At the end of June, Keith Hill and David Flitcroft will depart Bolton Wanderers. Their arrival closed a month of unpalatable tension, not just for Wanderers fans, but for everyone who feared seeing two old Lancashire sides stripped clean of their history in a single month, all thanks to their owners’ financial iniquities. Their departure leaves the club at its lowest point in the pyramid since the ‘80s. The announcement has, unsurprisingly, opened the bookies’ wallets and kicked off potentially a month’s worth of forecasting and theorising as to who will take over the top job now the Wanderers are in League Two and so, as it appears Barrow AFC manager Ian Evatt is on the radar, here’s a little look at what it’s been like to support a club under his leadership.
To be honest, it all feels like a wonderfully hazy blur. Evatt took over in June 2018, shortly before a change in ownership. A club that was voted out of the football league nearly 50 years ago hasn’t had much to get excited about and the previous ownership typified the over-sell, under-deliver ethos of non-league sides. Evatt changed that. Teams in the Conference, especially those who have languished there, are familiar with regular squad turnover as players take short-term contracts in the hopes of making bigger moves up the pyramid as and when the opportunity presents itself. The 2017/18 squad looks markedly different to the 2018/19 one that Evatt first managed, but stability and confidence can be the hallmarks of a side on the up – and sure enough the team of 2019/20 bears that out in how stable Evatt has kept the club, whilst being ruthless with players (yes, even local lads) who aren’t cutting the mustard.
And, unsurprisingly, Evatt isn’t a man to mince his words. For a side with a bottom-six budget, the Bluebirds have time and again found ways to excel over the past two seasons, stopping four points clear at the top of the table when the season was suspended. Frequently he is complimented by opposition managers, who lament that they haven’t the playing capacity to actualise a free-flowing game in their squad, only for Evatt to point out that they have more money to work with than him, and that if you have the right players (and aren’t afraid to push them, chop, change, and be ruthless) you should be able to coach them right.
The National League is, infamously, slow and clumsy. Like most English lower divisions it is also physical. A twenty-second passage of play where the ball never hits the ground because no-one has the aim, touch, or temperament to take the heat out of a congested midfield has never been uncommon. This, too, Evatt has addressed. His team is slick, it plays out from a competent goalkeeper to a comfortable back three who can start moving play quickly, but purposefully. Evatt loves a passing game, but he hates passing without purpose. It’s hardly rare to see strikers put keepers under pressure in the National League because playing out from the back is so rare and keepers often crack under it. Everyone knows what it looks like, but no one else has the confidence to use it this low down the ladder. Pacey wing-backs with a great awareness of space pull their opponents out of position, with opposing players often crowding one wing of the pitch before slick slide-rule passing flips the play to the other side.
The Athletic, in an article on the club written in February, highlighted this point – Evatt’s non-negotiables. Whether playing with three at the back or four, he demands his wide players keep their width and height. It’s what allows skilful switches of play and turns defensive phases into rapid, smooth, counter-attacks. Evatt also demands speedy ball recovery. Visions of Guardiola’s rondos may seem far-fetched, but they’re really not. The quality gap is clearly huge, but Evatt credits that Manchester City side of 2017 – 2019 under Pep as his biggest inspiration. If the lads aren’t winning the ball back in six seconds, they’re doing it wrong.
All this might give an impression that everything in Evatt’s game is about speed, explosiveness and rapid use of pace, but Evatt has also brought about a greater calculation to his side’s play. It wasn’t easy to watch at first, lots of passing and possession around both boxes leads fans (myself included) to start shouting for them to just take the shot, to hoof it forward – route one is the industry standard for a non-league side. Now, as I say, possession without penetration is just… (I’ll leave that to the imagination), but two years in and the team passes with a purpose that is entirely baffling, maybe even as far as League One. The Athletic cites a goal scored after 24 passes, and it is certainly not an outlier.
I’ll be straight with you – I’m a Barrow fan, and I’ll be damned if I let you have our manager. In two years he’s turned this side around. We’re consistent, exciting, often unplayable. There were very real stretches of time when I can remember thinking my presence at the ground was a curse because Barrow never won, and now it often feels the opposite. The players love the squad, as does the gaffer, who still demands they run off at half time to keep their energy up and that passion is borne out in the numbers. 68 goals in 37 games, 21 wins, 4 points clear at the top. I hope to death you don’t take him, so here’s what you’re missing.