Jenner Park, Barry, has the look of a European venue. Not, perhaps, one of the glittering stages where sport meets showbiz in front of 100,000 fans in a storied European capital. You’d have to go up the road to the Millennium Stadium for that. Not even a decaying bowl of a team that once lifted Euro silverware while representing a country that no longer exists. But with its running track and its undulating main stand aside a smart plastic pitch, it’s not a great stretch to imagine this ground in one of the Baltic states, making regular forays into the qualifying rounds of the Europa or Champions Leagues.
Today though, it’s the start of the Welsh League campaign with newly-promoted Undy Athletic the visitors in Division 1. Something of a comedown for a team that dominated Welsh football for a decade.
After accepting a place in the League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League), this former Southern League stalwart quickly became a dominant force. A shock FAW Cup win over Cardiff in 1994 ushered in an era of huge success: seven titles in eight years, the first Welsh team to reach the first round proper of the UEFA Cup, the first Welsh team to win a Champions League tie. Football fever hit the town, with 6,500 fans cramming onto rain-lashed temporary stands to witness a 3-3 draw against Aberdeen in a ‘Battle of Britain’ UEFA Cup clash; the Dons progressed thanks to a 3-1 win at Pittodrie while Town earned the neutrals’ respect.
Dinamo Kiev, complete with Rebrov and Shevchenko, came in their pomp. A huge 55,000 crowd saw the South Wales team play in Porto; after an 8-0 romp in the first leg the Portuguese assumed that the second game would be a stroll along the Barry Island promenade but only progressed with a bloody nose after a 3-1 Barry win in the return leg. With a favourable draw and a little good fortune, Barry could dream of rivalling the unlikely European achievements of a BATE Borisov or an APOEL Nicosia and rubbing shoulders with the biggest of boys.
Then it all went spectacularly wrong. Maybe it was the consequence of too long trying to play professional football on semi-pro budgets. Maybe it was a misguided effort to throw money into a squad that could go deeper into Europe. Maybe it was the ill-fated decision to bring in John Fashanu as a celebrity chairman, a move that garnered column inches but failed to stem the cash problems.
Whatever the true reasons, the money ran out. In 2003 the club went into administration, to be bought out by Stuart Lovering. He oversaw a decade of chaos, which at one point led to a breakaway club set up by fans who had been banned from fundraising for Barry Town. Now playing in reduced circumstances in the Welsh Football League, things seemed to be bleak – but worse was to come. In 2013 Lovering unilaterally withdrew the club from the league. Amid fan protests the FA of Wales ruled that henceforth Barry Town would only play ‘recreational football’, outside any league. Salvation came from a High Court judge in Cardiff; a ruling that the FAW’s verdict was unlawful proved to be the legal equivalent of a stoppage-time equalizer. Barry Town were back from the brink and began the 2013-14 season in Welsh League Division 3.
Under the guidance of long-serving boss Gavin Chesterfield, that season ended with a title win. Division 2 was conquered the next year, and just four points separated Barry from a third promotion in successive seasons. Cardiff Metropolitan University clinched top spot and a Welsh Premier League place; Barry, still hopeful of a return to former glories, would have to try again.
The supporter-run club is steadily making progress. A new clubhouse came 18 months ago, adding vital additional revenue streams to the council-owned Jenner Park ground. Missing promotion last season feels like a delay rather than the end of the journey. A 2-0 win over Undy – a middling game distinguished by acrobatic celebrations from goalscorer Tyrrell Webbe – reinvigorated home hopes. The crowd, respectable for this level, was noisy. The singing wasn’t quite of the calibre of the famous Welsh choral tradition but the bugler added a welcome note when Barry charged forward.
And, at a time when Welsh football is on the charge, maybe it won’t be too long before he’s playing his fanfare to celebrate the culmination of Barry Town’s own resurgence.
Jenner Park, Barry, Wales
August 13, 2016. Welsh Football League, Division 1.
Barry Town 2 (Fahiya, Webbe) Undy Athletic 0
Att: 150 (head count)