The FA Cup produced one of its habitual curiosities last Saturday when Barrow played host at their Holker Street ground to Chester City in the fourth qualifying round. The match represented not only an opportunity for Barrow, now of the UniBond League, to test their considerable progress against a club playing a level higher in the Conference. The game nearly did not go ahead at all because the draw brought together two clubs owned by the same person, Stephen Vaughan, a Liverpool-based boxing promoter.
Barrow have been in liquidation since Vaughan pulled out financially three years ago, but until last Wednesday he still owned a majority of the shares. On 1 October he bought Chester from their deeply unpopular, eccentric American owner, Terry Smith, reportedly for £500,000. Vaughan also said two months ago that he owns another UniBond League club, Droylsden, in east Manchester. He said the club was "part of the leisure arm of my promotions company".
Alerted to a clear breach of the FA Cup rules against one person having a substantial interest in two competing clubs, the FA threatened to cancel the tie. Last Wednesday, three days before the match, Vaughan announced he had sold his interest in Barrow to an associate, William Brown. The game went ahead. Barrow won 1-0, earning a comparatively plum tie in the first round proper, away to Oldham.
It was the latest episode in a traumatic era for Barrow since Vaughan took over in February 1995 saying he intended to finance a journey back to the Football League, from which Barrow were famously demoted in 1972. The club enjoyed three good years; Vaughan financed a new grandstand in 1996 and in May 1998 Barrow won promotion to the Conference.
Three months earlier Vaughan had written a letter to the magazine Boxing News, in which he said: "I am sure you will be aware that I was recently arrested by HM Customs and Excise, in relation to the investigation into Curtis Warren. The allegations centre on the laundering of millions of pounds of supposed drugs money."
Curtis Warren, 38, is serving 12 years in a Dutch prison for trafficking several hundred kilos of hash, heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. He is said to have made £125m-£185m from the drugs trade, but the police and Customs have had little success tracing it. The investigation turned to Barrow partly because of an incident related in the biography of Warren, Cocky (Milo Books, £14.99), in which he was said to have flown over Barrow AFC in a helicopter, pointed down and said to the pilot: "I own that."
Vaughan has never denied he was a childhood friend and sometime associate of Warren's, but he "categorically and strenuously" denied any involvement in laundering Warren's money. "I cannot stress how vehemently any prosecution would be defended," he wrote in the letter to Boxing News.
Barrow seriously overspent in the Conference, bringing in experienced former League players such as Andy Mutch and Mark Seagraves and reportedly paying £5,000 signing-on fees and wages of £750 per week. In November 1998 Vaughan resigned and withdrew his backing, claiming the ongoing investigations, including one into his acquisition of Holker Street, made it impossible for him to continue. He claims to have put in £350,000-£400,000 and says Barrow still owe him £269,000.
With no money to fund overspending, Barrow went bust in January 1999 and came desperately close to folding. They finished above the relegation places, but the Conference expelled them. The UniBond also refused to have them, because they were in liquidation. Barrow, whose crowds average 1,400, were forced to apply to the North West Trains League. The FA then ordered the UniBond to accept Barrow, threatening to cease to recognise the UniBond as a league if it resisted.
Barrow have been transformed since by a collective supporter and community effort led by a new chairman, Brian Keen. An engineer from south-east London who moved to Barrow in the 1960s, Keen makes no claim to be a diehard fan: "I'd go along now and again but to be truthful I prefer playing golf on Saturdays. But when the hammer went down I couldn't bear to see this town, and the kids, without a club."
Keen appealed for help and donations and within two weeks the club received £30,000. Lawyers and accountants have given their services for free to fight the legal battles. An army of volunteers has raised money and repaired, painted and maintained Holker Street.
"We're a community club, limited by guarantee," says Keen. "Our motto is 'Squeaky Clean'. We run teams from age 11. The first team is in very good health, fifth in the UniBond, under manager Kenny Lowe. Our gates are the league's highest by a mile. We just hope we will clear the final hurdle and secure the future."
A Leeds court will decide in early December an action by the liquidator to recapture Holker Street from claims made by Northern Improvements, a company formerly owned by Vaughan, and, among others, Cherry Tree Finance. Vaughan said Northern Improvements had bought the ground for £410,000, although this included £300,000 he had already invested. The £110,000, he said, was loaned by Cherry Tree, who took a charge on the ground.
The liquidator, Jim Duckworth, is claiming the transaction was not carried out properly, and seeking to undo it and restore the ground to Barrow. "There are several issues surrounding the transfer," he said yesterday, refusing to comment further. "All will be revealed in court." If successful, Duckworth will sell the ground. Keen is hopeful that the reborn Barrow will make a realistic offer for it.
Vaughan subsequently sold Northern Improvements to another Liverpool businessman, James Olivier. Vaughan's company, Stephen Vaughan Promotions Limited, was dissolved in February 1999, but from September 1999 he has operated from a new one, Vaughan Promotions (Merseyside) Limited. No charges were ever brought as a result of the investigations. Vaughan was convicted of an offence last year but it was a common assault, following a road rage incident on the Kendal to Windermere road. He was given 120 hours' community service.
In an interview last month with the Barrow fanzine, Give 'Em Beans, Vaughan said the liquidator agreed that Barrow owe him £269,000. Duckworth refused to comment on that, or on the scale of Barrow's debts. Vaughan also claimed to be a Barrow fan, saying his interest in Droylsden was "just a business".
Vaughan then bought Chester last month. Chester had sunk to bottom of the Conference, their fans deeply alienated from Terry Smith and Gordon Hill, his fifth manager in two years. Vaughan immediately sacked Hill, installing the former Tranmere midfielder, Steve Mungall, as manager.
Vaughan has largely been welcomed by supporters. Barrie Hipkiss, chairman of the official Supporters Club, whom Smith had banned from the Deva Stadium, said: "It's a great improvement. I'm very impressed by Stephen's approach and his promise to get things right. He has simply told us he wants to be involved in football and wants to own a club."
At Holker Street last Saturday Barrow fans gave Vaughan a fierce reception. "People are very angry here," said Graham Murphy, editor of Give 'Em Beans. "Even if none of the serious allegations turned out to be true, he still mismanaged the club. He decided to pay wages we couldn't afford, so we were reliant on him, then he decided to pull the plug. We didn't just go bust, we nearly disappeared from football after 100 years."
Keen hopes the club will soon put it all behind them: "The people here haven't deserved all the trauma. We hope to resolve everything amicably next month and go forward from there. Then I can go back to the golf course." Vaughan was unavailable for comment yesterday.
As for the FA's intervention, there is a curious postscript. Last season Barrow drew Droylsden in the FA Cup second qualifying round. This, too, was a meeting of two clubs Vaughan owned. But last year the game went ahead: Barrow won 3-0.
"At the time the full facts of Stephen Vaughan's involvement were unclear," said an FA spokesman yesterday. "However we are more fully aware of it now and are monitoring the situation."