Return of The Dragons: Fans Unite to Bring Barry Town United Back From the Brink of Oblivion.

On April 6th 2013, Barry Town were defeated 2-1 by Prestatyn Town in the semi-finals of the Welsh Cup. It’s one of the few  results that still stands from the Dragons’ 2012/13 season as, a month later, the club’s nefarious owner Stuart Lovering withdrew them from the Welsh Division One, expunging Barry’s season from the record books. It would be the nadir of a decade as hellish as the one that preceded it was glorious. This weekend’s victory over Cambrian & Clydach in the Welsh Cup quarter-finals sees the side from South Wales reach the semis for the first time since that forgettable season. It’s been a long, arduous road, but the team now known as Barry Town United are back where they belong.

Barry’s journey to the brink of oblivion would have been unthinkable twenty-five years ago. Having spent over sixty years competing in the Southern League at Step 7 of the English Football Pyramid, and a further decade competing in the Welsh Division One with a reserve side, the FAW decreed in 1992 that the club had to commit to the newly formed League of Wales. Initially rebelling and retaining their place in the Midland Division under the moniker Barri AFC, chairman Neil O’ Halloran eventually yielded to the governing body’s demands due to financial pressures, and in 1993/94 Barry Town played out their first campaign solely as a Welsh League side in the second tier. The success of that first season would offer a sign of the utter dominance that followed. Barry Town won Division One with a twenty-one point margin, and completed an unprecedented quadruple with victories in the FAW Cup, Welsh League Cup and Welsh Cup finals – the latter coming against a Cardiff City side competing in the third tier of English football.

After a season of adjustment in the Welsh top flight, Barry Town became unstoppable. Seven league titles followed in the next eight seasons, including a record breaking 105 point haul in 1997 and an unbeaten campaign in 1998, while the club’s trophy cabinet overflowed with four more Welsh Cups and four League of Wales Cups. There were famous European nights aplenty at Jenner Park, from the remarkable comeback against Budapest Vasutas in 1996 that led to a breathless 3-3 draw with Aberdeen in the first round of the UEFA Cup, to the incredible 3-1 victory over FC Porto in 2001, via two meetings with Dynamo Kiev and the win over Azerbaijan’s FC Shamkir that earned the Dragons a place in the history books as the first Welsh side to win a Champions League tie.

Despite the facade of seemingly unstoppable success however, the seeds for Barry Town’s downfall were already being sown at the turn of the century. The sudden tragic death of O’ Halloran in 1995 cast a cloud of uncertainty over the club’s future, and though his wife Paula took over the reigns as owner and continued to oversee triumph, it was clear that her long term future was not at the helm of a football club. Stepping down in 2001, O’Halloran was succeeded by Kevin Green, who’d earned his stripes at Scarborough. Looking for a way to bolster revenue and improve attendances, Green appointed John Fashanu as chairman. Formerly on the payroll of Wimbledon, ITV’s Gladiators, and a handful of facial reconstruction surgeries across south London, Fashanu arrived at Jenner Park with promises of taking Barry Town global. With supposed contacts in Nigeria and China, Fash The Bash claimed he could sell broadcast rights to Barry’s games across the world. It proved to be nothing but bluster. After a month bothering crickets and cockroaches on I’m a Celebrity… Fashanu departed for pastures more financially beneficial. It was here that the nightmare truly began.

Facing spiralling debts and falling into administration, the majority of Barry Town’s first team squad headed for the exit door. Green quickly passed the buck to the highest bidder, with local businessman Stuart Lovering taking ownership for a reported £125,000. But if Barry supporters were expecting a saviour, they’d dramatically overestimated the new man at the top. Unable to pay players and even fulfil fixtures, Barry Town were relegated just one season after their seventh Premier League title. To celebrate, Lovering increased the price of match tickets, making Jenner Park the most expensive stadium to visit in the Welsh Football Pyramid. The following decade provided a blueprint of how not to be a football club owner.

