Former Wolves boss John Barnwell has paid tribute to two Midlands managerial icons who have sadly passed away.
Ron Saunders, who died last week at 87 and Jim Smith – who passed away on Tuesday, aged 79 – regularly managed teams against Wolves in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as signing and selling past and future Molineux favourites.
Within months of being the losing manager when Wolves beat Manchester City 2-1 to lift the League Cup in 1974, Saunders arrived at Aston Villa and in eight years took them from the Second Division to League champions and built the team that won the European Cup.
Saunders signed Andy Gray in 1975 and sold him to Barnwell’s Wolves four years later for a then British record fee of £1,469,000.
Smith, who was known as the ‘Bald Eagle’, managed Blues from 1978-82 – before being replaced by Saunders – and led them to promotion, building an entertaining team with players such as Colin Todd and Frank Worthington, along with future Wolves defender Joe Gallagher.
Smith also tried to sign John Richards in the summer of 1981 as part of the Gallagher deal, but Richards opted to stay at Molineux.
“I was very sad to hear about Ron and Jim,” said Barnwell, 80, the last manager to lift a major trophy for Wolves with the League Cup in 1980. “They were great characters of the game in different ways and will be sadly missed.
“When I came to the Midlands and joined Wolves, Ron was manager at Villa, Ron Atkinson was at West Brom and Jim was manager of Birmingham.
“The West Midlands was a thriving area for football and a very lively scene with top-class managers, all in the top league, so it’s sad to see these two go.
“It was great for the press too, because rather than disregard them, we would put an arm around them and expect to get good treatment in return!”
Barnwell got on particularly well with Smith, but had the utmost respect for him and Saunders.
“I had a great connection with Jim because we knew each other previously – when I was manager at Peterborough, he was managing Colchester,” he recalled.
“So when I moved to the West Midlands, we would go for lunches together and he was always lively, alert and he enjoyed football and life.
“I didn’t really to get to know Ron Saunders as well as the other managers here, but we shared lots of conversations about different subjects – most of them confrontational!
“But I had a deep regard for him because he had been extremely successful as a player and as a manager at various levels and he knew what the game was about.”
Decades before social media and online scouting systems, Barnwell revealed how the managers’ close relationship helped their mutual knowledge of potential signings.
“I also knew Ron Atkinson previously because when I was manager at Peterborough, Ron was at Cambridge, so we bumped into each other a lot,” said Barnwell.
“In the West Midlands, there was a lot of shared information going round because you couldn’t be everywhere.
“We would ring each other up and say ‘what’s the background on so-and-so?’ Jim and Ron had as much knowledge on players as it was possible to know, so it proved very helpful.
“Jim was always approachable and if you rang him and he couldn’t take your call, he would always ring you back. When I was at Wolves I used to bump into him a lot and he was massively friendly.”
Barnwell dealt with Saunders in the transfer of Gray to Wolves. Gray was unhappy with a fitness regime Saunders wanted him to adhere to and after being made aware of this, Barnwell made his move.
“When I came to Wolves, the most they could give me to buy players was £200,000, but I had a bolt-on guarantee with the chairman Harry Marshall that any funds I raised myself, I could have the majority of to spend,” he recalled.
“I agreed a fee with Manchester City for Steve Daley of £1,150,000, which with VAT ended up being £1.4m.
“What Harry didn’t know was I was negotiating with Villa to buy Gray. There were a lot of conversations between the two clubs – when the negotiations started, Villa wanted £2.25m for Gray but we got it down to £1.175m, which with VAT was about £1.469m.
“So when I told Harry I’d done the deal for Daley, he shook my hand and I said ‘I need £25,000 for Andy Gray! Thankfully he stuck to our verbal agreement.
“I don’t think Ron wanted to let Andy go but in the end he was forced to let it happen.”
Barnwell and Smith dealt together during the signing of Gallagher from Birmingham to Wolves in the summer of 1981, which could have ended up with Richards going to St Andrew’s.
Wolves needed back-up in central defence after losing Emlyn Hughes to Rotherham as player-manager and John McAlle to Sheffield United.
“I needed to strengthen defensively and I’d always liked Gallagher – he was solid and dependable,” said Barnwell.
“Jim wasn’t keen on letting Joe go and he wanted John Richards in exchange, but I wasn’t in a position to let John go because he was quality, plus I felt he had another couple of years in him and he would have been very expensive to replace.
“It eventually got into the press and it disturbed John and there was a bit of aggravation but Jim and myself never fell out.”
In fact, Barnwell even came to Smith’s aid at Blues – and got in trouble with his own chairman for it.
“I remember one time after we won at St Andrew’s, I went into the boardroom and two or three directors were giving Jim a hard time,” he said.
“Jasper Carrott was there and I remember telling them that Jim was an exceptional manager and that they should give him time.
“Harry was upset with me for that and I got a rollocking from him for getting involved!”
The connections of Saunders and Smith with Wolves go further. At Vila, Saunders also signed John Burridge – who starred at Molineux from 1982-84 – replaced Gray with one-time Wolves striker Peter Withe, and introduced Gordon Cowans, who much later had a brief spell at Wolves under Graham Taylor in 1995-96, and brought out the best in Brian Little, who briefly managed Wolves in 1986.
Before Blues, Smith managed Blackburn, where he gave future Wolves goalkeeper Paul Bradshaw his debut, signed Dave Wagstaffe from Molineux in 1976 and had former Wolves defender and future manager Graham Hawkins at centre half.
In 1984-85, Smith’s Oxford won the Second Division title, one place ahead of Saunders’s Blues, who had Wayne Clarke up front after he snapped him up from Molineux in 1984 for a knockdown £80,000.
Clarke repaid him by winning promotion in his first season – in a campaign Wolves were relegated in bottom spot – before moving to Everton where, like Gray in 1985, he won the League.
A year earlier there were two divisions between Wolves and Oxford as Smith led them to successive promotions while Wolves, who lost both games to the Us that season, slid the opposite route.
A very different Wolves turned the tables on then Newcastle manager Smith in spectacular style on New Year’s Day 1990 when Steve Bull’s four goals – against Burridge – helped Graham Turner’s side to an unforgettable 4-1 win at St. James’ Park.
That Magpies team also featured future Molineux boss Mark McGhee up front.
As Portsmouth manager from 1991-95, Smith loaned striker Guy Whittingham to Taylor’s Wolves and was forced to sell him and midfielder Darren Anderton, who was later snapped by Glenn Hoddle at Molineux.
Soon afterwards, Smith inherited future Wolves winger Paul Simpson at Derby and the pair helped the Rams to promotion to the top flight in 1995-96.