Made famous by hit TV series Gavin & Stacey, Barry was once at the forefront of Welsh club football. But local club Barry Town, long out of the European limelight, all but disappeared before a fan-based initiative rescued them in 2013. On Sunday, European football returns to Jenner Park with a fixture between two obscure teams from Eastern Europe in the Women’s Champions League. Andy Potts visits the South Wales seaside resort.
This Sunday sees Barry make a welcome return to the European fold. But Jenner Park, home of Barry Town for over a century, won’t be witnessing the Dragons compete in Europe for the first time since 2003.
Sunday’s clash is between NSA Sofia of Bulgaria and Serbia’s Spartak Subotica, a Women’s Champions League qualifier in the round-robin mini-tournament stage that also involves Cardiff Met hosting Iceland’s Breidablik on the long road to next year’s final at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The match is a reminder of just how far Barry Town have fallen. Seven-time Welsh Premier League champions in eight years, Barry were regular competitors in Europe’s premier competition – Porto and Dynamo Kyiv were among the visitors to Jenner Park. With its wave-like roof over the main stand, possibly inspired by the celebrated beaches of Barry Island, this renovated ground wouldn’t look out of place in the Baltics – it has all the faded modernity of Socialist Futurism.
But it has also staged some of the biggest nights in Welsh club football. In 1996, 6,500 squeezed onto temporary stands to witness the first ever UEFA Cup First Round tie in the principality. Barry Town held Aberdeen to a 3-3 draw in a ‘battle of Britain’ clash – a creditable effort, but not enough to overhaul a 1-3 deficit from Pittodrie. Other illustrious visitors included Kyiv’s famed strike partnership of Rebrov and Shevchenko and Porto, just three years before they won the Champions League in 2004. After an 8-0 win in Porto – in front of 55,000, surely the biggest crowd to watch Barry – the Portuguese champions strolled to a 3-1 defeat at Jenner Park. In the previous round, Barry had beaten Azerbaijani champions Shamkir home and away – the first time a Welsh team had progressed in the Champions League.
Yet it soon went sour. The cost of sustaining professional football was daunting in a league where attendances still struggle to get close to four figures. Owners and chairmen came and went, John Fashanu notable among them. His promise of Nigerian and Chinese youth internationals vanished in the jungle – Fash signed up for the reality TV shenanigans of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and lost the focus he had promised for Barry.
Cash crises and a conflict between the fans and the owner, Stuart Lovering, drove the club to the brink of collapse. Lovering banned supporters’ groups from fundraising to help the team and planned to withdraw Barry from competitive football. Summer 2013 saw the High Court intervene to cancel out an FA of Wales ruling that the team would henceforth only play ‘recreational football’, outside of any league structure.
The Cardiff court ruling, something of last-gasp equaliser, enabled ‘Barry Town United’ to begin the 2013-14 season in Welsh League Division 3, the lowest tier of the regional competition for South Wales, far from the heady days of Europe. But it also marked the start of the fightback. Back-to-back promotions saw the club just one step from the Welsh Premier at the start of last season. A race for the title ended in a narrow defeat to Cardiff Met Uni – whose women’s side are the main hosts of Sunday’s Champions League event.
Undaunted, Barry Town United began the new season with a 2-0 home win over Undy Athletic. Off-field improvements include a new plastic playing surface and a clubhouse at the council-owned ground, helping develop welcome additional revenue streams for the team. Crowds hover around the 250 mark – a far cry from the thousands in Barry’s heyday, but reasonable for this level.
And after the ladies of Sofia and Subotica have gone? For Barry Town United, the road to Europe would begin with promotion to the Welsh Premier next spring.
NSA Sofia-Spartak Subotica, Women’s Champions League. Jenner Park, Barry, Sunday August 28, 3pm.