Sunday, 19 August 2007

Frank Barson : the finest football brain of his time

If anyone recalls Frank Barson these days, it is as "the hardest man of all". He features in lists of the top 50 hard men of football (no 35, as it happens, but Stuart Pearce of all people got to number 2), the 50 worst tackles, the 10 longest suspensions. He is most remembered for the likely apocryphal tale that he took a gun, rather than an agent, to his contract negotiations.

There was much more to Barson than that.

Frank Barson was a very talented half-back, although later in his career he was increasingly prone to fits of very bad temper. It was said then that the mere mention of the fact that Barson was playing against them led opposition players to claim they were injured, rather than play against him.

Yet Percy Young says one contemporary who played with Barson saluted him as “the finest football brain of his time”.

Frank Barson

Frank Barson was born in Grimesthorpe, Sheffield, on 10 April 1891.

In his working life, he started as a blacksmith. After starring for Firshill Council and Grimesthorpe schools, he started his football career as an amateur at Albion FC.

In 1909 he signed for local outfit Cammell Laird FC and it was two years later in July 1911 that he began his professional football career with Barnsley.

The Barnsley Battlers

The historian Richard Holt has said, “There was a self-conscious cult of northern aggression, which applauded the violent antics of some players”, and Barson learned his trade with the “Barnsley Battlers”, who were amongst the main practitioners. In Holt’s words, “Clubs like Barnsley, fed by miners from the nearby coalfield, abounded in stories of men working double shifts and walking twenty miles to play a match”.

It was whilst at Oakwell that Barson's notorious temper first became evident; before he could even start his first game for the Tykes he had to serve a two month suspension, following a brawl with a few Birmingham City players in a pre season friendly. On another occasion he had to be smuggled out of Goodison Park after a cup-tie to avoid a waiting crowd, who had been incensed by his behaviour during the game.

Barnsley's 1912 FA Cup semi-final tie with Southern league Swindon was notoriously brutal, as Barnsley set out to “curb the pace” of Swindon’s star player, the amateur international, Harold Fleming. “Barnsley deliberately kicked Fleming … until he had got seriously injured, and the local press jeered at the southerners for making an official complaint”. After a 0-0 draw, which Swindon finished with nine men, Barnsley won 1-0 in the replay (against a team without Fleming, who didn’t play again for nearly a year).

Barson wasn’t selected in this Barnsley team, which went on to beat West Brom in the Cup final replay at Bramhall Lane (another solitary goal, after another 0-0 draw), but he clearly learned a lot about uncompromising defence. In his own words, "at Barnsley they taught me to be a robust player".

After the war, Barson had a very public falling out with the Barnsley directors over travelling expenses and he joined Aston Villa in October 1919, for a fee of £2850. Barnsley were in financial difficulties, and the money was welcome to them. Despite their differences, Barson was generous enough to refuse to take his own share of the transfer fee from his old club.

Aston Villa (and England) : the glory years

When the league started again in 1919, the decision to extend the first division to twenty-two teams had made it likely that Barnsley would be automatically promoted from the second division. However, a ballot was instead called and Arsenal went up in their place (the Arsenal chairman later admitting to some underhand dealings but, given the circumstances by which United found themselves still in the top division, I won't make too much of that). The wish to play top-flight football may have figured in Barson's decision to leave Barnsley.

On the other hand, it is said that, strangely for such a self-confident man, Barson initially thought himself not good enough for the Villa, and had to be persuaded by their manager, Ramsay. Eventually, Barson moved to Villa in October 1919, making his debut in a 4-1 win at Middlesbrough.

In their book 'Aston Villa: A Complete Record, 1874-1992', David Goodyear and Tony Matthews say: "Despite several brushes with authority, Frank Barson was a truly great centre half, a fierce tackler and dominant in the air. He became a legend in football, probably serving more suspensions than any other English defender. He revitalised a flagging Villa team. His dynamic personality brought the best out of the players."

Whilst undoubtedly being a huge asset to Villa, he once again fell out with the powers that be at the club, this time over his refusal to re locate to Birmingham, due to business commitments in Sheffield.

This caused him particular problems on one occasion, when he and goalkeeper Sam Hardy, who lived in Chesterfield, were forced to walk seven miles to Old Trafford in bad weather after missing a rail connection. Naturally, in the best Barnsley tradition, Barson was the best player on the pitch that afternoon.

