MARTIN SAMUEL: Barrow will have fair chance at National League promotion


A rather unique set of circumstances deprived Barrow of their Football League place in 1972, so it was heartening that history did not repeat itself to deny them the chance of a return 48 years later.

For now, at least, the National League intends to play this season to its conclusion. Meaning leaders Barrow, four points clear of Harrogate Town in second, should at least be treated fairly second time around.

If they are good enough, if the league plays out when it can, they can go up. That isn’t exactly the way they left.

It seems scarcely believable to a generation brought up on the meritocracy of football’s pyramid to consider that, back then, the bottom four clubs in Football League Division Four had to apply for re-election, and this would be voted on by their peers at the annual general meeting.

Barrow were the worst team in the league that particular season, but it does not follow that as bottom club they went down. That had only happened once since New Brighton’s demise in 1951. Usually, those present at the AGM acted as a cartel and protected their own.

Nor was it that Barrow were constantly at the AGM’s mercy. They won promotion to Division Three in 1967, and briefly flirted with promotion to Division Two the year after, before dropping back to an eighth-placed finish.

And while they also had to apply for re-election in 1971, they were not the worst offenders. Between 1962 and 1972, Lincoln and Hartlepool applied five times each, and York four times, the same as Barrow. None of the others went down. What did for Barrow was speedway — and Ronnie Radford.

Speedway because Division Four’s other clubs were less than impressed with Barrow’s decision to build a speedway track around the perimeter at Holker Street, as a way of raising much-needed funds. And Radford because while his FA Cup goal against Newcastle is rightly celebrated as an iconic moment for football’s underdogs, it gave the fourth tier the opportunity to embrace a genuine crowd-puller in Hereford United.

It shows the Wild West nature of promotion and relegation in Division Four at the time, that the team replacing Barrow were not even champions. Hereford came second in the Southern League that season. First-placed Chelmsford City won 28 games to Hereford’s 24, and scored 109 goals to Hereford’s 68. Hereford, however, had captured the imagination of the country by eliminating Newcastle and taking West Ham to a replay. They were box office.

The list of Southern League winners is littered with clubs that never got a break in the big time — Weymouth, Romford, Cambridge City. Yet Hereford had never even won the league in its modern format which is perhaps why, in the first round of election voting, they were tied with Barrow. 

Hereford won round two by nine votes, however, and Barrow were gone. They departed a Lancastrian club and, due to county boundary changes, will return as a Cumbrian one, if successful. It has been a lengthy exile.

So it was a rare piece of good news on Thursday that they will not be made to argue that a four-point lead with nine matches remaining equates to promotion. It was an argument that could never stick anyway, even if Barrow’s narrative has romance attached.

Liverpool, 25 points clear, could make that case. So could Newcastle, with a 100 per cent record in rugby’s championship. Yet Barrow have lost nine games this season, including 3-0 to Harrogate at home, and one of their remaining matches is Harrogate away. 

There are also three other games against teams who have beaten them already this season, Stockport, Halifax and Woking. The club’s last result was a 2-0 home defeat by Notts County, and their last nine games across all competitions have featured just three wins. So there is no guarantee; but there is hope. 

And now the National League have done the right thing, Barrow will get a fair chance to rejoin football’s fourth tier. That is all any club deserve: a fair crack. And Barrow have waited 48 years to get one.

No doubt there will be howls of outrage from purists if the cricket season commences and the white ball game is prioritised.

Yet what choice is there? Cricket is missing crucial income streams with the season in abeyance and must give precedence to its most lucrative fixtures if the counties are to survive. Clinging to tradition is an entirely worthless exercise if the result is some counties going to the wall.

Better to have one, maybe even two, seasons in which T20 and the cursed Hundred are pushed to the fore, than set the domestic game on course for ruin.

Even a blind squirrel finds a nut eventually and, in much the same way, FIFA will have a good idea. The acknowledgement that contracts due to end on June 30 reflect the conclusion of a conventional season and can therefore be adjusted to account for a force majeure is eminently sensible.

We now wait to see how accommodating the agents who negotiated those contracts on behalf of their clients wish to be.

Just as coronavirus is finding out good and bad bosses — employees at Wetherspoon’s now know how much they can rely on Tim Martin if his much-beloved Brexit tanks at some future date — it will also reveal which intermediaries are capable of seeing a bigger picture.

Some players, such as Willian at Chelsea, who has already announced he will fulfil this season’s obligations even though his contract expires in June, are strong enough to call the shots. 

Others will be easily manipulated. The clubs, of course, can make their own decisions about dealing with agents who do not play fair in this most precarious time. It is amazing that they do not exercise such power more often.

The Olympics are off, but Japan continues to break records: each day this week, Monday to Thursday, has brought a new high in coronavirus cases. On Monday, Tokyo’s governor Yuriko Koike said a city lockdown may be the only option. 

