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League Two: Pete Wild has got the Bluebirds singing at Barrow

In a division that’s now dominated by the noise of Wrexham and their Hollywood owners, Barrow have been quietly plotting a blockbuster movie of their own.

Competing in their fourth consecutive season in the Football League, the Bluebirds have catapulted themselves into promotion contention as we approach the halfway stage of the campaign.

Pete Wild’s side have embarked on an unbeaten league run that stretches back to the start of October and have won six consecutive matches, elevating them to second in the table.

It’s a phenomenal stretch that’s got Barrow ruffling the feathers of the big-spending clubs in the division and the Cumbrian outfit are now 5/4 to win promotion from League Two.

Here we take a look at the continued progress under their current ownership regime and how Wild is establishing himself as a hot prospect in the competitive pool of lower league managers.

An unprecedented rise

Since the consortium of Tony Shearer, Paul Hornby and the Bluebirds Trust completed their takeover on the 18th November 2018, Barrow have been on the rise – although it’s not all been plain-sailing.

The season prior to the takeover they had avoided relegation to the National League North by a solitary point. With Ian Evatt at the helm, the new board had a manager capable of implementing their vision and overseeing progress in a sustainable manner.

Winning the National League title in the next campaign exceeded their expectations.

With the season curtailed as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the final standings were decided by points-per-game and Barrow were crowned champions, ending their 48-year exile from the Football League; the longest gap that any team has had between leaving the EFL and re-entering it via automatic promotion.

Their plans to build on the foundations set by Evatt were hampered when Bolton Wanderers came calling in the summer. A compensation package was agreed, Evatt departed and David Dunn was hired as his replacement.

Unfortunately Dunn was one of four managerial appointments that Barrow have failed to get right since.

The former Blackburn and Birmingham midfielder was sacked five months into his tenure and his successor Michael Jolley was in the Holker Street hotseat for an even shorter period. He survived eight matches before the club wielded the axe, with co-owner Hornby citing differences in the team’s playing style as the reason for his departure.

It was as clear a statement yet that Barrow were sticking to their principles, even in the face of relegation. Caretaker manager Rob Kelly ultimately done enough to preserve their League Two status that season but similar difficulties occurred in the following campaign.

Mark Cooper was appointed but left the club in March amid controversy. Phil Brown filled the vacant role but Barrow were fortunate that Oldham Athletic and Scunthorpe United endured miserable campaigns as they avoided relegation for a second successive season.

New sporting director Iain Wood relieved Brown of his duties and was tasked with sourcing his replacement. His next move would define the club’s future.

And so Wood looked to Wild, a young managerial figure that had overachieved with Halifax Town, guiding the Shaymen to a play-off finish in two of his three seasons with the club. 

This is the same Wild who worked as a tree surgeon and an apprentice mechanic before unearthing a route into professional football with his beloved Oldham.

Signing a three-year deal, Wild was given a blank canvas from which he could attempt to take the club forward.

He’s not only a good young coach, but he can spot and develop young players. He’s exactly the type of manager we were after and he immediately bought into what we are trying to build here at Barrow.

Paul Hornby, Barrow chairman

Setting the foundations

One of Wild’s first tasks as manager was to oversee a squad revamp. In total, there were 28 incomings and outgoings.

Typically when there’s such a drastic overhaul it can take time for a team to gel but Wild wasted little time in setting the tone with seven wins from their opening nine league fixtures.

Such a start inevitably raises expectations and while Barrow remained in play-off contention through the turn of the year, a run of six games without a win hampered their chances of a top-seven finish.

Operating on a bottom-half budget, there was great satisfaction at finishing the season in 9th but Wild was drawing up plans for the following campaign.

To aid Wild's preparations, the club relocated their training base again in May this year. Previously leasing De La Salle Sports & Social Club in Salford, a partnership with FC United of Manchester was established for the use of their state-of-the-art training facilities.

Why are they training 100 miles south of their home ground, I hear you ask? Barrow-in-Furness is a remote port town. The club see accessibility as key in giving them an advantage in a competitive transfer market. There is hope that, if Barrow progress and reach a higher division, a base in their hometown would become more feasible.