During Lovering’s reign of skullduggery, the meglomaniacal owner racked up a rollcall of ignominy. From banning the Supporters Club from Jenner Park and overseeing relegation to the Welsh Division Two, to rebranding Barry Town and moving home games to Treforest in Pontypridd to avoid debts with the Vale of Glamorgan council, via countless attempted sales of the club in which the owner’s valuation varied wildly. From £400,000, to £497,000, and eventually down to £125,000, even when Lovering finally did find a willing buyer in Shamrock Coaches owner Clayton Jones, the chairman pulled the plug on the deal and increased his asking price once again. That failed takeover proved to be the final straw for Barry Town’s Supporters Club, who began the Stand Up For Barry Town campaign across social media. With Lovering threatening to fold the club should his attempts to sell prove unsuccessful, #SaveBarryTown began to trend on Twitter, attracting support from a host of household names including Joe Calzaghe, Kirsty Gallacher and Gabriele Marcotti.

The Supporters Club had become involved in the playing side of Barry Town in 2008, as crisis negotiations with Lovering led to fans taking charge sole of football affairs at Jenenr Park. Under popular manager Gavin Chesterfield, Barry returned to the First Division and launched a bid for promotion, alongside their best cup run since falling through the leagues. In response, Lovering sacked Chesterfield, though the manager continued to take charge of the team regardless. Following on from the botched deal with Jones, Lovering became increasingly frustrated by his inability to sell the club, and was left impotent by the supporters’ running of the team. In one final destructive bid to assert his stranglehold over Barry Town the owner threatened to withdraw the team from the Welsh Football League in 2011, finally following through in May 2013, with two games of the season left. Despite supporter protests, the FAW announced that the club would have to busy itself with the equivalent to Sunday League football for the forseeable future. Petitioned to reconsider, a meeting of fifteen FAW Councillers upheld the decision, refusing to discuss the matter.

It left Barry Town’s supporters with a decision to make; accept their fate or stand up to the powers that be and campaign for the football club that had become an ingrained part of Barry’s community to be reinstated into the Welsh Football Pyramid. On 9th August, a  High Court ruling stated that the FAW had acted unlawfully and irrationally, and Barry Town – in their new guise as Barry Town United, a 100% fan-run club – would return to the Football League in the fourth tier. Free from the shackles of Stuart Lovering, the Dragons have soared.

Promotion from the Welsh Division Three was secured at the first attempt, as Gavin Chesterfield’s side finished as champions ahead of Llawern, scoring 116 goals in the process. The following year, Barry Town United achieved back-to-back league titles, before finally returning to the Welsh Premier League in 2017. Last season saw the club reach the Europa League playoffs by finishing seventh, losing out in the semi-finals to Cardiff Met. This season, they’re aiming to go one better. Still hanging onto the coat-tails of league leaders The New Saints (who’ve taken on Barry Town’s mantle as Wales’ dominant team), the Dragons are on course for a place in the Europa League Qualifiers, and are in the hunt for their first major piece of silverware since 2003.

We caught up with Jason Pawlin from the Barry Town Supporters Club to discuss the team’s rise, fall and recovery. Jason has been following the club since 1983, and for seven years produced the Barry Town matchday magazine. Having witnessed Barry’s downfall from close quarters, he believes the decade of adversity has only brought the fans and club closer together. “The years in the Welsh League doldrums gave the fans a real ‘us against the world’ attitude, and it’s served us very well. There’s probably more devotion to the cause today than at any point during my time following the club, even in the glorious 90s and early 2000s.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the fans have played such a huge part in the football club. It’s the biggest sense of community at Barry Town in all of my 35 years at the football club. It can only serve us well. It helps us stay relevant. I was a kid in the 80s. Some of our current hardcore fans were kids in the 90s. Now we’ve got a ton of younger fans watching us, today and they’ll be serving their local club long after I’m gone, I’m certain. Actually, they better be – I’ll have words with them on Saturday!”

