John Barnwell has finally lifted the lid on why he left Wolves – over 37 years on from his Molineux exit.
For the first time in public, the 80-year-old has decided to explain his departure in January 1982 after he said he turned down big money from national newspapers at the time to give his side of the story.
Barnwell resigned as manager when he was still in negotiations over a new contract. But he felt he had no choice to go after claiming he would not have the funds to replace star player Andy Gray, if he was sold to Leeds. Gray eventually ended up staying and Barnwell left. The striker joined Everton some 22 months later for a knockdown fee to ease the pressure of Wolves’ financial crisis.
“Although I had some great times with Wolves, when I left it was with perhaps a feeling of disdain, not with me and the club, but with me and the board of directors, particularly Harry Marshall (then chairman),” said Barnwell. “The things that Marshall did, I assume he did them for the benefit for the club, but that’s all opinion. All I know is how it affected me.
“He’d offered me a three-year contract. It wasn’t the money, it was a couple of clauses and I can’t remember what they were. But I think it was about the buying and selling of players and the amount of control that the manager would have. I think it was depreciating and I thought I couldn’t work under that.
“I pushed it to one side but the thing developed and developed to such an extent that suddenly I found out he was trying to sell Andy Gray to Leeds. Eventually I had a run-in with him. There was a board meeting on a Sunday morning at which Allan Clarke, the manager of Leeds, Manny Cousins, the Leeds chairman, and Martin Wilkinson, Allan’s assistant, were all there, and I pushed my way into it. They were trying to buy Gray. I thought ‘if they’re going to sell Gray, the money’s no good, I want players’. So I went in with clear figure in my mind of what I wanted to Gray, which was £1.5m.
“We’d paid £1,175,000 before VAT, and I thought ‘he’s a better player now than he was when we bought him’ and I wanted Arthur Graham (Leeds left winger) in exchange as well. I was out of the room then I was asked to come back in. I was told Leeds offered £600,000 for Gray and we could have Arthur Graham. So I said ‘no way’.
“At the end of that conversation, I said ‘no, I’m not agreeing with that’, so the thing was dismissed. Allan Clarke got up and said ‘I knew this was a waste of time’ and I said ‘Well, I didn’t ask you here’ and he went out.
“Manny Cousins came over to my side of the table and sat down. He said ‘Harry, this conversation hasn’t finished. He put his hand on my knee, and said ‘we will talk again, Mr Barnwell.’ Cousins owned Waring and Gillow (famous furnishing manufacturers) and as he went out of the door, he turned to Harry and said ‘If you’re thinking of doing something with your manager, please give me a call’ and off he went.
“Everybody cleared the room, and I said to Harry ‘If Gray is sold, how much money will I get?’ He said ‘Nothing’. I said ‘OK, fine.’ I got up from there, and I knew that minute that I was going.”
Wolves were already in dire straits on and off the pitch when Barnwell left. They lost a club record eight times in a row either side of his departure. Mounting debts driven by spiralling interest rates because of a loan taken out on the new Molineux Stand (now Steve Bull Stand) would bring the club to its knees within six months.
“I wasn’t very happy about the whole thing and I took legal advice,” said Barnwell. “I’d got a contract that wasn’t signed, and the legal advice was ‘If they send you away without your permission, it’s constructive dismissal’. So I resigned. Wrongly, now I know.
“Later on I wouldn’t sign anything because there was a contract that went on and on and on. Eventually, Doug Ellis took over as chairman and he put the club into administration. Well a manager’s contract in administration then meant that you were employed by the club but you’re not a creditor, so you’re not on the list. I was getting nothing.
“So I ended up with a big bill from the lawyer, and I refused to pay that, for three years. Eventually I paid some off and that was the end of it. It left quite a bit of anger. I was still in recovery from the car crash and was I making the decisions that perhaps I wouldn’t make now? Those things I can’t answer.”
Barnwell is talking to wolvesbite.com before taking the stage at a rare public appearance at ‘A Kick Up the 80s’ at The Cleveland Arms pub in Wolverhampton, with his former Wolves players Kenny Hibbitt, Willie Carr and John Richards. He looks considerably younger than his 80 years and is proudly wearing his black and gold Wolves League Cup winning tie, with a white shirt and dark suit. This is the first time he has returned to Wolverhampton for a public appearance since he left Molineux all those years ago. It’s clear he has mellowed and believes Marshall had the club’s best interests at heart, but that the debts drained the life out of Wolves and strained relations between them.
“All I know is it was a very sad affair. What I would say is that I don’t think Marshall ever did anything that wasn’t for the benefit of the club,” said Barnwell. “But I think finances took over the whole thing, so it was all about money.
“When I look back now I feel sorry for Harry Marshall because he had the right vision to improve the ground but his timing was totally wrong in terms of the interest rates. Everything started to fall backwards and I was right in the middle of it. The thinking was right but the timing was wrong.
“I look back at it and I think ‘if he’d have told me the club was in financial difficulties, would I have sold Steve Daley for all of that money, and not bought Gray?’ I don’t know, because I wasn’t faced with that, so I didn’t have that opportunity.
