Quite a few have braved the hot seat that is the Holker Street managerial chair over the years. While many have failed, a few have succeeded, prompting us to complile this short list of candidates for the title of Barrow's best ever manager...

WHO's the BEST BARROW MANAGER EVER?

Ray Wilkie

I still remember it as if it were yesterday. It hit me like a bombshell, yet I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. The measure of the man is that although I never met him and could not claim to know him, his sad passing away could not have been felt more intensely. It was as if I'd lost someone very close. And yet again the future of Barrow AFC was torpedoed and sunk by events off the field of play and out of the control of anyone connected with the club. For Ray Wilkie had achieved the impossible in four short years, and brought to the club the kind of success that most fans had only dreamed of but had never thought that one day it might come true. We all wanted to see our team play at Wembley, walking down that famous tunnel onto the green turf that was bathed in the hot early summer sunshine. But when Ray came to Holker St in 1987, that was all it was; a fantastic dream that we never thought would come true; so unlikely that it was usually referred to after ten pints of Hartley's Best, the only time when it didn't sound like the impossible dream. Heaven only knows what inspired Ray to join Barrow from Gateshead and what the late Bill McCullough said to him to persuade him to make the long journey from the North East. But whatever it was, those words should be framed and hung up in the home dressing room in the Sports and Leisure Club as a source of inspiration for those who will come after. Barrow were then, as they are now, languishing in the lower reaches of the Northern Premier League after being relegated from the Conference in 1986. Gateshead were on the verge of promotion. Yet Ray Wilkie gave up the glory of a return to the Conference with his local club and threw in his lot with the impoverished ex-League club in North Lancashire. The secret of his success was team spirit. The camaraderie that Ray created amongst the players was second to none, and this proved to be the foundation stone for his success. Some players left, tempted by better money and a shorter journey to home games. But they missed the dressing room atmosphere at Holker St and came back again.

Ray built his team around the central spine of a great goalkeeper, two uncompromising defenders, a creative midfielder and a goal scoring centre forward. McDonnell, Gordon, Proctor, Lowe and Cowperthwaite were the backbone of the side. But with old fashioned wingers (Wheatley and Carroll) attacking full backs (Steve Higgins) and classy players like club captain Glen Skivington, Barrow were a difficult side to beat. They knew how to defend a one goal lead. That was Ray's philosophy. Always score first. Then keep them out and score again to put the game beyond doubt. He didn't have the best players, just the best the club could afford. And he adjusted tactics to suit. In four years he built a side that achieved the impossible dream, winning the FA Trophy at Wembley. Other honours included the HFS Loans League championship in 1988, an FA Trophy semi-final appearance in 1989, the FA Cup Third Round at Bolton in 1991 and a Bob Lord Trophy Final appearance also in 1991. But eighteen short months later Ray Wilkie was dead, taking with him any chance Barrow had of building on that success.

Colin Appleton

One of the greatest achievements in the history of Barrow AFC was to win promotion from the old Division Four in 1967. The man who can list that honour as his greatest accomplishment is Don McEvoy, who turned Barrow from perennial re-election fodder into promotion candidates in just three seasons. But it's one thing to get there. It's a totally different thing to stay. Some would say it's even harder. The most ardent fans thought we'd come straight back down again at the end of season 1967-68 and the "I told you so's" of the Popular Side were in full flight when McEvoy left to take up the manager's job at Grimsby during the summer of 1967. The appointment of his replacement couldn't have been more important to the future of the club. Over thirty applications were received, but it was the one from Charlton Athletic's transfer listed skipper that caught the directors' eye. Colin Appleton's illustrious playing career was winding down after twelve years at Leicester City, including an FA Cup final losers' medal at Wembley against Manchester United in 1963. Barrow was Appleton's first management position. What a baptism of fire. An untried manager trying to achieve the impossible; keep Barrow in Division Three. Appleton, with typical nonchalance, underplayed the situation describing it simply as "a season of challenge". He and his players rose marvellously to that challenge and exceeded everyone's expectations. Barrow stayed in the top half of Division Three all season and finished in eighth position only five points (when it was two points for a win) behind promoted Shrewsbury. Appearances in the third rounds of both the FA Cup and the Football League Cup plus the final of the Lancashire Senior Cup capped what for many fans will always be Barrow's best season ever.

