Growing up, neither Cardiff City nor Swansea City were the most successful club in Wales. That accolade belonged to Barry Town. I grew up in Barry, a small coastal town some nine miles west of Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, and football was at the heart of the community.
The Barry Town story is a tale of success, betrayal and heartbreak. Yet outside of Wales, it remains relatively untold.
The Dragons’ first taste of glory came in 1994 when they won a quadruple of Welsh trophies (Welsh Division One, Welsh League Cup, FAW Trophy and the Welsh Cup). As a result, they qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup, where they lost 7-0 on aggregate against Žalgiris Vilnius of Lithuania.
This was just the start for Barry Town, though, who became the first professional club within the Welsh football league system a year later. They won their first League of Wales title that season.
Whilst the highs on the pitch for Barry Town would continue for almost a decade, the club would face turmoil, tragedy and injustice like no other. Comparable with the Wimbledon story, no fans deserve to be treated in the way that the Barry Town supporters have been.
Indeed, few injustices have gone as unnoticed as those at Jenner Park.
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The 1996 success – a season in which the club lost their chairman and a young player through a traffic accident – was just the start for Barry Town. They became the first Welsh club to progress beyond the first qualifying round of a European competition, a record still to be matched.
Their home ground, Jenner Park, became a European fortress for the Welsh champions. The men in yellow came from behind against Hungarian side Vasuta to win 4-2 on penalties at their home ground. Reminiscent of Liverpool’s recent comeback against Borussia Dortmund, it of course received next to no attention from the British press.
An all-British tie against Aberdeen was next to follow, which should go down as one of the most exciting all-British European affairs. The Dandies won the first leg 3-1 but a captivating tie at Jenner Park would end 3-3.
On the domestic scene, Barry were all-dominating. They clinched a first Welsh treble, breaking numerous records along the way. A record 105 points won them the title, their goal difference of plus-100 was a league record, and the club were the first to be broadcast live on television; a 5-2 defeat of Caernarfon Town.
Barry was – and still are – Wales’ most successful club ever.
They showed no signs of stopping, either. European ties against giants Dynamo Kyiv and Boavista saw the likes of Andriy Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov run out at Jenner Park.
In 2001, the club became the first side from Wales to ever win a Champions League match when they defeated Azerbaijani champions FC Shamkir.
FC Porto was the reward. A humiliating 8-0 loss away from home in the first leg – which saw 55,000 fans attend – was enough to end any dreams of progression for the Jenner Park faithful, but the second leg was one of the most famous nights in Welsh football history.
The home leg was a chance to play for pride and Barry Town did just that. With Ricardo Carvalho, Helder Postiga and more household names fielded by the Portuguese side, minnows Barry won the second leg 3-1; Lee Phillips, Mike Flynn and Gary Lloyd scoring the famous goals.
That season saw the Town win their sixth consecutive league title, the seventh in eight years, but the tides would soon change for the club. In a roundabout way, Barry Town were victims of their own success, which was what caused their own downfall. As of 2009, population stats indicate that 50,000 live in Barry. With Cardiff City playing just nine miles away, it proved hard for the club to attract fans to Jenner Park when the European giants were not visiting.
It proved difficult for the club to find the money to support the high standards set by their success.
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New CEO Kevin Green – who had formerly been in charge at Scarborough – came in to try to save the club. In a last-ditch attempt to do so, he turned to a man sure to get fans flooding back to Jenner Park: John Fashanu.
The former Wimbledon footballer and Gladiators presenter was brought into the club as chairman in 2002 – a move many viewed as a PR stunt. Despite scepticism, in 2002 the town of Barry and Welsh football was excited about having Fashanu on board. He was seen as the man needed to keep the club going and to take football in Wales to the next level.
London-born Fashanu was quick to promise the world. He lined up lucrative TV deals with networks in both China and Africa – the likes that still to this day have never been seen in Welsh football. He even promised a first-refusal option with Manchester United on their youth players.
“We get about 400 to 500 fans for a game, but he made a comment last year that the games would be broadcast to all of Africa, then it was Nigeria and then, all of a sudden, it was going to China as well. Why would somebody in Nigeria want to watch Barry Town when they can watch Manchester United?” a club insider told The Guardian in 2003.
Fashanu, a man of Nigerian and Guyanese descent, also promised to import the best young African talents in a bid to increase Barry’s exposure in that market. In truth, Fashanu failed to deliver on any of his promises and when the club crashed out of Europe, he duly exited.