On Wednesday, she called on Tokyo residents to work remotely, stay inside and avoid all but essential journeys at the weekend. Does this sound like a country that could have held a huge international event mere months from now?

On Thursday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced he would be heading a special task force to address the crisis, paving the way for a state of emergency. Having given the impression it was through the worst, it appears Japan spoke prematurely. 

Maybe the government were trying too hard to convince the IOC that it was business as usual. Either way, the decision to meet coronavirus with philosophical stoicism appears to have come at a cost. Far from being through the worst, Japan’s coronavirus crisis is about to resurface.

So for Thomas Bach, the IOC president, to already be discussing a cherry blossom reshoot of the 2020 Games next spring is crass in the extreme. Health minister Katsunobu Kato has admitted Japan now faces a high risk of rampant infection. 

The country needs time to address coronavirus in a way that is sensible and effective, not to be given another set of deadlines to meet. Who knows if the pressure of cleaning house in time for the Olympics drove the government to hastily declare the crisis had passed? They cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.

Mark Johnston has trained 100 winners for an incredible 26 seasons straight.

Sadly, this is a run that may end in 2020 with racing at the mercy of coronavirus. Yet, even as the crisis grew in Britain, Johnston argued against the British Horseracing Authority’s decision to curtail. ‘I wasn’t supportive,’ he said. ‘To just stop overnight when we didn’t have to seems a terrible thing. I don’t think the decision should have been made so quickly.’

If anything, it wasn’t made quickly enough. At some point in the future there will be a public inquiry into this country’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and it is unlikely to be too kind towards the running of Cheltenham and those sports that held out for one last pay-day.

There is a difference between the National League trying to balance the survival of its clubs with the need for shutdown, and Cheltenham welcoming 60,000 daily for the best part of a week.

The Premier League, too, only did the right thing once Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tested positive. Until that point the weekend programme, starting with Watford v Leicester, was going ahead. Some clubs even detected resistance to a conference call to discuss the decision, believing the Premier League felt it could better control the situation speaking to its stakeholders individually.

As for the IOC it may be judged very harshly if it is correct that two boxers and a coach from Turkey contracted coronavirus at a qualifying event tagged Road to Tokyo, and held at the Copper Box Arena in London. 

The tournament began on March 14 and was scheduled to last until March 24, but was abandoned after three days due to health fears and concerns about travel. 

None of this will sit well, set beside the virus death toll and what we may by then know of its spread. Nobody will consider the BHA to have acted in haste by the time we are sifting through the wreckage of this human tragedy.

Quite the opposite, one imagines.

Fittingly for a man who was once named in the Guinness Book of Records as the most injury-prone footballer in history after suffering five broken legs, Denis Smith has contracted, and overcome, coronavirus at the age of 72. A legend at Stoke, and a very decent manager elsewhere, Smith believes he caught the illness on a trip to York.

This is puzzling as Smith was once manager at York City where, early in his tenure, he gave an interview to a local newspaper. He was asked if there was anything he did not like about the city. 

Yes, Smith replied, the bloody traffic and the bloody tourists. It made getting about a nightmare. In a city reliant on visitors this became a front page story. Cue angry calls from the tourist board to the club, cue outcry from hotels and restaurants, cue a very hasty apology. What seemed to be a throwaway comment turned out to be a very big deal in York. 

But as anyone who has ever driven around there will confirm, Smith wasn’t wrong. What he was doing back there, knowing what he knows — that’s the mystery.

If The Open falls to coronavirus, as it surely will, the R&A is said to have a problem. This year’s edition was to be held at Royal St George’s, Sandwich but future venues have already been decided.

The Open’s destination is known through to 2023 at Royal Troon and it is not as straightforward as bumping the hosts back a year. Next summer brings the 150th Open and such a milestone has long been reserved for the home of golf, St Andrews. It would not be right for Sandwich to take its place.

This is where common sense must prevail. It is simply not possible to honour every event cancelled and no, it isn’t fair to the hospitality industry on the Kent coast or to the many businesses that would have been anticipating the arrival of 200,000 spectators and the resulting windfall.

But it isn’t the R&A’s fault, either. Sandwich will have to be accommodated at the first opportunity in 2024, or given the slot reserved for Royal Liverpool in 2022, with the visits to Hoylake and Troon pushed back. 

It isn’t ideal but these are exceptional circumstances. They will only be made worse if we foolishly believe we can make everything right.

Coronavirus claimed a great man this week. Cameroonian jazz legend Manu Dibango died aged 86. 

With time on your hands, he is worth a listen and don’t stop at the mighty Soul Makossa, a tribute to the Cameroon football team, when the country hosted the 1972 African Cup of Nations. 

And remember. Your forefathers were called to fight in world wars. You are being called to wash your hands, sit on the sofa and watch television. Don’t mess this up.

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