It is a Friday morning. You are preparing to coach your players for tomorrow’s fixture against a promotion contender. You must ensure your players are ready physically and mentally, guarantee that they understand your tactics and they know what to expect from the opposition.
Then one of your players walks into the room with a look of shock. He announces all games are cancelled. There was not a word of warning. Training ends. You drive home, not knowing that you’ve coached your final match for that club.
You could tell there is still dissatisfaction in Graham Barrow’s voice as he remembers how he and his Shrewsbury team found out the English Football League had shut down in March. “We found out off Sky that all games were off,” he told The Football Pink.
“I don’t think anyone at the club had the information. It was just a flash on Sky television. There was no pre-warning. We were literally just about to start training at 10:30 am as normal. You went home and time went on. It was bizarre.”
The topic is painstaking for someone who has invested over 40 years of their life in the English game at various levels. The pandemic has uncovered the blatant self-interest of leagues and clubs alike. Barrow shares the anger for how English football has knotted itself in the toxic environment.
“One thing that gets me is they leave it up to clubs to vote. It is self-interest. That’s why Gary Neville said what he said. You have people thinking about themselves. It’s human nature, unfortunately.”
“The one thing the pandemic has shown is the worst in people as well as the best in people. You see professional people in our sport, and you get the worst out of them because they are thinking about themselves, not the game as a whole.”
“That’s why it can’t be left up to them to decide what to do for the future. It has to be taken out of their hands. Someone has to be strong enough to make the decisions.”
“We need someone to overlook football. There still needs to be hope for the other teams. You can’t knock John Coleman at Accrington Stanley or what Joey Barton is doing at Fleetwood. They don’t get the support Peterborough or Lincoln get. They are matching. They might have poorer resources, but they come up with the goods.”
“That’s what English football has always been about. It’s a pride we have in our league. An underdog always comes through. Accrington is competing every year. We always have hope for clubs and that’s how we should always be in this country.”
First-team coach to a revolutionary manager
Graham Barrow, 66, has experienced better moments to the one he felt nine months ago. For how he assumed to those possibilities was a matter of coincidence and ambition.
He joined Wigan after rebounding Chester City to Division Two in 1994. It wasn’t long till Dave Whelan bought the club and set the agenda for the next twenty years. It was under their partnership a young defensive midfielder called Roberto Martinez moved to the Latics for the first time. However, the first spell the trio experienced did not last long: Barrow was sacked in October 1995.
“He [Whelan] was in a hurry to get to the Premier League,” Barrow recounted. “We were 7th in the league. It was quite a shock, but I wasn’t the only one after that.”
Barrow adventured across the Football League managing clubs in difficult positions. Rochdale, Notts County, a return to Chester, Bury and another Chester return came thereafter as manager and assistant manager. Then he received a phone call.
“I was at the airport in Manchester going to Spain. I got a call from Roberto saying he was coming back to Wigan and he wanted me to come as the first-team coach. I never heard anything in a month which is not unlike Rob. It was done and dusted in a day. Rob was delighted to be back.”
More than a decade after Barrow signed Martinez for Wigan, their paths collided again as player and coach when the Spaniard joined Chester on a two-year contract in 2006. Even now, Barrow is surprised by how quietly and effectively Martinez became a manager.
“Out of nowhere, I got a call from Roberto saying he had a chance at the Swansea job. Kenny Jacket had been sacked. They were just outside the playoffs.”
“He asked me to go with him, but I was under contract at Chester and I couldn’t get out. I worked closely with him and we always got on. It was literally out of the blue. I didn’t even think he would get the Swansea job.”
“I was doing the radio for Wigan and I bumped into Dave Whelan at the stadium. I said to him Roberto was doing well at Swansea. He asked whether he has got spirit and I told him definitely. Within six months of that, he was manager of Wigan.”
“It was exciting at the time, though all the time he was a player for us, he never gave us any indication he wanted to be a manager. When you work with people you get a general idea who wants to do it. It was almost like he kept it as a close secret to himself.”
“He had these ideas he had picked up. It was quite revolutionary. He got off to a flying start at Swansea playing some fantastic football. But he wasn’t still convincing over here. There was Manchester United at their height, but it was like swashbuckling football and up and at-um stuff.”
“With Rob, it was more calculated. He did surprise me when we worked together. You never stop learning this game. It was quite exciting.”
Martinez’s Wigan were famous for their disasters and being able to stun their opponents with an unlikely victory. In their first season alone, they lost 5-0 twice to Manchester United; 4-0 to Arsenal, Portsmouth and Bolton; 9-1 to Tottenham; and then 8-0 against Chelsea on the final day. On the flip side, in those four-years, they defeated Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs twice and Chelsea and United once in the league.
Regardless of Wigan being inconsistently consistent, Barrow takes pride in their record while he learnt under Martinez’s leadership.
“Wigan had done well with Paul Jewell and Steve Bruce, though the team had never beaten the best. We did and early on. We beat Chelsea 3-1. They were absolutely flying at the time. He had the tactical knowhow. We see it today with his Belgium team. In those four years, we did beat all the top teams.”
“When you wanted to do what Rob wanted to do you must have that stubbornness. He has that. I remember playing our second game, a League Cup match at Blackpool, and we couldn’t get out of our penalty area with the number of times we played it back to our goalkeeper. Rob stuck to it.”
“I was brought up with the British method. British managers at that time had a fear factor. It wasn’t his style, and it was justified. It was good to see in that time of my career – to see a different angle to how to manage.”
