Championship Focus: Barrow Raiders’ journey from ‘on its backside’ to Championship play-offs

Barrow coach Paul Crarey has hailed the team behind the team as the Raiders fly the flag for Cumbria in the Championship this season.

Workington Town are rooted to the foot of the table amid financial difficulties and a player drain, and are facing an immediate return to League One.

Meanwhile, neighbours Whitehaven, who have been continually depleted by injuries, have struggled to repeat anything like the form of last season, when they made the top six.

But Barrow, promoted alongside Workington last year, are bound for the play-offs, and Crarey, who is in his second spell at the helm at the Matt Johnson Prestige Stadium (aka Craven Park), says that while it’s a big achievement, it’s also an indicator of the club’s determination to progress.

The popular 56-year-old former hooker, nicknamed Cresta, was playing for hometown Barrow last time they competed in the top flight, in 1989/90, since when they have yo-yoed between the second and third tiers and suffered several financial crises.

It was a tough campaign, with just one win in 26 matches, just as it was in 2019, when the Raiders were relegated after two seasons back in the Championship after managing only five wins and a draw from 27 games.

So fair play to Crarey and another former Barrow player Steve Neale, who became Chairman in 2018, for regrouping and, amid the pandemic, finding a way back to the second section – and making a mark.

Ambitious Neale has overseen the launch of a women’s side that is now playing in Super League, and his long-term aim is to have the men’s team competing at that level.

But as Crarey – who played 172 times for Barrow between 1987 and 1995 and has also coached local sides Dalton and Walney Central and the Cumbria and Great Britain Lions community sides as well as Whitehaven – is quick to point out, his former team-mate Neale, who made 41 appearances in a variety of positions between 1993 and 1997, knows firm foundations are crucial and that there is still much to be done to get the club fit for another top-flight tilt. 

“Steve’s great to work with, because he knows the business and financial world, but as a former player, he gets the game as well and understands the kind of hurdles we have to overcome, particularly located where we are,” Crarey explains.

“Twice I’ve come in as coach when the club’s been on its backside, late on in 2004 (until 2007), and again in late 2014.

“Hopefully I’ve learned from the tough times and that 2019 relegation, and I know Steve has. That’s certainly been a factor in helping us compete more strongly in the Championship this time.

“With Steve and the board, (director of rugby) Andy Gaffney and my assistant Steve Rea (another ex-Barrow player), we’ve got a great backroom set-up, and we’re all pulling in the same direction, which is so important.

“All of us are constantly looking for ways to keep moving the club forward in a sensible and sustainable way – we have a saying ‘complacency is the enemy of winners’ – and we’ve been able to assemble a squad that buys into the culture we have here and have a great work ethic.

“As it usually the case for the Cumbrian clubs, we have to mix lads from the strong amateur scene with some from farther afield, and with the time and commitment required, being one of those travellers isn’t easy for lads who also have work and family commitments.

“In the past we’ve had players who have found after a few months that it isn’t for them and that’s understandable, but the current group has stuck at it.

“We try to do our best to make life a little easier for them by putting on transport to get them up here and giving them as much opportunity as we realistically can to let them do some things at home, with our strength and conditioner giving them programmes to follow.

“You can tell they are doing that, because we’ve got a fit bunch, and while you’re always going to have some injury problems, hopefully we can steer clear of too many more so that we can give ourselves the best chance of getting to the play-off semi-finals.

“Being where we are in the table is great, because as always, the first priority was to make sure we stay in the division, and what’s been achieved is down not just to the lads, but all the people behind the scenes who have worked so hard, and who continue to do so.”

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