The new Barwell Stand officially opens at Franklin’s Gardens tomorrow as Northampton Saints honour the contribution of the family to the club.
Saints’ motto ‘Proud history, bright future’ will come to the fore as the club officially opens the new Barwell Stand with an invitation-only ceremony before the Aviva Premiership game against London Irish.
The event been designed to recognise the contribution of the family so key to the club’s modern-era success and a presentation will be made to Keith Barwell, the man who first got involved with the club in 1988 and led it into the professional era seven years later, laying the foundations for stability and prosperity.
Supporters will be given the chance to thank the Barwell family before kick-off, with those who are old enough to remember the entirety of his contribution likely to be keen to offer their gratitude to the man known as Uncle Keith and his relatives.
Put simply, without the hard work of the Barwell family, Northampton would not have a top-flight rugby team to call its own, as current chairman Tony Hewitt, a long-time friend of Keith Barwell, happily underlined.
“When the game went professional, you had to get the resources to start paying the players and get the resources to develop the club,” explains Hewitt as he speaks to the Chron in the clean-cut boardroom at the Gardens.
“Keith had sold his newspaper business [Barwell sold his free newspaper chain for £20m in 1988[ and he was in a position to put some money into the club.
“That was voted on in an extraordinary general meeting at the Saxon Hotel, very famous, absolutely packed, and that went through unanimously.
“Keith asked me to join the board with him at that time and the next five years were perhaps the most difficult because in the fledgling professional era you had to pay all the players and the only income you had was from members. It wasn’t sufficient to pay all of the costs.
“Keith had to put about another £7.5m on top of his initial £1m investment into the club – £5m was in exchange for shares and another £2.5m was probably written off – so that was a really difficult phase.
“During that period, a lot of the other clubs that were at that top level at the time were unable to match the finances that were required and have since gone down the leagues - teams like Richmond, London Scottish, West Hartlepool, Orrell and Bedford.
“They’ve all gone down to varying degrees and that highlighted that without Keith, we wouldn’t have been where we are today.”
Saints’ rise in the formative years of professionalism culminated in a Heineken Cup triumph in 2000, as Munster were defeated in the showpiece at Twickenham.
And though the club has endured highs and lows since, Barwell’s shrewd stewardship has always kept it on the right path.
In the same year Saints were crowned kings of Europe, a share issue brought in 2,000 members, with Hewitt and Keith’s son Leon, who was also on the board, helping to acquire welcome financial support.
And since then, Saints have been something of a benchmark in England’s top division, announcing a record 15th consecutive year of profit in August, 2015.
They are in the black and have the sort of self-sustainability that is a distant prospect for clubs with rich benefactors such as Saracens.
The north London club last month announced a debt of £45m, revealing a whopping £3.98m had been lost last season.
The fact that Saints don’t have those issues owes much to Keith Barwell, who stepped down as chairman in 2011, handing over the reins to Leon.
Leon did plenty of fine work, including bringing in regular supporters’ forums to address concerns of the Saints faithful, before sadly passing away in June 2013.
But the Barwell legacy remained, with the club’s players using the #ForLeon during their 2013/14 Premiership-winning season.
“We won the Premiership title in 2014 and that was a lasting legacy to Leon,” said Hewitt, who was officially announced as Saints chairman in September 2013.
“When Leon died, the whole Saints family felt the tragic loss at that time.
“Now we have Keith’s daughter Ella as a key member on the board doing a lot of supporter engagement, so really it isn’t overestimating it to say that without the Barwell family, we would not be where we are today.
“They donated the bronze statue that sits outside the Tetley’s Stand today and on it it says ‘They tackled the job’ and that is a great memorial to the Barwells. They intended that it was said about other people, but really I think it was they who tackled the job.”
The affable Hewitt has helped to continue the job the Barwells started.
He said: “Keith always wanted to have a sustainable club that generated its own profits and Leon was keen to take it to the next stage, embracing the supporters with forums becoming a very important thing.
“Our real big emphasis now is on social media, making sure we’re constantly in contact with our supporters and that’s very much one of Leon’s things.”
Saints’ continual desire to remain connected with the history of the club and its supporters can be seen when you look at the war memorial that sits next to the pitch adjacent to the Barwell Stand.
And, most of all, it is shown in the name of the structure.
On a professional sporting landscape decorated with money, Saints could have taken extra cash by seeking sponsorship and opting to name the new stand after a company.
Across all sports, there are entire grounds that have taken the name of backers, from the King Power Stadium in Leicester to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
But Saints rejected the soul-selling route in favour of marking the work done by the Barwells.
“At the time, we were looking around to see how we could mark the contribution that Keith and Leon had made and it was felt that
while we have three stands that are available for sponsorship, it was fitting that we remember the Barwells on
this final stand,” Hewitt explained.
“It reflects the theme that Northampton is a family club and its roots go right back to 1880 and (Saints founder)
Reverend Samuel Wathan Wigg.
“It was felt that we should recognise that fantastic contribution that the Barwells have made, in the same way in the past we kept the name of the Sturtridge Pavilion and we’ve now got the Sturtridge Suite within the Barwell Stand.
“The Gordon Stand became the Gordon Terrace as we didn’t forget those who had made historic contributions to the Saints.
“The South Stand was helped by the contribution by the Travis family, who didn’t want their name on the stand, but there is a plaque down there that acknowledges their contribution.
“We’ve got other areas that we can exploit for sponsorship, but it was felt that this is Northampton and we recognise the contribution that the Barwells made.
“We could be another club who were at the top who filtered down, but Northampton should be proud it’s got a top Premiership club here,” Mr Hewitt added.