Published 29th September 2003, Lancashire Evening Post
The cheerful sales girl at Bury Football Club’s souvenir shop looked genuinely surprised to see me amble through the doors late on a Tuesday afternoon.
The well-stocked shelves groaned with assorted Shakers mementoes – shorts, shirts, caps, coffee cups, and calendars – but there’s not a fan in sight.
I buy a programme from the last home game versus Cheltenham, where the players’ kit page reveals defender Matt Barrass is sponsored by the delightfully-named Daisyfield Environmental Cleaning Company, while bookings were still being taken for the ‘Forever Bury’ Car Treasure Hunt leaving the Brown Cow at 12.30pm.
And as I wait for Bury’s assistant boss Graham Barrow, busy trying to tie up a loan deal, the first team squad clock off from training and pack their kits into their car boots.
It’s a universe away from the mega-riches of the Premiership, where rewards continue to soar into the stratosphere.
There are no pampered millionaires, no glamour or bluster here.
The economics of survival at Gigg Lane are plain to see.
It’s a sobering thought, but 10 miles down the road they would bankroll more in Manchester United merchandise in 90 seconds than Bury could hope to pull through the gates for today’s Third Division joust with Doncaster Rovers.
But the pressures remain the same in the manager’s chair . . . perhaps more so, because Chorley-based Barrow, one of the most highly respected coaches in the game, is charged, not for the first time, with keeping a club alive.
But just what is the greatest pressure – managing a team searching for European glory or one that could drop out of the league altogether?
“There’s immense pressure wherever you manage in professional football,” said Barrow.
“It is just the same for Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Andy Preece, or me. The management game is all-consuming. It takes over your life.”
“Sometimes I can’t even concentrate long enough to watch a film or a television programme at home.
“It’s like – are we going to play 4-4-2 against York, or who will play in midfield?
“You have to be a manager, a psychiatrist, and a counsellor.
“We once paid big money for a player when I was at Chester and marital problems ruined his career. As a manager you have to deal with it, but it is still a fantastic world to inhabit.
“I was a heating engineer before I started out in football and I still see it is a privilege to earn my living in the professional game.”
Barrow operates at football’s sharp end.
Making sow’s ears into silk purses has been Barrow’s speciality, but at Bury it can be more like turning water into wine, with a mix-and-match squad in the bareknuckle scrap of Division Three.
A top Premiership player’s yearly salary would have gone some way toward saving Bury from the arms of administration a couple of years ago.
“It’s incredible when you think of it in those terms. The game has changed beyond belief and some of the things you see happening do really amaze me,” he said. “There are kids at Premier League clubs who haven’t kicked a ball in anger outside of the reserves and who have not had the challenge of a physical battle, yet they are earning thousands of pounds a week.
“I do find that astonishing. I asked about a kid yesterday and his manager told me he was on 5,000 a week. The lad didn’t have a league game to his name.
“I got 500 in my hand as a bonus at Altrincham after we had played Liverpool in the FA Cup. I went out, bought a new stereo, and felt like a millionaire.
“The sad thing about it is that some of these lads never develop further. They can lose their hunger and desire, and I’ve seen it happen.”
Barrow chases recruits in grim midweek reserve games at the other end of some dismal motorway.
But the game consumes his life and defines his horizons just as much as it did a decade ago when he took charge of the turmoil at Chester City and won them promotion against all the odds.
He came to their rescue again eight years later with the Deva Stadium club languishing in the Conference.
“I could write a book about Chester, but working under the owner at the time, an American called Terry Smith, was the oddest experience of my career.
“He was a former American football player who had appointed himself as manager before I came in.
“We drew Blackburn in the FA Cup third round at Ewood Park and he gave the players a speech about General Custer at the hotel before the game. It was 0-0 at half-time, but he insulted Grame Souness in the tunnel by shouting “Yipeeeeeeee”!
“His office was next to mine at Chester but he would fax everything instead.
“I’d never come across anything like it in football before and I wouldn’t want to again.”
There’s an honesty and durability about Barrow that’s like a breath of spring air in a game that is so often coloured by cynicism and duplicity.
He has the air of a man you’d trust in a crisis.
Barrow’s mentors in management were Larry Lloyd at Wigan and Harry McNally at Chester, who Barrow says taught him discipline on the field.
“I was playing at Chorley in my early 20s and I had a poor disciplinary record. I hadn’t been managed properly until Harry McNally got hold of me and taught me the ropes,” he explained.
“I recall Ian McNeil trying to sign me for Wigan.
“He rang up, but within a minute he was giving me a stern lecture. That disappointed me. Harry just signed me – and then gave me a lecture!”
At Springfield Park, he admits, players would tremble at Lloyd’s approach.
“They both made immense impressions on me and I’ve seen big men hide in corridors to avoid Larry.
“He’d hang lads from the changing room hooks, and once he lost his rag so much at half-time that he ordered three players into the bath, forgetting that you could only use two substitutes at the time. Nobody would dare tell him, the lads were so frightened, until his assistant Fred Eyre had to hook one out of the bath.
“If you weren’t strong enough, then you didn’t last.
“I never once heard a single player talk back to Larry Lloyd.
“Sometimes he could be a bully, a very hard man, and often impossible. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, because if you did it for him he would move heaven and earth for you.
“He’d always look you in the eye, when the managers who can’t handle it never did. I learned a lot from Larry and the biggest surprise was that he didn’t go on and manage at the top.”
When Dave Whelan, then the new Wigan owner, sacked Barrow in September 1995, it proved an acrimonious departure from a club he still counts as his own.
“That was a heartbreaking experience and the biggest disappointment of my career by a long chalk,” he said.
“My reputation as a manager was growing and I remember going to see Whelan when he bought the club. He was saying – you are the man I want to take Wigan on.
“He offered me a roll-on 12-month contract, but from the moment I signed that deal I knew it was a mistake. He wanted to impose himself on me, saying sign this player and that, and you’ve got to play him. I’d been used to scouting at Runcorn, but one day he said – right, you’re going to look at players in Spain and you’re going first class.
“That was all very nice, but then I got the sack after eight games, with Wigan seventh in the league.
“I’d helped save them from going out of the league a season earlier and then laid a solid foundation stone for the future.
“I’ll never forget it. I was sat at home having my Sunday tea when I picked up the telephone. He just said – clear your desk tomorrow, it is time we parted.
“Wigan was his club and he could do what he wanted, but what I couldn’t accept was the deep lack of respect that man showed to me and my family.
“That experience hurt me badly and Dave Whelan had a damaging effect on my career.
“I haven’t treated him with any respect since, and two of my best results in football were beating Wigan twice when I was manager at Rochdale.”
The ambition still burns bright to manage again.
“I enjoy the challenge at Bury, but I’d love to manage under my own steam again. You get forgotten very quickly in this game, but I’ve still got a huge desire to give it another go. I could succeed,” he said.