Barrow were founded in 1901 and played at The Strawberry Ground, Roosecote and Ainslie Street before moving to their current stadium, Holker Street, in 1909. After early years spent in the Lancashire Combination, the club became founder members of the Football League Third Division North in 1921.
Barrow remained in the lowest tier of the Football League pyramid for all but three seasons. During this time, they remained relatively obscure, only occasionally coming to national attention. Their F.A. Cup Third Round game against the then Football League champions Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1958-59 season is particularly notable.
After finishing third in Division 4 in the 1966-67 season and gaining promotion, Barrow enjoyed their highest ever league finish in the 1967-68 season, ending up eighth in Division 3, with the club briefly leading the table.
Barrow remained in the third flight of English football for another two season before returning to the basement in 1970. In 1972, Barrow were voted out of the Football League, in favour of Hereford United, and joined the Northern Premier League. They later became founder members of the Football Conference (then known as the Alliance Premier League), the only national division in non-league football. After this, Barrow spent periods of time in both the Football Conference and the Northern Premier League.
The Wilkie Years
Ray Wilkie took the manager’s job at Barrow part way through the 1985-86 season when the club were struggling near the foot of the Alliance Premier league. It was too late to save the team from relegation, but on Wilkie’s appointment Barrow AFC embarked on their most successful period in non-league football.
Barrow eventually won promotion back to the re-named Vauxhall Conference in 1988-1989, finishing champions of the Northern Premier. Barrow achieved two respectable finishes in the Conference – 10th in 1989-1990 and 14th the season after. Unfortunately Wilkie was forced to step down during the 1991-1992 due to health problems. That season Barrow would be relegated back to the Northern Premier League.
As well as league success, Wilkie brought glory on the cup trail. In 1988, Barrow reached the FA Trophy semi-final, losing to Enfield after a replay. The first leg at Holker Street attracted 6,002 supporters – still a non-league record for the club. The season after, Barrow reached the 1st round of the FA Cup, losing out 3-1 at Rotherham’s Millmoor. In early 1991, Barrow reached the 3rd round of the FA Cup, losing 1-0 away to Third Division high fliers Bolton Wanderers, watched by thousands of travelling supporters.
In 1990 they won non-league football’s most prestigious competition, the FA Trophy, beating Leek Town 3-0 in the final at Wembley Stadium, London. Scoring the first and third goals was Kenny Gordon, a player who was not normally found on the score sheet, and who was playing his final game for his hometown club before emigrating to Australia.
Wilkie’s successes can partly be attributed to getting the best out of striker Colin Cowperthwaite, who had been at the club since 1977. He scored the second goal in the FA Trophy final, but Colin had already become a legendary player at Holker Street, finishing as top scorer in each of Wilkie’s five full seasons – as well as seven of the previous eight. His goalscoring exploits were coupled with a no-nonsense approach to playing the game and “Cowps” became the quintissential target man. Colin is still highly regarded at Holker Street, winning a recent poll to find Barrow supporter’s favourite player in the non-league era. Cowperthwaite holds Barrow’s all-time appearance record (705) and is the club’s all-time leading goalscorer (282)
In 1998, the club entered financial difficulties following the departure of Liverpool based chairman Stephen Vaughan. In January 1999, the club were the subject of a compulsory winding up order and a liquidator was appointed to run the club whilst trying to establish who the legal owner of the Holker Street ground was. A new members company was formed with the aim of providing financial support to the club and with the long term intention of taking over the running of the football club. In the summer of 1999 the club were thrown out of the Football Conference. After a long dispute and thanks to the support of the Football Association, Barrow were allowed entrance into the Northern Premier League for the 1999-2000 season, almost a month after it had commenced. This reduced time in which to play their fixtures led to the scheduling of Barrow v Winsford United on December 30, 1999, recognised as the last professional or semi-professional game in the UK of the millennium (assuming the year 2000 is considered to be part of the third millennium AD). The legal disputes over the ownership of Holker Street were finally resolved in August 2002 and the new members company bought the Holker St Stadium from the liquidator. In 2003 the Football Association finally allowed the ‘football membership’ to be transferred to the new company.
In April 2004, Barrow defeated local rivals Workington AFC in an epic two-legged final in the UniBond Presidents (League) Cup. The game finished 6-6 on aggregate, Barrow winning on away goals.
In 2004-2005, Barrow AFC became founder members of yet another division, this time the Conference North, which falls between the Conference National and the Northern Premier League Premier Division.
On the 11th January 2007 Barrow player James Cotterill became the first player in recent history in England to be jailed for an offence on the pitch, after he punched Bristol Rovers striker Sean Rigg during an FA Cup First Round match on 11 November 2006. The match received extended highlights on MOTD, so the incident came under much scrutiny. Cotterill was jailed for four months.
The last two seasons in the Conference North has seen the club struggle, flirting with relegation in the last few games of the 2006-2007 season.
On 12 November 2007, after two years in the job, Phil Wilson was dismissed as manager. Although the sacking came two days after a good 1-1 draw in the FA Cup First Round against AFC Bournemouth, it was the club’s poor league form which cost the manager his job. Barrow’s first team affairs are currently in the hands of Dave Bayliss and Darren Sheridan who have been appointed as the new management team.