That’s not to say that Barry Town United’s fan-owned status is giving them an inflated sense of importance. “We know our place in the scheme of things. A lot of clubs at our level are fan-owned, in the wider meaning of the term. We spent a long time in the Welsh League and almost every club there is fan-owned. You have to be a fan to be involved in running a football club in Wales. I’m talking domestic Welsh football, of course. There’s no money, little glory, and barely any recognition – but clubs are full of pride, passion and devotion. The easiest thing to say is “I can’t be arsed with this” and close a club down. Yet the majority of clubs at Welsh Premier League or Welsh League level are run by folks who have the best interests of their club at heart.”

Looking back over the last decade and a half, it’s clear that the club have paid the price for being badly mismanaged, though according to Jason things could have been different had Barry Town got the luck of the draw. “I think we relied on the European payday that never came. We’d sampled it with our incredible 1996-97 UEFA Cup run, and to a lesser extent in the Champions League in 2001-02. But beyond these two occasions, the winnings never came. We were often unlucky in the draw. I think TNS ended up bagging the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City whereas we were playing Skonto and Vardar Skopje, and usually not playing them at home until after we’d lost the first leg away.

“The perception was we were the ones who were having all the luck and all the success, but in reality I always thought of us as unlucky – in terms of Europe, anyway. I think that’s an area we can certainly improve. But not at the detriment of the football club. There’s huge money in European competitions nowadays, much much bigger than when we were in it last, but this club won’t be basing it’s season on getting some massive European cup run to pay for it. Never again.”

Jason cites the move to Treforest and the subsequent fall in attendances as the lowest ebb for a Barry Town supporter, but his own personal breaking point arrived with a touch of irony. “It’s no secret that the club’s success is down to Gavin Chesterfield. Funnily enough the season I decided I couldn’t take it any more was when he was hired! Nothing against Gavin. I attended a ‘meet the manager’ event with 15 or so other fans at the clubhouse when he was hired, and he was great. He was completely honoured to be at such a big football club (or so he thought), and full of ideas, but sat next to him was a guy who’s financial strategy to turn around the club’s fortunes included making club-branded bookmarks. It was time for me to walk away. That was my personal low point. It was a like a civil war. Did you stay to support the club and the players, or stay away to try and bleed the regime dry? In the end I came back because of a belief in the gaffer. Under him we at least had a sense of some pride in the football club.”

Alongside Gavin Chesterfield, Jason is also effusive about the role social media played in saving Barry Town from the abyss. “It was massive. Maybe less so now we’ve stabilised and we’re – mostly – just like any other football club, but during our troubles it was hugely important. It reached peak-importance during 2012-13 with our battle with, well, just about everybody! We had real momentum, and we would keep up the messaging constantly. It took the story to a wider audience, well beyond Wales. The club was very lucky to have such active, organised supporters, as much as it was to have Gavin at the helm. It was a campaign, a concerted effort, and it worked a treat. The social media noise we made and the attention we got during the close-season of 2013 was just incredible.

“That period is a cornerstone in this club’s history, whatever happens from here on in. It’s why I believe it should never be forgotten. I know some folks are bored of it, and we should all ‘move on’. We can’t ever afford to lose that bloody-mindedness. It needs to stay with the club and with the fans. It might serve us well in the future. Always be on guard.  Nothing stays the same and nothing lasts forever.”

It’s that attitude to football’s transience that means Jason and his fellow Barry Town United supporters aren’t taking their return to the top table of Welsh football for granted. “Honestly, when I look at the league table I blink, and blink again, and think ‘Oh heck, we’re in the Welsh Premier League’. It really is probably one of the biggest turnarounds in football. Okay, we haven’t won a WPL title yet, but it’ll come at some point I’m sure. We’re not here just to exist. We’re here to achieve. Every day is a glory day in my eyes. The 1990s damn near killed the club. Let’s do it properly this time.”

With a Welsh Cup semi-final to look forward to, alongside a top three finish in the league, its looking like the good times may return to Jenner Park sooner than any Barry Town United supporter could have dreamed.

A massive thank you to Jason Pawlin for providing his time and insight for this piece. You can follow the Barry Town Supporter’s Club on Twitter

 

 

 

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