In March, the sale of forward Billy Waters to Wrexham helped raise funds for the summer. There were other departures, including the exit of top goalscorer Josh Gordon, who joined Burton Albion on the expiry of his contract.

The club replenished their forward line with the captures of Emile Acquah, Jamie Proctor, Courtney Duffus and Dom Telford, who scored 15 goals for Crawley last season and was hot property the year before that, notching up 25 league goals for Newport County.

They added experience in James Chester but also stuck true to their recruitment policy, identifying younger individuals that Wild can develop and potentially sell on for a profit in the future.

Kian Spence, a defensive midfielder Wild knew from his time at Halifax, fits the mould and has flourished this campaign. Dean Campbell and Junior Tiensia have both featured regularly this term and Barrow have built a squad with a strong balance of youth and experience.

Resilience is key

Preferring a 5-3-2 formation that can transition into a 3-5-2 in attack, Barrow’s success so far this campaign has stemmed from their defensive resilience.

Conceding 16 goals this term, the Bluebirds have the best defensive record in the division and are consistently proving to be a difficult unit to break down. Since mid-October, they’ve only shipped two goals in nine league matches.

Their staunch rearguard features experienced campaigners George Ray and captain Niall Canavan, while between the sticks is the ever-reliable Paul Farman.

The former Lincoln City shot-stopper has been in impressive form, keeping seven clean sheets and boasting a save percentage of 81%, the joint-best in League Two alongside Wrexham’s Arthur Okonkwo.

He’s been helped significantly by the number of shots he’s had to face. With the fifth-lowest xGA in League Two and averaging 3.2 shots on target against per fixture, Barrow have conceded the second-fewest shots on target in the division and it’s a reward for their defensive structure and positional discipline.

The midfield trio, which has primarily consisted of Spence, Campbell and Robbie Gotts or Tom White, are a bundle of energy that can sit deep, engage with opposition pressure and protect their central defenders.

Wild has built a good rapport with his players and it’s telling in their performances. At 39, he’s still viewed as a juvenile in the unforgiving landscape of football management and the former Oldham coach uses that to his advantage, engaging his players with enjoyable methods and sessions.

Attacking conundrum

One area Wild is desperate to improve is their goal returns.

Barrow scored only 47 goals last term and it’s a trend that has continued this season, having netted just 30 times in 21 matches so far - although nine of their goals have come in their last three league outings.

Unearthing a consistency to their end product has been an obstacle for Wild. On transition they’re effective, aided by the width that their wing-backs offer, but with the eighth-lowest xG from open play and the fifth-fewest number of shots in League Two, the Bluebirds have encountered difficulties in the opposition third.

As demonstrated in their comprehensive 3-0 win over Swindon Two, crosses from wide areas are a key element to their attacking blueprint and Barrow are moderately dangerous from set-pieces; two of their goals at the Country Ground were fashioned from well-worked free-kick routines.

Their attacking output requires improvement if they’re to sustain their form over the course of the season but supporters can take solace in the fact their side are difficult to beat, no matter the opposition.

Not standing still

Barrow's progress over the last five years has been splendid but the ambitions of the club go way beyond League Two consolidation.

Their next target is promotion to League One, whether that be this season or in the years to come.

It's a challenge made increasingly difficult as the division is exposed to clubs with greater resources. There's a heightened demand for instant success but Barrow know that their sustainable model can reap rewards in the future.

We are not going to settle for mediocrity in League Two, not at all.

Tony Shearer, Barrow co-owner

Developing young players is a key principle that will hopefully bode well in performances on the pitch and in creating a profitable revenue stream.

With Wild at the wheel, there's every chance the club can achieve success this campaign but even if results were to deteriorate and Barrow miss out on promotion, his stock will remain high for the progress he has overseen.

It's only a matter of time before another club starts to sniff around for his services.

Barrow 2023/24 - League Two Odds:

To Win Outright - 28/1
To Finish in Top 3 - 3/1
To be Promoted - 5/4
To Finish in Top 7 - 4/9

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