Barrow on Black Cat snow patrol
IT'S been quiet in Barrow this week. The gates of the elegant Town Hall were chained up for the holidays and the shipyards stayed silent, while the screeching seagulls easily drowned out the desultory chatter of shoppers. Go today, though, and it will feel deserted as never before.
The exodus will take flight at breakfast time, with a convoy of 75 coaches heading away from coastal Cumbria. At final count, they reckon 12pc of Barrow's population will be in Sunderland this afternoon for the most evocative of third-round ties. For those who remain, it's a good day to hit the January sales without a crush.
Cheap laughs may be had over this. Barrow is one of those northern English towns that arouse instinctive mockery, generally from those who have never been there.
It is easy to sneer that 7,200 people must be grateful to flee a remote place whose principal product is nuclear submarines, a town where shops and pubs are closing rapidly and the local cultural landmark is the Laurel & Hardy Museum at nearby Ulverston.
Life here may not be slapstick fun, these days, but the stolid folk, west of the Lakes and far removed from the tourist trail, take their pleasures where they can.
Historically, it has been from the earthy attractions of rugby league and working men's clubs -- Barrow is the heartland of both. Right now, it comes in the mission to humble a lofty football club, four divisions above Barrow's 'Bluebirds'.
The belief in a Cup miracle could be measured on a raw New Year's Eve at the compact Holker Street ground, where a steady stream of bright-eyed fans made the club shop one of the busiest in town. Most wanted scarves or replica shirts, but some were still begging the tickets that sold out before Christmas, or the coveted seats on every coach that could be booked from this side of Blackpool.
Martin Lewis once captained Cumberland in minor counties cricket. Now, as commercial manager and sole full-time executive of the club he has supported all his life, his ample frame is clad in Barrow blue.
"It's been crazy in here since the draw," he said, phones ringing all around him. "But we have to make the most of games like this."
Barrow, indeed, will make plenty from it -- £200,000 is the estimate of the directors. It comes as a bonus windfall rather than a bailout, though, for the Blue Square Premier club are on a far sounder financial footing than has sometimes been the case in their 100 years at Holker Street.
Remarkably, Les Houghton has been a fixture at home matches for more than half that time. Of late, since injury advanced his retirement after 42 years in the shipyards, he has moved from standing behind one goal to, more officially, behind another. Houghton is the Barrow kitman -- and mighty proud of it.
"I've had the best and worst days of my life here," he said, gazing mistily across the ground to a supermarket that was not even thought of when he first came. "As boys on matchdays, we'd kick a football around on waste ground over there. Twenty minutes from time, they'd open the gates and we'd rush in -- generally bumping into a lot of men rushing out saying they'd had enough.
"My grandparents brought me to my first game in 1951 -- it was against Burnley in the Lancashire Cup and there were 10,000 here. In the last 50 years, I've only missed 20 home games. During the 1960s, we got 15,000 when Southampton and Leicester came here in the Cup. But we dropped out of the League in '72 and everything changed.
"There were days when the crowd was barely 100 -- you knew everyone, commented if a regular face was missing. Many's the time I thought the club would go under." Instead, land and property was sold off and, as health and safety bit, the Holker Street capacity shrunk to 4,500.
Houghton lives 400 yards from the ground, up the hill towards the crematorium.
Nostalgically, he bemoans the loss of community feel in a town that lost its industrial soul with the closure of steel and iron plants. "But nothing stays the same," he said. "When we got to Wembley and won the FA Trophy in 1990, there were six local lads in the side. That will never happen again."
At present, indeed, there is only one, Jason Walker. As he is also the main striker, whose goals include a fabled effort in a valiant 2-1 defeat at Middlesborough a year ago, Walker's hero status in the town is guaranteed.
Not that living in Barrow is necessarily a perk. Barrow's players are full-time these days, but they train 90 minutes away at Salford, a reflection of their geographical spread. One, Gareth Jelleyman, makes the long journey from his home in Peterborough for the three training days each week.
This is one of two curiosities. Barrow also have joint managers, Dave Bayliss and Darren Sheridan. "They were players who took it on as caretakers when the last manager was sacked two years ago," Lewis said. "We were facing relegation from Blue Square North, but they turned the team around. It's unusual, but it works."
The system has engendered such faith and hope in the town that they are already talking of bringing Sunderland back to Holker Street for a replay. The sobering thought is that almost half of Barrow's travelling fans today would not get tickets. (© The Times, London)