Barrow Raiders tackling COVID-19 as they eye August Return
Whilst one half of the town celebrates Barrow AFC’s promotion to the Football League following the lock-down prematurely ending the season, over at Craven Park it’s a story of frustration as all the pre-season hard work on and off the pitch was cut short, just two games into what it was hoped would be be another promotion season for the town of Barrow and Barrow Raiders.
Sport Furness this week spoke to Raiders chairman Steve Neale to get the low down on the club and the direction COVID-19 is taking it. “It is very frustrating” he admitted, “we had built, what we believed, to be a promotion winning squad and we had got off to such a good start. The defeat at Featherstone, in a strange way, was the most pleasing as we only lost by a couple of points to a team at the top of the league above. Add in the fantastic win at Doncaster and we were sat pretty to go on a winning run. Our injury problems of recent seasons appeared to be clearing and for the next scheduled game we were picking from a full squad with real competition for places.”
It’s not just on the pitch where the frustration was felt however. With the disappointment of last seasons relegation behind them Neale felt the club were headed in the right direction. “Off the field there was some really good work going on in the boardroom and in the community. We had distributed over 10,000 free season tickets to every schoolchild in South Cumbria and we were planning festival days of rugby for all our home fixtures. There was a genuine feeling, despite relegation, that our crowds were going to grow and we now have to regain the momentum that was forming”.
Neale was quick to reassure us that financially the club is in a solid position and attributes this to the Government job retention scheme being “the main saviour of the club”. The club had been looking at loans to maintain an existence but the scheme has thus far preventing the club being saddled with debt. Neale went on to explain how the club had committed to topping up all the staff’s salaries to 100% of their contracts. “We believe this is the right thing to do” he said. On top of the governments assistance he also said a decision to purposefully under spend on the playing staff budget has helped and this leaves “some funds in reserve” should the league restart and further recruitment be required.
Raiders have also been pro-active in opening up several new revenue streams with Neale turning philosophical momentarily when stating “sometimes in crisis you can think of all the risks to the business but if you change your mindset you can start to think about opportunities” and it’s these opportunities that not only promise to help save Raiders but also enable them to thrive long term. He admitted the club have “been very pro-active and have already entered the face mask market and produced Key worker tribute leisurewear that will in part eventually help support our community programme as well as local good causes.” Plans were also in place this weekend to open Craven Park up to the public coinciding with the government easing restrictions on pubs and restaurants “using our pitch as beer garden throughout weekends in July and August. We see the outdoors as a safe environment and clearly with the large space we can socially distance effectively.”
Both the chairman and it’s board of directors clearly see the facilities at Craven Park as their biggest asset and this lead to it’s most creative decision when looking at ways of maximizing it’s potential with the creation of Lincoln’s Burgers, a new takeaway food venture at Raiders’ ground. Neale explained “we saw the use of our catering facilities as part of the strategy. For the first few weeks the club does not have ownership as we look to recoup set-up costs. I have funded the venture so there is absolutely no risk to the club and another director, Pete Murphy, has done a fantastic job managing the facility on a day to day basis. We will wait to see whether the re-opening of pubs and restaurants has a big averse effect on trade and once we are confident that the business is profitable then we have established another useful income stream for the club. This is a long term venture and we already have discussed growth plans and establishing a facility in the town centre, maybe combined with a bar.”
Most clubs across the country are desperate for games to restart and get fans back into the stadiums and Raiders are no different with Neale questioning the reasoning for supporters being excluded from stadiums “ If it is safe to go into a shop then there has to be less risk to watch sport in an outdoor environment. I know the government are being lobbied hard to have a return of crowds at our level”.
With provisional plan in place to restart Rugby League in August the chairman was keen to express the club “can easily social distance with the size of crowd we command compared to the capacity and there are other measures like online ticketing that can help reduce the personal interaction. Everyone in rugby league is desperate to save the season and we can’t wait for the green light to be turned on” he added “when we do return to action I think everyone needs to appreciate what could have been lost. Together with Barrow AFC after their wonderful promotion the two professional sporting clubs put Barrow on the map and we both need support on the terracing”