Wigan escaped relegation three years consecutively by the finest of margins. A win at home to Arsenal in April secured their Premier League status with 36 points to round off the first season. The following year they finished just three points above the drop-zone. The third campaign was more comfortable with a seven-point cushion. So how did Martinez manage to keep Wigan’s head above water?
“He held his nerve in the big games,” Barrow said simply. “He had this knack of making the players and staff feel calm. I remember when we played Stoke away, we stayed at a hotel just on a golf course near the ground. He had a chat with the players. He made them feel relaxed.”
“We all sat down for dinner with a presentation. We each got a photo from the season with a message on it. He made everyone feel good about themselves. It was always positive.”
“Not many managers walk into a club after being beaten 9-1 with a smile on his face. He did. He would say good morning to everyone. You learn something from it. He treated people with respect, and he got the respect back.”
“He dealt with disappointment better than anyone I had seen” Barrow added. “He wouldn’t go mad after a game. He would go away and watch the game again. Analyse it. On the coach, he watched it twice before we got off at Wigan. Roberto never reacted immediately after the games. He wouldn’t pull people to pieces. He was calculated in what he was doing in a psychologist way. He wasn’t just a football coach.”
Psychology is a fundamental part of how footballers digest the information their manager is translating to them. Barrow referred to how Martinez copes with that pressure at international level with the help from his former attacking-midfielder Shaun Maloney, who is a part of his Belgium coaching staff.
“He has a football brain similar to Rob’s. Rob needs to work with these people because they can take information in straight away. He is very clear in what he wants but the players have to implement it.”
“That’s why he is very comfortable with people like Kevin de Bruyne. Some would find it almost intimidating working with top players. He is comfortable with these people. He gets their respect straight away.”
An owner’s vision
At the heart of Wigan’s rise was Dave Whelan. Their former owner and chairman had lifted the club from the depths of Division Three to the Premier League in ten years. The highest they finished was tenth, coming in their debut season in the top division. Rather than holding animosity for his original sacking in 1995, Barrow saw the wider picture to Whelan’s ownership.
“The best thing about Dave Whelan was that he had a vision for what he wanted, but he didn’t have enough money to back it up. When he first came into the club it was on its knees. He got them a training ground and things progressed. Paul Jewel benefitted most from him in terms of loyalty. Managers didn’t get them up quick enough to where he wanted to be. Paul did it eventually.”
“Whelan was determined to stay there. He put a lot into that football club. He didn’t use it for anything else. His competitive attitude came out. He’s a hard businessman. He didn’t let that ruin his business either. He kept a level head.”
“Rob and Dave had a really strong relationship. It was almost like father and son. He loved Rob when he first came over. He was an instigator. Dave was behind it. The moment they met there was a connection. It proved to be strong. Roberto never had an adverse reaction from Dave after any result. He learnt from Rob how to deal with these things.”
Winning the FA Cup
The spring of 2013 was a complicated scenario for Wigan. On one hand, they had unexpectedly reached the FA Cup final. On the other, relegation was staring at them in the eyes. Either task was sizable by themselves without the extra pressure coinciding with the other.
However, no matter how great it was for Barrow, Martinez and their players to be there, this wasn’t the original plan. “Staying in the Premier League was absolutely major for the club,” Barrow said. “That’s where all the energy was. You went along thinking we could be in the next round here. The feeling got stronger and stronger as we went through the tournament.”
Then the quarterfinals at Goodison Park happened.
“It was such a good performance. To see David Moyes in a quandary…. I had known Dave for a long time, and he had no answer to it. It was a five-star performance. You saw the last four teams left in it and we got Millwall. It happened in stages. Just to get there was an achievement. It was in our favour; that’s no disrespect to Millwall. We still knew it was tough.”
In preparation for the game, Martinez’s confidence vibrated through the team. It was granted because of the trust and the installed belief they could achieve the unthinkable.
“We had a psychologist come in a few times. We had to fill in this form and write about each other. I had to say what I thought about the team. On the night of the eve of the game, we went back into our rooms. There were clippings of what people had said about you. They hadn’t signed it. It gave a good idea of what the players thought about me. It helped the feeling around the game. It was a masterstroke.”
“On the day, you would never meet a more convincing bloke. If he were playing golf, he would be convinced he could beat Tiger Woods at his best. He wasn’t being overboard just before we went out. He brought in the chairman and let him have his say. He used him because Dave Whelan had won the cup in 1960. Rob took the heat off himself. He was opposite in culture to us. He relaxed the players rather than overhyping them.”
Wigan went on to famously defeat Manchester City, but it came at a cost. Relegation was confirmed a few days later and the club had not yet celebrated winning the FA Cup for the first time. It was a conflicting moment.
“For me, personally it did [take away from the FA Cup triumph]. We still hadn’t had the open-top bus around town. We had to play the game down to Arsenal. I made a mistake because I told my family it wouldn’t be any good.”
“I always remember the Spanish goalkeeping coach speaking to me on the bus. He asked me what I expect from the celebration. I said there will be a few people there, but we got relegated.”
“We turned a corner into the town, and everyone was out. It was phenomenal. It isn’t something you forget. It dampened the relegation because you thought if we stuck together, we could come back up. We were strong. But then that didn’t materialise, and Rob moved on.”
Wigan has never recovered from Martinez’s departure. Eleven managers and caretaker managers, including Barrow, came and went in the seven years since. Barrow departed for what is likely to be his final spell at Wigan in 2017. The Whelan vision officially ended when the family sold the next year.
No matter, the memories of ending the Martinez era with the FA Cup is eternal for Barrow. “The euphoria after was outstanding. You didn’t need a drink after that. Could you imagine what it meant to someone like me getting my hands on the FA Cup? I had been brought up with it all my life. It was totally unbelievable.”