60 Years In Football, Sacked 37 Times...There Really Is Only One Barry Fry

The maverick manager looks back on his life in the beautiful game
06:55, 16 Mar 2020

When it comes to jobs for life, Barry Fry has it covered. The 75-year-old has been in football for a whopping sixty of those years, currently as Director of Football at League One side, Peterborough United. He started out in Manchester United’s youth team as in inside-forward under Matt Busby followed by brief spells at Bolton Wanderers, Luton Town, Leyton Orient, Romford and St Albans.

Injury prematurely ended his promising career in 1974, but rather than slide into oblivion on the back of such disappointment, Fry picked himself up, dusted himself off and turned to management. He’s been doing the same thing – picking himself up, dusting himself off – ever since.

During the next three decades Fry took charge at a total of eight clubs, one of which, Barnet, saw him enjoy something of a love/hate relationship with. His first spell saw him at the helm from 1978 to 1985 where they won the Conference before Fry went to manage Maidstone United for a season. Returning to Barnet for a further seven seasons, they won promotion to the Football League in 1991.

It’s widely rumoured that Stan Flashman, the club’s larger-than-life chairman, sacked Fry no less than eight times. Fry admits today that he was actually sacked 37 times. Wait, what? 

He chuckles, takes a sip of tea and tells The Sportsman: “For five years at Barnet they couldn’t pay me or the players half the time. I’d be with the chairman on a Friday, tell him the team I’d picked for the Saturday and he’d go, ‘I don’t like your team, Barry, you’re sacked’ and off I’d go. I’d be back in on Monday. Stan was a lunatic, but I loved him. It was mad, though. They were good times, if a bit turbulent.”

On that basis, you’d think that Fry would opt for a quiet life – pick a club whose books were balanced, perhaps. But Fry isn’t your average football manager; for him, the turbulence, the financial crises, the uncertainty, the more downs-than-ups are ingrained in him, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Listening to him talk about his time at Barnet with such fondness makes me think he’d be bored to tears at a club that actually ran smoothly.

Fry left Barnet for Southend, then Birmingham City, where although the Blues were relegated in his first season in charge, they won the Division Two championship and the Football League trophy in 1995. He was sacked after the club’s promotion hopes faded, but rather than take a few months out to play golf he jumped straight into the hot seat at The Posh. Somewhat remarkably, twenty-four years later he’s still here. 

“They’ll have to take me out in a box,” he laughs, “or sack me. I was manager, chairman and owner all at the same time when I first came here. Trying to find £150,000 every month for the wage bill was such a massive responsibility I couldn’t concentrate on the football, so I had to sack myself in the end.”

Oh dear. How did you take it?

“Haha, I was relieved!”

In 2005, with the club spiralling into administration, Fry decided to buy it, a decision he admits wasn’t a sensible one.

“I was a fool,” he says, rubbing his forehead. “I’ve got no business expertise whatsoever and I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I had to sell my house in Portugal, take a second mortgage on my home, took my pension out early and had a testimonial against Manchester United that brought in £250,000. I took over the deeds to my poor mother-in-law’s house so I could access an overdraft. It was a stupid thing to do. I’d already had two heart attacks and there I was heading for a third.”

Fry had assumed responsibility for debts of around £650,000, but it transpired that the club was actually up to its neck to the tune of £2.5million. How did his family cope with it all?

“My wife, Kirstine, she’s amazing. She’s stuck by me through thick and thin.”

Mainly thin, though?

“Yeah,” he laughs. “I was up ‘til two or three in the morning worrying about how I was going to pay the wage bill. I was wrong to do it; I put my family through so much worry. I begged our creditors not to put a writ on us, just to give me a few months. I’d be at training when my secretary would call and say, ‘Barry, get back here, the baliffs are taking stuff’ and I’d have to jump in me car and sort them out.”

In 1997, a documentary called ‘There’s Only One Barry Fry’ aired on Sky. He warned his players and staff that it would be a “warts and all series, but we need the money”. Sky covered the club’s wage bill for the three months of filming.

Fry was famous for his no-nonsense approach to management, highlighted by one particularly memorable moment and the end of yet another league defeat. As his dejected players sat in the dressing room, Fry’s parting words were: “Get yourselves dressed, have a beer and fuck off home.”

Watching the documentary in disbelief from his villa in Spain was Darragh McAnthony, a real estate whizz kid who, whilst a staunch Liverpool fan, immediately had a soft spot for Barry and his plight. So much so, in fact, that a fortnight later McAnthony arrived at the club flanked by security in a fleet of blacked-out cars.

Laughs Fry: “I said to me chief exec, Bob, the fuckin’ Mafia’s here!” Upon Fry’s request, £150,000 was deposited into the club’s bank within an hour, as a show of McAnthony’s commitment. 

As it turned out, McAnthony actually bought the club for £1. He paid off the debts and promised to keep all the current staff on for a year. Fry was instated as Director of Football, responsible for the financial running of the club – “the wheeling and dealing, all that”.

Barry Fry takes time out to speak to The Sportsman
Barry Fry takes time out to speak to The Sportsman

Does he feel like a hamster on a wheel, constantly chasing his tail, trying to find ways to keep the club afloat?

“God, yeah,” he sighs, “it’s bloody exhausting. We have a meeting at the beginning of the year and I’ll say, ‘We’re gonna lose £4million this year,’ and Darragh will say, ‘OK, I’ll put in £2million, you need to find the rest,’ and I’ll look at what player we can sell. We're a selling club,” he shrugs, “I tell players they won't become millionaires with me, but when we sell them to a bigger club they will be.”

Fry is an expert in brokering deals, with lucrative add-ons his speciality.

“We bought Dwight Gale for £400k from Dagenham, paid ten grand a month for 40 months. Within seven months we’d sold him for £6million to Crystal Palace plus another £1.5million in add-ons. That might be ten grand every time they play, or 15% when they sell you or if you get to a Cup Final or win an international cap. I got £250,000 for Conor Washington when he went to QPR because he got a call-up to the Northern Ireland squad.”

Fry is a charismatic man, but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. It’s clear how much he dotes on his family – both the one at home and the one at the club. His desire, determination and a willingness to stop at nothing to make the club a success means his team have a good chance of promotion this season – following the return of football after the Coronavirus induced shutdown, of course.

Going up would mean a much-needed windfall for the club. Striker Ivan Toney is hot property right now, and while he looks ready for a bigger stage (and a substantial cash injection for Fry in the process), the lad has a job to do in League One first.  

“We’ve got to go up," says Fry, rubbing his hands together. “Whether that’s direct promotion or play-offs, we have to. I’ve been to Wembley five times and I’ve won ‘em all all - and do you know what? I ain’t about to start losing now.”

And who are we to argue with the one and only Barry Fry...