Barson's living arrangements caused further controversy on the opening day of the 1920-21 season, when he and Clem Stephenson missed a defeat at Bolton. Both were suspended by the Villa board for fourteen days for “refusing to play” and given a month to arrange to take up residence in Birmingham. (Times 24.09.20) Barson still refused to move house. Nevertheless, he was appointed Villa captain in succession to Andy Ducat, although there are suggestions that he merely decided he wanted the job and nobody dared argue with him.

He celebrated his appointment as captain by scoring with a header from thirty yards out against Sheffield United, for many years renowned as the longest headed goal ever scored.

On 9 February 1920, Barson was selected for an International Trial, ironically enough playing for “The South” against an England XI at West Brom (The Times, 3.2.20).

He clearly impressed the selectors for in due course, in March, he was selected for England alongside his Aston Villa club half-back colleague, Andy Ducat, a talented sportsman who also played county cricket for Surrey.

In fact, 15 March 1920, when he ran out for England against Wales at Highbury, was to be Barson’s one and only international appearance. In difficult conditions, with the ground cutting up badly after heavy rain, the Welsh won 2-1, the 44 year-old Billy Meredith featuring prominently for Wales. According to The Times, “delay in finishing attacks and uncertainty in defence accounted for England’s defeat”. But this was the first time Wales had beaten England since 1882. Although Barson, along with his fellow half-backs, was said to have “supported the forwards admirably and assisted in frequent attacks”, he never played for England again. (Times, 16/3/20)

Barson also featured prominently in Villa’s fine cup run that season. In the semi-final against Chelsea on 27 March 1920, he had to deal with their star player. “Cock was closely watched by Barson and it soon became apparent that the centre-half had the Chelsea player well under control. This was the first indication that Chelsea might be defeated, as the wing forwards appeared at a loss what to do with the pivot of the line ineffective”. Villa scored five minutes before the interval and never looked like losing after that, going on to win 3-1. (Times, 29.03.20)

On 24 April 1920, the first Cup Final since the end of the war took place at Chelsea’s ground at Stamford Bridge. The change of venue was lamented by The Times as eliminating the “beanfeast” atmosphere of Crystal Palace and its accompanying fairground, and making the game “just like any other cup-tie”. Aston Villa took on Huddersfield Town and won by the only goal of the game, scored in the first period of extra time. (Times 23.4.20)

Probably the most famous story about Frank Barson (apart from the gun legend)concerns this 1920 FA Cup Final. Inevitably, it seems, he was warned about his behaviour by the referee J.T. (Jack) Howcroft – but this time it happened in the dressing room before the match started. "The first wrong move you make, Barson, off you go" he was told.

It was a hard game in those days. Don Davies pointed out that, "Referees who had to handle man and crowds in those days were something more than referees; they were social reformers, purifiers of the public morals".

Howcroft of Bolton was the leading referee of the day and highly demonstrative in everything he did. "The complete master of the grand manner", said Davies. "To men like J.T. Howcroft refereeing was life; unceasingly he studied the part, rehearsed the part, acted the part;.... and one feels sure that he took no share in a game without believing that of twenty-five performers involved (including the linesmen) the greatest of these was Howcroft".

Perhaps Howcroft also had an eye to what might make a good story in the years to come, but in truth he was merely carrying to an extreme one of his cardinal principles, "Dive straight in and get a grip at the start". He repeated the pre-match threat to Barson a couple of years later when officiating another Villa game. Despite this, the two men are said to have always retained a healthy respect for each other.

Opposing crowds hated Barson, so much so that he was forced to defend himself publicly on the grounds that he had been "brought up to play hard and saw nothing wrong with an honest to goodness shoulder charge".

The Times pointed out, “A player like Barson …. is not loved by any but members of his own crowd, but ruthlessly and fearlessly he manages to break up attack after attack” (TT 5.3.21)

The beginning of the end to his time at Villa came following a match against Liverpool. Barson had invited a friend of his to wait in the dressing room while he got changed, and this drew a rebuke from a director. The disciplinarian Rinder became involved in the argument and when Barson refused to apologise, his Villa days were numbered. Even Frank Barson couldn't get the better of Fredrick Rinder. A seven day suspension was the result and Barson, his sense of justice offended, responded with an immediate transfer request.