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With Fashanu leaving the club, Barry Town entered administration. By now the finances were in peril and club debts stood between £200,000 and £300,000 – big money for a League of Wales club. The first team squad that had dominated Welsh football quickly disintegrated and moved onto clubs where they would be paid. Barry was forced to call upon players from local amateur side N & M Construction of the South Wales Amateur League, who played in a league five levels below Barry.
Fans of the club attempted to raise the money necessary to save Barry Town, who were in quick descent, when Stuart Lovering arrived out of nowhere to purchase the club. In his first season, Barry Town were relegated to Welsh Division One.
To celebrate relegation, Lovering increased ticket prices.
The season to come was a warning sign for the Welsh club. On the eve of the new campaign, Lovering decided to sack manager Colin Addison and replace him with assistant David Hughes. The owner would then slash the club’s budget, resulting in Hughes’ resignation. The season, and the club, was a mess.
To make things worse, Lovering refused to pay the stadium rental rates and moved the club to the White Tips Stadium in Treforest, some 22 miles away from the club’s home town. They would play there for a year-and-a-half. As a result, fans started to fundraise to form their own club, Barry FC, to rival Lovering’s Barry Town. The 2005-06 season saw Barry Town at their lowest ever league position.
In 2008 things began to look up. The club was promoted under manager Gavin Chesterfield, with Barry returning to the second tier of Welsh football. The manager then led the club on a 21-match unbeaten run, with the good times returning to Jenner Park.
Events off the field continued to overshadow the on-field success, though. As a result, it was decided that the fans would fund the first team, allowing Lovering to find the buyer he craved. Fans thought he had found that buyer in Clayton Jones, the owner of Shamrock Travel, but Lovering decided scupper plans to sell the club to Jones.
During his time at Barry, Lovering agreed to sell the club three times, only to increase the asking price at the eleventh hour every single time.
Ben Dudley’s Save Barry Town blog post reassures any doubts of Lovering’s unique approach to club ownership. Dudley worked as the club’s media officer under Lovering:
“Within 30 seconds of the ‘interview’ starting he told me I could have the job, but he wasn’t sure when I could be paid. It would “only be a few months” he reassured me. Moving on from this revelation at a rapid pace, he informed me that my job was to increase the stature of the club to be “similar to Galatasary or Fenerbache” and was convinced the club could draw crowds around the same size of Cardiff City, who were attracting at least 20,000 or so for every league match at this time.”
“Behind one door was the world’s dirtiest mattress, with a Chinese man wearing only his pants asleep on it. Every room had discarded pizza boxes which suggested this man was not alone in living at the ground.”
“At this stage I was unaware of the full scale of Lovering’s decimation of Barry Town and started to work there. For three days. At this point I was told by text that he had decided to make himself media officer, as he felt he was more likely than me to start getting crowds of 16,000 every week.”
Fans were determined to drive Lovering out of the club, with a social media campaign called Stand Up For Barry started.
Intent on killing the club, Lovering proposed withdrawing Barry Town from the league in 2011. To prevent this, the Supporters Foundation agreed to take complete control of the club and the first team. The owner, though, was determined and intensified his efforts to withdraw the club – which celebrated its 100 year anniversary at the time – from the league.
On 7 May 2013, Stuart Lovering succeeded in withdrawing Barry Town from the Welsh football league with two games left of the season. This was against the will of the Supporters Foundation, the club management and the players, who were all determined to finish the season.
The Football Association of Wales announced in June 2013 that the club would have to play “recreational football” for the foreseeable future – a complete lack of respect for the most successful club in the countries domestic football history.
This caused uproar throughout the game in Britain, with the situation was made worse when, in July 2013, at a second gathering, 15 FAW Councillors voted against discussing Barry Town’s future. They wouldn’t even discuss it. Imagine the Glaziers withdrawing Manchester United from the English leagues and English FA voting against even discussing the club’s future. The FA building would be burnt down.
This was Barry Town, though, who few cared about anymore. The same Barry Town that were heralded when they beat Porto to record Welsh football’s most famous ever victory.
A High Court in Cardiff eventually ruled that the FAW Council acted unlawfully, with the newly formed fan-run Barry Town United reinstated into the Welsh league pyramid.
Since then, the club have earned two promotions and find themselves back in the second tier of Welsh football. The club continues to develop as the fans fund and run activities on and off the pitch. Barry Town are some way off their former glory but will be relieved to finally have their club in their own hands.
By Scott Salter. Follow @ssalter_ftbl