Being a manager is a lonely job and Graham Barrow would surely agree at his demise from the job he dearly loved by a club that has a habit of kicking him in the teeth. Graham was a very dedicated manager at the Deva Stadium in just as much as he was when he played for the club. "Management is only second to playing" he reminisces, "but you do get a lot of pleasure".
Graham's enthusiasm helped to inspire promotion into the second division of the football league during his first season as a football manager. As all managers would know – there is no better feeling than to give the supporters what they hope for. To be able to witness their happiness and joy makes all their efforts worthwhile. "It's their life this football club, and if I can make their life happier by giving them a successful team then you know it's a great feeling really" Graham enthused.
Success was fast becoming Graham's 'middle' name and he has the history books to prove it. In terms of gaining promotion, Chester are not the only club he's experienced it with, he has in fact done it twice in the conference with Altrincham Town, and once with Wigan Athletic. These form some of his most favoured memories in the game of football. But it doesn't stop there, Graham has also played in big Cup games – his favourite being with the cup-winning Wigan Athletic team when he played under the famous Wembley towers.
Then, there is the fun side to football – the people he's met like former manager Harry McNally and Blues striker Gary Bennett. "They are some of the funniest people I have ever met" smiles Graham. Football is pretty intense for 9 months of the year but if it's been a good season then the break can be rewarding. " We've had trips away. We've been to Majorca as a group of people together, and there's no better time to be with a group of footballers than when they've won something" says Graham "They are letting their hair down and you have a fantastic time".
Graham's career started like most do nowadays – from school. But in those days – school football was not nearly as organised as it is now. "We played probably organised football at 15 or 16 and maybe 15 times a year with the schools" he recalls. Graham got it as tough as it comes in football – he was turned down by our next FA Cup opponents, Blackburn Rovers as a kid and so began from the absolute bottom, and that was non-league football. "I played for my hometown Chorley Town" remembers Graham "and then continued with Southport and Altrincham Town".
Graham didn't get into league football until what is considered in football to be pretty late. "These players [Chester] have played league football before I even got past the amateur stage," he says. In his first season playing with Wigan Athletic he had a particularly good season – scoring 18 goals in midfield – "I really enjoy scoring goals" he admits, "I mean some players don't score many goals – even the top class players". He even has a picture of his favourite goal, an equaliser, which he scored when with Chester, our local rivals from over the border, Wrexham, formed the opposition in a quarter final tie.
And not only was he able to score goals – he became a very versatile player, playing not only in midfield, but up front and at the back as well. When it comes to his best position "I really enjoyed playing midfield" says Graham "because you've pretty much got an all round involvement in the game". And although he enjoyed that position – it could have cost him a little bit as he had the build and physique to play centre-half and would probably have gone on to play higher had he done so. Graham continued as a player until he was practically 40 – which is not that common nowadays – simply because it was so enjoyable and he didn't want to "go back to work".
At the age of 32 he was open to some wide opportunities and at the time he felt he wanted to move on from Wigan Athletic – he had been approached by several Lancashire based clubs and was offered the prospect of becoming a player coach from Harry McNally. That made him stop and think – how could he turn such an opportunity down that could further his career towards managing alongside playing? "I don't think that many people plan to go in to be a manager," thinks Graham "it's probably people who are interested in coaching".
As time went on and inevitably as usually happens in football, Harry was sacked and Graham was asked to manage the team on a permanent basis. "Even as a kid at school the PE teacher allowed me to pick the team at an early age, so I had responsibility then" he remembers, "maybe it was always going to happen, I don't know". Keeping professional, he didn't let his success go to his head – and was careful, obviously with a loyalty to Harry – but management was a natural progression and he didn't really feel 'put on the spot'. "I didn't particularly enjoy it at first" puts in Graham "it was the responsibility of playing and managing". And in that he means that he had to choose players, and inevitably leave players out – but not just players, his friends. "I had a clear conscience – I had to tell people" he recalls "once I knew I could handle that – then I knew I could do everything".
Management was obviously Barrow's forte. In his first year, he gained them a promotion to Division 2. "It was more than I ever expected," admits Graham. There was always the danger that what had happened to the club in the past, could in fact happen again, and the team didn't get off to the best of starts – but there was something there. And to achieve something over the season, the way they went about it, gave Graham a feeling of elation – and he knows that only if he does it again, will he match that feeling.
Graham's achievement was recognised nationally. In October 1994, at the League Managers Association Annual Dinner he was named runner-up in the Manager of the Year Award for Division III and came third in the national Manager of the Year Awards. Joe Kinnear of Wimbledon was first, Mark McGhee of Reading was second and future England manager at that time, Kevin Keegan of Newcastle was fourth!!
Then he moved on, to bigger and better things, managing Wigan Athletic and then later on moving across Lancashire to Rochdale. Whilst working over at Notts County last season, he clearly remembers the day he heard the news of our relegation. "I remember walking into the dressing room [at County], and turned on the radio, and there it was – the result came through that they had been relegated" says Graham sadly. He was disappointed in his heart. City had had a great chance to stay up on the last day, so it was very sad. "I did keep in touch with the supporters, came back every now and then with others teams, and was always welcomed back, it was a sad day" remembers Graham.
Following the end of his agreement with Notts. County, Graham returned to the Deva Stadium. His aim being to attempt to do the ultimate and get us back in the league, sadly we all know what happened. One things for sure, managing a football team is very time-consuming compared with the playing itself – and that's one thing Graham has come to accept "it's been a long time since I sat down and enjoyed a film or something like that". The saddest thing about the job is that if the team has won at a quarter-to-five, the manager is thinking ahead to the next game at five-to-five – whereas the players would be relaxing a little and enjoying the result.
Graham, having now experienced life in football as a whole, understands why some have turned to drink and the like. "If you are not careful it can ruin your life" he said "but its not too bad for me – the family are involved in football". "Basically it's a mind game, and you have to have self-control." Graham continues. Graham is married to Margaret, and they have two children Hannah (17) and James (13) who all live in Chorley, Lancs. His family and in particular his wife, have supported him throughout his career in full time football. James has taken after his father in terms of football and is currently playing in Burnley where he is the captain of the Under 15s team.
When asked if he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, Graham replied "If somebody had asked me 5 years ago, I would have said no. You feel for your children and you are frightened of the heartache." But Graham has enjoyed himself so much, he knows that James could go on and have a good career at least in the conference if he doesn't make it at a higher level. He feels that James has potential, but its out of his hands and will be up to others to judge him. "He understands the game and enjoys it too" he adds "he hasn't been pushed – he's just gone down that road himself".
Written November 2000