Manchester United

It is more than possible there was also a financial element underlying this dispute with the club. Villa actually did offer Barson good terms to re-sign at the beginning of the following season, but he simply refused to play for the team again. He turned down offers from several clubs but eventually joined Manchester United in late August 1922. Villa had wanted £6,000 for his signature, then £5,500. United offered £4000 and Villa eventually settled for a reduced fee from United of £5,000, which was still a record fee for a defender.

Clearly, despite the maximum wage, there was also considerable discussion about "personal terms". Apart from anything else, Barson was apparently promised his own pub, so long as United gained promotion within three years. He also received permission from the Old Trafford board to live in Sheffield and to train at Rotherham.

At United, Barson expected special treatment. More precisely, he expected extra money, in an envelope, slipped into his pocket or left on a shelf for him to pick up. “Where’s the doin’s?”, he roared at the trainer before one match, when no package was to be seen. “I’m not taking my bloody coat off till I get it”.

The team he joined in the Second Division was not a typical United side. It had a solid defence, but the forwards were disjointed. As one of the team said, “When we were a goal down we knew we had had it”. Barson developed a fine understanding with his goalkeeper, Alf Steward, who took over from the veteran Jack Mew in 1923, exemplified by the way Barson would frequently head an opposing corner safely back to the keeper from close range. Behind him, Moore and Silcock were a fine pair of full-backs and his half-back partners were accomplished players. But the forwards rarely seemed to click.

Barson’s time at Old Trafford was plagued by injuries, but he was given the captaincy and immediately proved a commanding figure. Within the required three seasons, he led United to promotion back to the First Division. Coming into the last game of the 1924-25 season, United were lying second in Division Two, but could still be overtaken by Derby County. Fittingly for the great defender, it was a 0-0 draw with his old club Barnsley that earned United the necessary point to guarantee promotion. United conceded only 23 goals that season.

Despite the games he missed through injury, Barson was regarded as a hero in Manchester, although he didn't welcome undue flattery. Off the field, he was said to be a mild-mannered, considerate man. The story goes that when Frank opened the door of his new pub he was swamped in the rush and decided then and there that running a pub was not the life for him. In fact, he was so sick of such attention that he immediately gave the business to his head waiter.

The first season back in Division One was successful enough, certainly in terms of attendances. In February 1926, 56,661 saw United beat Sunderland 2-1 (albeit somewhat luckily, since Sunderland had an apparently good goal disallowed). The Manchester Guardian said of Barson, he “was a commanding figure; he held the side together at a critical time, and set the example of bold tackling, well-judged passing and not a little daring that was of incalculable value” (MG 25.02.26). Barson’s form led Arsenal to make enquiries about his availability befoe Christmas.

Sadly, one of his worst games came against City in the FA Cup semi-final, United’s first semi-final since the glorious pre-war days. City won 3-0 and Barson's mistake was responsible for their third goal.

United finished the season 9th. The change in the off-side law cannot have helped a team which had based itself on a resolute defence.

John Chapman, the manager who signed Barson, preceded him out of Old Trafford, "suspended forthwith from all involvement with football" by the FA in October 1926, because of alleged improper conduct whilst acting as the club’s Secretary-Manager. The full details of the charge were never made public, but United had little option but to dispense with their Manager’s services.

Barson’s injury plagued six years at Old Trafford ended after making 140 League appearances and scoring 4 goals for the Red Devils he joined Watford on a free transfer in May 1928

Later Years

Barson's notoriety reached a high in 1928. On September 29 he was sent off for allegedly kicking Temple, the Fulham outside right, while playing for Watford against Fulham. On October 16, the FA issued the statement that “F Barson of Watford is suspended from today from taking part in football until the end of the present season”, a draconian period of some seven months. (Times 17.10.28) Five thousand fans took up his cause by signing a petition, which was delivered to an unsympathetic Football Association by the mayor of Watford. The petition was ceremonially burned in the mayor's presence.

Barson didn't play again for Watford. Exactly a year after leaving Old Trafford he accepted the post of player coach at Hartlepool United. Strangely, within five months (October 1929) he had signed amateur forms for Wigan Borough. He became a professional for the club in July 1930 in what was to be was Borough’s last full season as a Football League club. He was 39 at the time, and at the end of his career, but he appeared 19 times in a Wigan shirt. His last appearance was against Accrington Stanley on Boxing Day 1930, when he got sent off in the 83rd minute for allegedly jumping on an opponent.