“What happened was we went on and won the League Cup, finished sixth in the League, had semi-finals either side of that, so everything was in place. But underneath, there had been no development of youngsters, and some players – Derek Parkin, Kenny Hibbitt, Willie Carr and John Richards – were all getting older and all needed replacing.
“In my time there the development was poor. George Berry and Colin Brazier were already there and the one that was outstanding was Wayne Clarke, but when the financial problems kicked in, there was a great void across the club because good players needed replacing but the money wasn’t there because it was swallowed up by the payments for the stand.
“I always say to people that I’ve never seen supporters pay money to watch a stand. Now that stand is part of a wonderful stadium, and thank goodness it was built then because if it was built now, it would cost a lot more money to build it. Hopefully now the club is in a solid position to move forwards.”
Wolves were also in trouble when Barnwell took over in November 1978, succeeding Sammy Chung, who had lost his job after a poor start to the season left the club second bottom of the old First Division, now Premier League.
“When I was offered the job it was a Friday and Wolves were at home to Leeds on the Saturday and I asked for the weekend to think about it,” remembered Barnwell. “So I went into the old gabled Molineux Street Stand with a cloth cap on with a friend to watch the game.”
Wolves ended up scraping a 1-1 draw, but looking around the squad, Barnwell saw he had the makings of a successful team, despite their lowly league position. Carr had been dropped and replaced by reserve John Black, and Richards was to be sidelined until the last game in February with a serious knee injury. Both would return to enjoy new leases of life under the new manager.
Barnwell reasoned Wolves needed top-six form to stay up, and they responded to the bubbly Geordie’s enthusiasm with nine wins and seven draws from their final 23 League games to finish 18th. Their six-match unbeaten League run in April 1979 was the club’s longest in the top flight until last season.
“The hardest thing in football is to get people in the side who can score goals, and we already had one of the best in John Richards,” said Barnwell. “We would have liked to have kept Billy Rafferty, not just as a player, but as a person. We had Norman Bell up our sleeve and Mel Eves and Wayne Clarke coming through so we had reasonable cover up front.
“But Richards was the prime figure for me. If you gave him the ball outside the penalty area, it might not always stick, but if you gave him the ball in the box, it stuck to him like glue. Once he got it in there, he had one thing on his mind – to score goals. He could spin people and get a shot in, and he almost always got a shot in.
“Kenny Hibbitt was one of the best passers of a ball in that period of time that I had seen. He had good knowledge of the game, he was a tremendous striker of a ball, had a good engine on him, could tackle, and of course score goals. Willie Carr was a good manipulator of the ball who could do a bit of this and a bit of that; he could keep the ball, spot a pass and get a goal.
“We also had two good full backs. When Geoff Palmer tackled, it was like he had razor blades in his boots – you needed to control him at times. He had a lot of pace, was a bit untidy in his positioning but that would improve. Then we had one of the best left backs in the country in Derek Parkin, even though he was right footed.
“I wasn’t sure about Bob Hazell or George Berry at first when I looked at it, I said to Emlyn Hughes when I signed him, ‘I want you to always be able to see George’s number on his shirt’ because that way Emlyn could guide him, and George was one of the first names on the teamsheet.
“So the base was there. Other bits and pieces needed to be put in because there was no great depth in the club. What we needed to do then was give good players enthusiasm and confidence to produce what they could do well, not ask them to do things they couldn’t. I wanted to get them to do what they did best.”
With the signing of Liverpool captain Hughes, the British record capture of Gray and the arrival of Everton winger Dave Thomas, Wolves were in the national spotlight again after a few years in the doldrums – and all after a serious car crash which left Barnwell fighting for his life in April 1979. Having recovered, he led them to sixth place in 1979-80 and won the League Cup. Heady days indeed which still haven’t been matched nearly four decades on.
Looking at today’s Wolves, Barnwell only wishes for head coach Nuno Espirito Santo what he would have wanted for himself all those years ago: A stable club on and off the pitch.
“I look at it with massive interest but I’m not close enough to make an educated decision about it,” he said. “Yes you need to win matches in the short term, but what I do feel is that the club seems to be far more solid off the pitch in their thinking about the whole structure, which then gives the manager a self belief that what he is doing is for the longer term benefit of the club.
“Having a structure to bring through young players is part of the development of a football club and for the first time in a long time, that seems to be true at Wolves now. This period is more positive than when I was there because I can see a procedure being put into place. I don’t know where Nuno needs to improve too much on – he will know that – but I just hope he continues to receive the backing and help to produce the team he wants because the whole structure looks as good as it has for a long time.
“The important thing is they are in the top league, which is vital to the finances, and that they stay there for a few seasons so they can become properly established. The ground is there but they have got to keep bringing younger players into the club for the next three to five years. Once that procedure is in place, guaranteed Premier League football will be there for Wolves, which is the desire for everyone, because they have the fans, the stadium – all things look as good as they possibly can.
“When you’re continually changing managers you go backwards, or one step forwards to go two backwards, so you slip again. The big thing is for solidarity off the pitch and that looks to be there. That’s definitely there, on the right footing, which gives the manager a much better chance of achieving what he wants to.”
Tim Nash and wolvesbite.com are grateful for The Cleveland Arms and manager Will Adamson in granting access for this interview.