Appleton built on that success for the 1968-69 season and Barrow were in seventh place at Christmas, with a real chance of promotion to Division Two if they could maintain their form into the New Year. But it wasn't to be. In early January 1969 Appleton tendered his resignation due to ill health. Within two months the team he had built into championship challengers had been broken up. At the end of that season Barrow just avoided relegation back to Division Four. And in the thirty years since, we've slid even further down the pyramid from those dizzy heights of Colin Appleton's era.

Is it just coincidence that on the two occasions when real success has been enjoyed at Holker St, with Colin Appleton in 1968 and Ray Wilkie in 1990, both managers have later had to resign due to ill health? And on both occasions their replacements have unravelled that success in just a few short months.

Vic Halom

Vic Halom had been a member of Sunderland's 1973 FA Cup winning side. He came to Holker St after spending three seasons in Norwegian football, but he came with a mission, promising the supporters top class entertainment and excitement. This came as something of a shock to the faithful. As Halom had been winning his FA Cup winners' medal, Barrow had just finished their first season in non-League football. By the time Halom took charge they we re just starting their eleventh. The previous ten had been mediocre at best, the highlight being acceptance into the newly formed Alliance Premier League (now the Football Conference) in 1978. Those three seasons in the non-League elite were consigned to memory as Halom took charge of a freshly relegated team in the Northern Premier League (the forerunner of the UniBond Premier). But entertainment and excitement? Wasn't that going a little too far? When was the last time a Barrow side had merited such a description? Few fans could remember that far back.

Halom was true to his promise, starting the 1983-84 season with a seventeen game unbeaten run. Suddenly, Barrow were the team to catch, but no-one could. Halom's men took the top spot in October and kept it until the end of the season, finishing twenty points ahead of runners up Matlock Town. The football was all out attack, relying on a fast winger, Gamble, and a quick centre forward, Barry Diamond, who created a new post-war record by scoring 35 goals out of the total of 92 that Barrow put past the oppositions' goalies. It really was exciting stuff. Most teams didn't know what had hit them. Barrow were a class above the rest and had they been in the Alliance instead of the NPL they'd probably have won that as well.

Sadly, Halom didn't join his promoted team in the Alliance. He and Barry Diamond sought fame and fortune at Rochdale in Division Four. We had to put up with Brian Kidd. But that's another story.

Jack Hacking

It's very easy to only consider those managers that you have a personal memory of. But that would be a disservice to the history of Barrow AFC. If you remember Jack Hacking then you'll be collecting your old age pension. But his achievement is as great if not greater than Wilkie, Appleton and Halom. Under his charge, Barrow broke their duck and won their first ever trophy since joining the Football League in 1921 after 34 years of trying. Jack Hacking was appointed manager at the end of the 1948-49 season. A former international, he'd been a goalkeeper at Blackpool, Oldham and Manchester United and came to Barrow after resigning from the manager's post at Accrington Stanley, a position he'd held for fourteen years.

Kenny Gordon's father, Billy, was probably the most notable player that Hacking brought to the club. But league success remained as elusive as ever. Hacking's best season in Division Three North was 1951-52 when Barrow finished in mid-table. This was also Barrow's fiftieth as a football club and they celebrated by reaching the final of the Lancashire Senior Cup, only to go down 1-0 to Burnley.

Hacking took the club to the third round of the FA Cup against Swansea, when the record attendance of 16,874 was achieved. Despite this he was told in February 1955 that his services were no longer required. But they did things differently in those days. Hacking stayed on until the directors found a replacement. And at the end of that season Hacking again took the club to the final of the Lancashire Senior Cup, which was a competition worthy of its grand name. And that first ever, trophy came to Holker St after a 2-0 victory over Oldham Athletic at Holker St.

Perhaps after this success the directors might have changed their minds about asking Hacking to leave. Sadly, we'll never know. Hacking became yet another manager taken from Barrow by ill health. Within two weeks of that cup final, after a short illness, Hacking suffered a fatal heart attack. Would the history of Barrow AFC be any different if he hadn't been struck down by illness, just as Appleton was to be in the sixties and Wilkie in the nineties?

Issue 044 - March 2000

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