Frank was inevitably the club’s highest paid player and in an effort to stabilise the club’s terrible finances he was off loaded to Rhyl Athletic in June 1931. It did Wigan no good. Finances were at rock bottom, and another League ultimatum of pay up or resign couldn't be met. A public appeal seemed to indicate the people of Wigan just didn't want a football team, and on 24 October 1931 Wigan Borough played their last League game at the Racecourse Ground, crashing 5-0 to Wrexham.

And Barson himself never played league football again; one story told in Wigan is that this was because the FA inquiry into his sending off adjourned itself sine die”, stopping him playing until it had reached a decision, which it had no intention of ever doing.

In May 1932 he became the player manager of Rhyl where he remained until his contract was terminated in March 1935. Within three months he re-surfaced as the manager of Stourbridge, but an offer to return to Aston Villa as youth coach in July 1935 meant he gave up the job as soon as a replacement was found. Three months after his appointment as youth coach he became the senior coach and head trainer at Villa Park until the outbreak of the Second World War.

After the war, Barson became the trainer at Swansea Town from June 1947 until February 1954. He finished his career in May 1956 after previously spending almost two seasons as the trainer at Lye Town.

Barson as a Legend

Percy Young, the historian of Manchester United, said of Barton, “To the thoughtless, who do not discriminate between toughness and roughness, he was a rough player. Nor did a dominant personality and an instinct for natural justice endear him to referees. He tackled ruthlessly, but cleanly, and used his weight, but fairly. He had the instinct of a duellist, to whom a contest is a personal issue between two combatants. If Barson was maliciously treated by an opponent he issued due warning of the wrath that was to come. He also frequently advised the referee. Nor was this confined to his own interests, for unfair tactics against a colleague roused him to fury, Thus he inspired admiration for his skill and affection in those who played with him."

In his book Soccer in the Blood, his fellow player Billy Walker (Aston Villa 1919-33) wrote of Barson "Perhaps the greatest of all the great characters in my album - he played with and against me - was the one and only Frank Barson.

"Frank was a Sheffielder, a truly great footballer and personality and a card. He was never ashamed of numbering amongst his friends the notorious Fowler brothers, who were hanged for murder."

The Fowlers were part of the Sheffield gang wars, strong-arm men working on behalf of one of the local bookmakers and other criminals. They were convicted of leading a group who killed a local man, in the culmination of an argument that had started over a barmaid, but then turned into an argument about their reputation.

In fact, the story has it that at the start of the 1925-26 season, when United were at last back in the top division, Frank received a good luck letter from the brothers, who at the time were in the condemned cell at Armley Prison, Leeds. On Wednesday 2 September, Barson scored the opening goal in United’s second game of the season, a 3-0 victory over his old club Villa at Old Trafford. After three years with the club, it was his first goal for United. Over the following two days, on the Thursday and Friday of that same week, first William Fowler and then Lawrence Fowler went to the gallows.

Walker claimed that Barson did more to make him the great footballer he became than did anyone else. However, that didn't stop Frank from behaving in his usual style when they were in opposition. When playing against Manchester United, Walker once laid on a goal and the latest of all late tackles then put him out of action for three weeks. In September 1925, on his first return to Villa Park, Barson unceremoniously dumped his friend Walker onto the cinder track. The United player commiserated with Walker in the dressing-room. “You know I would never hurt a hair on your head, lad,” he said. Certainly, off the field, Barson is always portrayed as a placid sort of man.

It is towards the end of his career that legend suggests Barson attended negotiations for a pay rise at one of his clubs carrying a gun, probably a shotgun, but the story isn’t precise even about which club. Some other sources even suggest this was whilst he was Villa, which would place it much earlier in his career.

There are records of at least 12 suspensions during Barson's career, although these seem to include club-imposed suspensions such as those at Villa.

Frank died in Winson Green, Birmingham on 13th September 1968. There are those who argue that returning to Birmingham to die shows that Barson’s true loyalty always remained with Villa.

In November 2004 Barson’s only tangible trophy, the medal presented to him after he helped Aston Villa win the FA Cup in 1920 was put up for sale at Christie's in London, valued at between £5,000 and £7,000. The 15 carat gold medal FA Cup winners' medal was up for sale again in March 2007, this time was expected to fetch up to £6,000.

Sources :

The Independent, (London), Sep 20, 1997
Wigan website
The Times, various
The Star (South Yorkshire) Mar 10 2007
The Hardest Man in History, Dave Woodhall (website)
Don Davies, An Old International, Jack Cox
Sport and the British, Richard Holt
Manchester United, Percy Young

No comments: