Nothing quite galvanises communities like sport.

Football in particular has a funny way of bringing people together and boosting pride in a place.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Barrow.

Barrow AFC are currently sitting pretty at the summit of the Vanarama National League.

The club is tantalisingly close to realising a long-held dream – one that has dragged on for almost half a century.

A return to the Football League holds huge promise for both the club and the town.

For the club there is a £1 million-plus pay day.

For the town, there are both economic benefits of being home to a club in League Two, as well as a wider, and equally significant, social impact.

AFC co-owner and chairman Paul Hornby is understandably excited about the prospects – if a little nervous as the season nears its dramatic climax.

“It’s really enjoyable being top, even though the stress is turning up a notch or two!” says Paul.

“When you’re top you don’t want to be anywhere else.

“You can’t go to the supermarket or go out to the sandwich shop to get some lunch without someone coming up to you and talking about it.

“Fans thank you for what you’ve done, and that’s nice, but they don’t have to.

“You just want to get the club promoted for them.”

Focusing on the impact of promotion for the club first, Barrow AFC – which, like many clubs, is loss-making – will go huge strides towards achieving the holy grail of financial self-sustainability.

“If we can get to the promised land, we’ll get just over £1 million,” says Paul.

“And you have more opportunities to make money, by participating in the FA Cup, Carabao Cup [the Football League-only competition], appearances on Sky, which will help bring more sponsorship from people wanting that level of exposure.

“Yes, you’ll need a slightly bigger squad and some of that £1m will have to be spent, but you’ll get bigger loan fees for players and the away attendances will be higher.

“Getting regular away support in the hundreds give a real boost and that’s something to look forward to because there are some big clubs in League Two.

“We have two really good local derbies with Carlisle United and Morecambe that could be taking us to capacity, which will be about 6,000 when we’ve finished work on the ground.

“Promotion is our best chance of Barrow AFC becoming self-sustainable.”

And that itself would be a huge achievement for a club which just a few seasons ago was close to liquidation.

Paul was a director of the club under the previous regime of Barrow-born but Texas-based businessman Paul Casson.

Mr Casson took over Barrow in May 2014 with ambitions to take AFC back to the big time, ploughing £4m into the club over four seasons.

It was dream he was unable to fulfil, walking away after an embarrassing FA Cup defeat to lower league opposition Chorley in October 2018.

“He basically handed me the keys and said I’m off,” says Paul, who went off himself to find like-minded investors.

“We effectively saved the club from liquidation because it had hardcore debts of circa £350,000 and it was probably going to lose another £300,000 during the rest of that season. We kept it alive.”

Paul himself is managing director of leading chartered accountancy firm JF Hornby, based in Ulverston.

He holds a 20 per cent share in the club, as does Kristian Wilkes, owner of successful Ulverston-based business Process Pipework Services.

Barrow-born and educated Tony Shearer has the biggest slice of a club he has supported for 50 years – 40 per cent to be exact.

Tony retired as chief executive and chairman of North Carolina-based food services company Foodbuy LLC in 2018 having overseen the company’s growth from $2 billion to over $15bn during his 17-year tenure.

Town-based global recruitment entrepreneur Mark Hetherington has 10 per cent with the remaining 10 per cent in the hands of The Bluebirds Trust, giving the fans a stake, and a say, in its future.

“We didn’t get involved as a token gesture, it was a considered approach by everyone,” explains Paul.

“It wasn’t long before we genuinely believed we could do something with it. The thing with the ownership is no-one is precious and there are no egos on the board. We just work well as a group of people. We all just want the best for the town.”

The owners have spent a huge amount of time improving AFC’s Holker Street ground, developing new income streams and supporting the playing team, with Paul full of praise for manager Ian Evatt.

They have also worked hard to reconnect the club with the local community.

And the community has responded in force by throwing its support behind the club.

“The crowds we’re seeing through the doors are unprecedented – it helps having a winning team,” beams Paul.

“It’s not just five or 10-year records being broken, these are 40-plus year records. You get the sense there’s an uprising.

“We’re getting new supporters and old supporters back. They’re witnessing the change.

“Barrow AFC has history,” he continues.

“You look at some of these, as I call them, plastic clubs, with a lot of money behind them, they don’t have the heritage we do, a Brian Arrowsmith [a club legend]. They don’t have the culture we have.

“Someone will come in long after us, we’re mere custodians. We want to be able to say that we did the best job we could do.”

Hopes are high that come May, Barrow AFC realise their dream – for club and community.