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Unfair dismissal

Keiran Robson explains how the FA have moved the goalposts after the newly formed Barrow AFC (1999) were refused permission to take over the status of the existing Barow AFC (1901) from next season after their exclusion from the Nationwide Conference

On Saturday June 5th, Barrow were ex­cluded from the Nationwide Conference for next season. The club has 14 days to appeal but, if that fails, the best they can hope for is to be playing in the North West Trains League – three levels below the Conference – next season. There is a chance, however, that the club may go out of existence altogether. The new board say they will not be able to afford to maintain the club’s current ground, Holker Street, on the income generated in the North West Trains League, whose clubs are allowed to charge a maximum entrance fee of only £2.

On January 25th Barrow AFC were wound up in the county court due to debts incurred under former chairman Stephen Vaughan. He had also transferred ownership of the sta­dium to his property company, Northern Im­provements Ltd, in return for him paying off the club’s debts. However, just over a year after the ground was transferred, Barrow have a much larger debt than before his takeover.

Vaughan’s regime was replaced by a new and popular board formed by local businessmen, who set up a scheme to allow fans to join the club and have a say in how it is run. The Conference allowed Barrow to continue play­ing, with the new board operating under the supervision of the liquidator for the rest of the season, and they dramatically avoided relegation on the last day, winning 2-1 at Kidderminster while Welling United drew 0-0 at Cheltenham. This was achieved with a squad of locals, reserves and emergency signings thrown together in a matter of a week by manager Shane Westley after 15 players had quit the club.  

At the beginning of June, an FA meeting discussed whether the new club, Barrow AFC (1999) Ltd, could take over the status of Barrow AFC (1901). The FA refused, even though the new club met all the requirements laid down for them, which included producing a business plan, seeking substantial sponsorship and clarifying ownership of the stadium. The new board were also required to refund a Football Trust grant of £17,000, which had been used to pay wages by the former club.

Instead, the FA appeared to invent a new condition, that the new club take on the old club’s debt, even though it had been clearly stated from the beginning of the process that this was impossible. Due to the way the debts were incurred under the former chairman, it would illegal for them to be taken on and paid off by another company.

“They have stabbed us in the back,” said Barrow chairman Brian Keen. “We told them from day one that we could not pick up the half a million debt. Why didn’t they just tell us before, ‘I’m sorry there’s no chance, you’re wasting your time and money’?”

On June 5th the Conference’s AGM ref­used to discuss a request that the club’s Con­ference membership be transferred to Barrow AFC (1999) Ltd. “If we allowed that to happ­en,” explained Conference chief executive Peter Hunter, “Mr Goldberg at Palace would be registering a new company right now to write off the debts of the old club. It just does not happen in football.”

“They are taking a very narrow view based on the rule book,” said Barrow president Alan Dunn. “They should consider the implicat­ions of their actions on football in our area.”

The Conference decision appears harsh in the light of the supportive attitude shown by the football authorities towards clubs such as Crystal Palace, Portsmouth and Luton. This is not a case of a club spending money it hasn’t got and then starting again in the same league in the same position: an entirely new board, with the support of the town, is actively raising funds to clear the outstanding debt.

Chairman Brian Keen is determined to fight on: “What sort of men are we up against? We did what they asked but once we got the dirty work out of the way they shut up shop. They don’t care what happens up here. Barrow is just a spot on their backside.”

From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month

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