yes, we are playing a Premier League team, but come to Barrow on a Tuesday evening when the wind is howling off the sea, the rain is going across sideways … there could be an upset on the cards.”
Barrow had a mid-table budget in the fourth tier last season and while they have made impressive strides in a short space of time – “We like to be ‘little old Barrow’ but we do have big ambitions” – the financial gulf to Villa is huge. Barrow’s annual playing budget of £1.5m is the same as the reported yearly salary of Conor Hourihane, a backup player who could feature for Villa on Tuesday.
This summer Villa sold Jack Grealish to Manchester City for £100m and made Emiliano Buendía their record signing in a deal worth £40m, while Barrow’s record outlay remains the £20,000 they paid North Ferriby for forward Anthony Wilson in 2014, with most of Mark Cooper’s current squad made up of freebies. “It is a real David v Goliath contest,” Hornby says.
The televised tie, for which they are expecting a capacity crowd of about 5,500, is worth about £200,000 to the club and will be a big boon for a shipbuilding town that has been labelled the working-class capital of Britain. BAE Systems, which builds nuclear submarines, employ about 9,000 people in the area.
“I’m the accountant, I’m the shirt sponsor, I’m the chairman, a part-owner and I have been organising catering, but that is how Barrow rolls,” says Hornby. “We are all local, we’ve used our local contacts to the best of our abilities to make the club successful. We don’t have a big infrastructure so when a game like Villa comes up it is all hands to the deck.”
“It is going to be a magnificent occasion,” says Bob Steed, who attended his first Barrow match in 1959 and co-founded their national supporters’ club, of which he is an honorary president. “In League Cup history, this is our biggest game since 1969, when we got to the second round and played Nottingham Forest, who were a First Division club then.
“They had some very good players like Terry Hennessey, a Wales international, Henry Newton and Ian Storey-Moore, who went on to Manchester United. We lost 2-1. It was a lovely balmy September evening and it was a really good football match. What I hope is that people will see Barrow as a good footballing side, whatever the score.”
Barrow’s expansive style en route to promotion under former manager Ian Evatt earned the moniker “Barrowcelona”, which led to the club selling T-shirts featuring an adapted Barcelona crest. “We had this Barrowcelona merchandise that was going out and we got a whole new contingent of Spanish supporters,” says Hornby. “People were commenting on our social media in Spanish and we were selling to Spain from the club shop.”
Hornby is yet to see any travelling Spanish fans make the pilgrimage to their Holker Street ground, but perhaps they will for the Villa game? “You never know,” he says. “You never know.”