John Barnwell admits the overwhelming response he received from Wolves fans took him by surprise.
The 80-year-old former Wolves manager – still the last man to win a major trophy for the club, the League Cup back in 1980 – was given a standing ovation when he appeared in front of a 150-strong crowd at The Cleveland Arms in Wolverhampton last week.
Barnwell was joined by three of that team – ever popular trio Kenny Hibbitt, Willie Carr and John Richards – but it was the response to Barnwell’s introduction that was one of the highlights of the night. The show, called ‘A Kick Up the 80s’, was hosted by former Wolves goalkeeper and now Sky Sports TV pundit Matt Murray and the guests kept the crowd enthralled for around two and a half hours, including taking questions from the floor.
“I must admit I had forgotten how passionate the Wolves fans are and it took me by surprise a bit!” said Barnwell. “I was very happy about it though and it made me very proud. I was also delighted to be in the company of three of the best players I had the privilege to manage.”
It was the first time Barnwell had been in the company of three of the three former players since he left Wolves over 37 years ago and the first time he had been in Wolverhampton for a public engagement since that time in January 1982. And the Nottinghamshire-based former chief executive of the League Managers Association admitted he had deliberately steered clear of coming back to the area before he thought the timing was right.
“When I first asked to come back – which is not the first time in the last 20-odd years – I deliberately declined, not because I was being big-headed or whatever, but I just felt because of my background with Wolverhampton, I didn’t want to get involved in conversations affecting people who were still involved with the club,” he said.
“I thought the best way was just to keep out of the way. When I retired from being chief executive of the League Managers’ Association six years ago, I did exactly the same there and kept away from it because the last thing they want is me pushing my nose in, or them thinking I was being obstructive to what they were doing.
“On the back of that, all of the good players I had, you have a different relationship with them, and now you’re not their manager, you can get a bit closer to them. But I haven’t had much connection with them.
“So when this opportunity came up, I thought I’d better not let this one go and come and see them, because I might not be capable of making the next one! So it was a really pleasant experience.”
Barnwell gave a wonderful insight into the life of being one of Wolves’ most popular managers, including a never-before-heard tale of how he and assistant boss Richie Barker stayed up until after midnight on the eve of the League Cup final against Nottingham Forest deliberating about whether to play Hibbitt and Carr in central midfield, as they toyed with the idea of swapping Hibbitt with Peter Daniel, with the latter switching to right midfield to nullify the threat of winger John Robertson.
The tactic hadn’t been practised in training, but Barker pressed Barnwell to make the change, and it ended up working a treat as Daniel not only snuffed out Robertson, but laid on the only goal for Andy Gray.
That led to another tale from Barnwell, who was the only one on stage in a suit, shirt and Wolves League Cup winning tie: “Living in Nottingham, this tie doesn’t come out very often!” he said. “In fact after we won, I didn’t see Brian Clough for quite a few months afterwards.”
Barnwell said he had kept a eye on the careers of many of the prominent players he managed since he left, but largely from a distance. Hibbitt actually followed Barnwell into the manager’s hotseat at Walsall in 1990, and the pair’s paths have crossed on numerous occasions through Barnwell’s work with the LMA, and Hibbitt’s as a Premier League referees’ assessor and delegate on administrative matters.
“I’ve seen Kenny Hibbitt several times during the course of work, and we’ve always had a decent relationship, but not where I’d speak to him once a month on the phone, because we didn’t have that relationship,” said Barnwell.
“It’s the same with Willie, although I kept my finger on the pulse with certain people with regards to what had happened to them, particularly with John Richards, who was still involved with the club, so I kept my distance because I knew it could be seen as a conflict of interest.”