John Barnwell on winning a trophy at Wolves and the glory days

‘Nuno was the first manager to get a real grip on this club… where will it go now?’: John Barnwell, the last manager to win a major trophy with Wolves, opens up on the sleeping giant’s long wait for the glory days to return

  • Wolves’ last major trophy came in 1980 when John Barnwell was the manager
  • Barnwell, 82, is best remembered for masterminding the League Cup final win 
  • The sleeping giant at Molineux was awakened by the win over Nottingham Forest
  • Speaking to Sportsmail, Barnwell has recalled the success and other highlights 

Spurs fans frustrated by 13 years of hurt can count themselves lucky in comparison to Nuno Espirito Santo’s former club Wolves, whose last major trophy came in 1980 in Margaret Thatcher’s first year as Prime Minister.

John Barnwell, manager for that historic League Cup final win against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, is now 82 and lives next door to the beaten captain John McGovern on the banks of the River Trent.

McGovern often gives him a lift to games at the City Ground. ‘The final is one subject he doesn’t bring up,’ says Barnwell, whose career started with him playing for Arsenal and ended as chairman of the League Managers’ Association.

Wolves’ last trophy came in 1980, when John Barnwell steered them to League Cup success

Nuno Espirito Santo (centre) left Wolves after a memorable spell and now manages Tottenham

Barnwell will be best remembered however for being the last manager before Nuno to awaken the sleeping giant at Molineux, once home to England captain Billy Wright and legendary manager Stan Cullis, as they dominated football in the Fifties.

Liverpool great Emlyn Hughes was Barnwell’s skipper at Wembley and match-winner Andy Gray Britain’s most expensive player, having cost what was then an eye-popping £1,469,000 from Aston Villa the previous year.

‘Forest had a great team with the likes of Peter Shilton and Trevor Francis but whenever you played them, you had to try and get the better of Cloughie – and it didn’t always work,’ says Barnwell.

Barnwell (left) is best remembered for helping his team awaken the sleeping giant at Molineux

‘We’d booked a hotel in Southgate the night before the final. Cloughie also tried to get it but I beat him to it. So he sent a couple of his coaches in to mess us about at meals. I had to get the manager to bung them into another room.

‘Then at Wembley I tried to get an edge by delaying our team in the dressing room. I hoped it would irritate Brian in the tunnel but by the time we arrived, he and Peter Taylor were halfway to the dug-out. I didn’t know they’d asked their trainer Jimmy Gordon to lead Forest out.

‘Brian did speak to me before the game to say “Hey Barnie, enjoy the day” but that was the last time I heard from him for six months. At full time, he’d gone.

‘I remember walking away from Wembley holding the cup to a nearby hotel for a quick reception before we got the coach back to Wolverhampton. Nobody bothered me on the road but when I arrived the hotel was locked up for the function. I had to lift the cup through the window so they’d let me in.’

Speaking to Sportsmail, Barnwell has now revealed all about the occasion and its aftermath

Wolves’ 1-0 victory was a major upset. Forest had won the European Cup in 1979 and were to retain it in 1980. But on March 25 fate was with the Old Gold with a mix-up between Shilton and David Needham gifting Gray a tap-in.

It represented a huge turnaround given Wolves had been in relegation danger when Barnwell took over the previous season. The clubs will meet again in the League Cup on Tuesday night.

‘I started with the foundations, like a house,’ he says. ‘I needed a strong centre-back pairing. My connections at Anfield told me Emlyn was looking for a bigger contract. Bill Shankly was helpful, he loved Liverpool of course but said to Emlyn we were a good club if he couldn’t get things sorted out.

‘Then I wanted a striker. Bill recommended Bob Latchford from Everton but we couldn’t get him. I’d heard Gray and Ron Saunders [the Aston Villa manager] weren’t getting on, so I rang Ron, who started at £1,750,000.

Barnwell helped Wolves claw away from danger and later brought in striker Andy Gray (right)

‘We whittled the price down a little but could still only afford Gray after we sold Steve Daley to Manchester City for only a bit less. Steve was a good player but I didn’t think his best position was midfield. I wanted him wide on the left but he didn’t like that as much.’

