One life, one game, one team, one invincibles

One life, one game, one team, one Invincibles (So far)

Friday, 13 July 2012

Walley Barnes - Captain of Wales

A New Arsenal Book Review by Brian Dawes

A really interesting addition to the Arsenal Classic Collection can be found in volume 8, which is entitled 'Captain of Wales by Walley Barnes'. Interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this was no ghost written volume it seems, but rather his own work albeit in association with a journalist by the name of Ken Wheeler. As the title suggests Walley played for Wales, but only because he happened to be born in Wales to English parents. This being so because his father, a soldier by trade, just happened to be stationed there at the time that Walley was born. So his country of birth defined his nationality - such were the rules of International football in days long gone.

His rather strange Christian name was nothing more exciting than a spelling error and unlike many a modern football autobiography this one covers a rather interesting childhood which included such delights as snake hunting in India where he and his brother also owned a hill pony and a pet monkey. Barnes must have been tough because he had sixty boxing bouts in which he only lost twice. But he also later suffered serious injury when he wrecked his knee as a result of a vaulting horse accident, this at a time when he was a PT instructor and Sergeant-Major for the Army. Walley inhabited that strange world of Wartime Football where players were released by the Army or Airforce to play Club matches or to raise money in exhibition matches for worthy war-time causes. An interesting era in that the top players got to play with many of the best players around in representative elevens. Barnes for example at one time toured with such footballing elite such as Frank Swift, Joe Mercer, Bernard Joy, Matt Busby, Stanley Matthews, Raich Carter and Ted Drake in a F.A. Services XI that actually travelled Europe in 1944, with the war still in full flow.

For those of you unfamiliar with Walley Barnes you'll need to know that he was a very versatile player but regarded as one of the greatest full backs ever to play for Arsenal playing both as left and right back. No mean feat when you consider all the fabulous full backs who've appeared for the mighty Arsenal. As it happens during the war years he also played every position for the Gunners other than centre forward and centre half, including a game as keeper. This after signing for Arsenal from Southampton where he played as an amateur inside forward (attacking midfielder) in 1943 aged 23. His move to Arsenal came about through Southampton's then manager Tom Parker the famous captain of Arsenal in the late twenties and early thirties under Chapman.

As a result of Barnes vaulting accident he was advised that he'd never play football again, but Walley just wasn't the type to take no for an answer. Although out of action for over a year he proved his fitness sufficiently to get back with Arsenal at a time when the team were struggling. It was Tom Whittaker who signed him and shoved him back in the first team almost immediately for a league match at Deepdale where he was up against the great Tom Finney.

It's at this stage in the book that he takes up the story of Arsenal's post war years of which he was a major part until the early fifties. It's a period that tends to be glossed over in many Arsenal histories and you suspect that quite a lot of what has been written about the period was sourced from this volume. It's not all just Arsenal as the title suggests but covers our league Championship win of 1947-48 and Joe Mercer's time at Arsenal. Weirdly Walley still worked for the Army and was medically classified as 'Category B7, fit for light duties only' whilst he was actually playing league football.

This isn't one of them but all the photos in this title are in black & white 

As you'd expect Walley's two highly contrasting Cup Finals and our League Championship season are pretty well covered. His exploits with Wales are covered a little too well for my taste as a purely Arsenal man but the clue was always in the title. Thanks to representative, club and international matches Barnes played both against and with many of the footballing giants of his day and he's always happy to sing their praises. Apart from the run of the mill there are many interesting detours that include two tours of Brazil and another in Portugal. His honesty about the comparative state of British football to that of more technically advanced nations is refreshing for this particular era. As are his thoughts on the possibility of the abolition of wage caps, the progression of football under floodlights, taking penalties, tactics for full-backs, the standard of referees and a whole lot more. Clearly Barnes was very much an intelligent thinking footballer whose thoughts were worthy inclusion in the volume.

Perhaps what nails the era for me was the anectdote of Arsenal travelled home by train from a 1-1 at Huddersfield on 10th April 1948. It was only when Dennis Compton purchased a paper at Doncaster station and studied the results and league tables that the team discovered they couldn't be caught in the league and were therefore League Champions.

So for me it wasn't just the footballing stories that made this title, such an interesting read, excellent though they are, but also how massively different life was back then.

Captain of Wales by Walley Barnes
Originally published in 1953 and this paperback edition produced in 2012 by GCR Books
Retail price £12.95

Most good book shops will order a copy in for you if they don't stock it - just quote ISBN 978 0 9559211 8 6. It's also available from all your favourite online sources but probably the best deal you'll find is from GCR Books themselves  where it is priced at £8.95

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