Amid the frenetic activity, Barnwell was recovering from a near-fatal car accident in May 1979 when his Rover hit a crash barrier on the A38 near Derby and the rear view mirror was lodged in his skull. The first eyewitness thought he was dead.

Barnwell had been returning to Wolverhampton from a speaking engagement for cancer research. ‘I remember excusing myself to leave because Wolves had a big game the following night, the next thing I know, I am in the hospital at Derby,’ he says.

‘Nobody really knows what happened. They think a car might have been coming the other away and I had to swerve but I still have no recollections.’

Owing to the steady progress at the club, Barnwel looked to be building something good there

Barnwell’s parents heard the news on the radio. After surgery, he stayed at their home in Newcastle, being walked up and down Tynemouth Beach to aid his recovery. 

‘I don’t remember that at all. I don’t think I ever fully recovered. Even some of the cup final is patchy,’ he says. ‘I once bought my parents a colour TV because I thought they only had black and white. When I arrived, they already had a colour set and my mother said I’d watched it with them before.

‘Even when I went back to work, it wasn’t quite the same. I’d be in the middle of a phone call and have to put the receiver down because the concentration was exhausting.’

Even so, Barnwell appeared to be building something good, with FA Cup semi-final appearances in 1979 and 1981 either side of winning at Wembley. But storm clouds were also gathering due to the ambitious new Molineux Stand.

Storm clouds gathered after the League Cup win, though, with players needing to be offloaded

Barnwell was given assurances the investment would not affect other areas of the club but by 1981-82 it was clear that was not true.

‘I later found out they were paying £400,000 interest at 17.5 per cent. There was only one way of dealing with it, making profit in the transfer market,’ he says.

‘The team I inherited was getting older. I had to bring in new players but couldn’t get deals done. The biggest one was Zbigniew Boniek. We had someone stay with him in Poland, he wanted to come. The price was $200,000 but our chairman blocked it. He went to Juventus at the end of that season.

‘The final straw was a board meeting to discuss selling Andy Gray to Leeds. It didn’t happen because they offered £600,000 but when I asked my chairman how much money I’d get to replace Gray, he said: “Nothing”.’

Barnwell soon stepped down from his role in 1982 and he was never invited back to the ground

Barnwell resigned at the start of 1982. The fall-out meant he was never invited back to Molineux, though he did have one reunion with former players Hibbitt, Richards and Willie Carr in 2019.

‘I didn’t realise how popular I was until I went there. I had to sign hundreds of shirts, it was humbling,’ says Barnwell.

‘Spirits were high because Nuno was in charge. I felt he was the first manager since I’d left who really had a grip on where the club was going. It was a surprise to me he left and we’re all wondering where Wolves will go now. I hope they can cement it together.’

Barnwell was 43 when he left Wolves but never reached the same managerial heights afterwards with AEK Athens, Notts Country, Walsall and Northampton.

Barnwell (above) did enjoy a reunion with former players and also found success with the LMA

Instead, he found success in a new career with the LMA. During his tenure, they appointed lawyers to ensure clubs had to abide by contractual obligations after sacking managers.

Barnwell also gave a witness statement in support of Kevin Keegan as he sued Mike Ashley for constructive dismissal at Newcastle in 2009. 

Barnwell asserted that Keegan had been put in an ‘untenable position’ and the former manager won his case and was awarded £2million.

KO’d… but I still had to play on

John Barnwell spent three days in hospital after playing on with concussion. It is an horrific story that highlights old-fashioned attitudes to head injuries.

In 1970, Barnwell took the force of a fierce shot playing for Sheffield United against Swindon but was told to continue despite being diagnosed with concussion.   

In Sheffield United’s next match programme, their manager John Harris explained under the headline ‘How to Win Without Knowing About It’: ‘John had been seen by the doctor at half-time and it was realised he was suffering from concussion but as he was playing instinctively and so well it was decided to let him carry on. 

‘It paid off [United won 2-1] and John suffered no ill-effects.’ 

Barnwell tells a different ending, though. 

‘When I got back home to Nottingham, I felt terrible and went to see my old Forest physio Bob Davies, who lived in the flat underneath,’ he says.

‘He went berserk at what had happened and drove me to hospital, I was there for three days.’

Barnwell retired later that year aged 32 with an ankle injury.

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