A 90th birthday tribute to a lost hero
TODAY would have been the 90th birthday of Ray Barlow, one of the finest – perhaps THE finest – footballer ever to wear the stripes. In recognition of the great man’s birthday and to celebrate all that he gave to this football club, today’s delivery is given over to the tribute we gave him in Albion News upon his passing in March 2012…
At times like these, as thousands who never truly knew him mourn the passing of the great Ray Barlow, it must be harder yet for family and friends to comprehend their own very personal, very private, very painful loss. To them, they have lost a human being, someone who coloured, enriched their lives on a day to day, intimate basis.
To the rest of us, we have lost an icon. Making the connection between the two must be incredibly difficult for those close to him, so at the outset of this tribute, I can only hope that they recognise something of him in what is to follow.
The odd irony is that figures as huge as Ray permeate the lives of the rest of us. The great players, those truly blessed with a presence at the heart of a football club in perpetuity, they exist beyond the field of play.
They live a parallel existence, away from their own lives and deep in the heart of our own. They become family, even if the closest we’ve ever come to them is when they’ve taken a throw in from in front of us. Even when the boots are hung up, they still populate our consciousness, giving colour to our memories, our day dreams, our thoughts.
The great Ray Barlow, taken from us earlier this month, was one of those giants.
Permit the indulgence, but I can only start on a personal level. I never saw the great man play the game and if there were a time machine available, I would rather go back and do that than be an eye witness to any of the great moments in history for in our house, Ray was a religious deity.
Until I was 15, I thought his full name was The Great Ray Barlow, because he was never, ever mentioned except by his full title. Whenever we drove off to see relatives in Stourbridge, there would always be a little detour on the way so that we could drive past the front of his shop - not that we ever went in for reasons I cannot fathom at this distance.
When I first came to work at the club, it was ahead of a game against Preston North End. My first act as an Albion employee was to make sure Ray was invited to the match, just so I could tell my dad I’d got the great man into the place.
When Ronnie Allen passed away, I spent a couple of hours in Ray’s company, talking about his fallen colleague and about his own career, and there was a follow up interview not long after, the results of which you can read elsewhere in today’s programme. It was like being in the presence of the Lord.
A couple of years later, when we were making the “Full Throstle” dvd, it was my job to drive over to Ray’s house, pick him up, bring him to The Hawthorns and take him home again. Ray Barlow sat in the front of my car. The great Ray Barlow. I still can’t believe I was stupid enough to sell the damn thing later.
To many, all of that will sound utterly ludicrous. Laugh all you like, but to me, to my dad who heard the stories, those few slivers of memory are beyond price. Not simply because it was an opportunity to come close to one of the greats but because, above all, Ray Barlow was a truly great human being.
They say you should never meet your heroes and in this job, I can vouch for the truth of that statement in a few cases. But Ray was everything you could hope for and more. As countless colleagues testified in the aftermath of his death, he was a true gentleman. Speaking very softly with the West Country burr that was still there, even after a lifetime in the Black Country, he would gently, patiently answer every question with unfailing modesty, deflecting requests for information about his own genius with anecdotes and explanations about what a good player Jimmy Dudley was, how quick Frank Griffin was to spot an opening, how much he enjoyed playing in front of Len Millard, what an exceptional footballer Ronnie Allen had been.
If there was ever a hint of irritation in his tone, it was that Ronnie had only collected five England caps. There was never any suggestion that his own haul of just a solitary one left the English selection committee guilty of one of the most heinous crimes against football ever committed. It was as if he’d been in the crowd with the other 30 or 40 thousand Albion supporters, beguiled by the way the “Team of the Century” performed, rather than being perhaps its central figure.
Such modesty, such humility was absolutely central to the man, not just off the field, but on it too. Ray lived for the team, for the collective, not for himself. It was the final score that mattered to him, not whether he had secreted the headlines away for himself with a spectacular display that had been nothing but self serving, forwarding his cause rather than the team’s. That was not the Barlow way. Every thought and action was for the betterment of the team not for the greater glory of Ray Barlow. And that only served to make him a greater player yet.
Ray always wanted the football. In another, you’d call it an expression of ego but not in him, for every great deed was met with a shrug, a slightly embarrassed smile that he had just created a thing of such devastating beauty. Then he would simply melt away into the background, happy to leave the limelight to those who enjoyed it, content just to be another footballer, happier still to go back to his family and the real world beyond the stage.
He did not play football for self aggrandisement nor to attract attention to himself. He played the game because it was his form of self expression. He was at his most articulate with a football at his feet, under his ultimate control. A self effacing man who kept his own counsel and played down his deeds off the pitch, you could hardly wish for a more garrulous figure on it, those feet talking 19 to the dozen, but always, always in the service of the team.
It was ever thus from the time he first arrived at the club, joining as a 17 year old in August 1944 as the war was entering its final phase, making his Albion debut in a Wartime League Cup game the following February, Albion beaten 2-0 by Walsall.
Proper league football did not get underway until 1946/47, allowing Ray to make his senior debut on September 28th, playing at inside left and scoring in a 7-2 rout of Newport County at Somerton Park in a Second Division game. He made a further nine league appearances that season, all in the number ten shirt, as well as featuring in the FA Cup for the first time in the games against Leeds United and Charlton Athletic, registering four goals in total, including a brace in a 6-1 home win over Fulham.
Responsibilities elsewhere meant that he did not feature the following season. Military service intervened and Ray later recalled that he “Played for the Army in Israel when I was over there in the old Palestine days when “the troubles” were on”. But having done duty for King and country, it was always apparent that his real calling was here at The Hawthorns, playing for the Throstles.
He returned at the beginning of 1948/49, still in the inside-left berth, but was a largely peripheral figure for the first half of the season. With his physical presence, his height and touch, manager Jack Smith was keen to utilise Barlow as part of the forward line, not least because he had a powerful shot on him coupled with an eye for goal. But playing so far up the field somehow restricted the breadth of his vision and though he showed flashes of ability there, it was as if he were playing with one hand behind his back, as though we were trying to pour a gallon talent into a pint pot.
As the season approached its climax, injuries forced something of a reshuffle and with Len Millard moving to cover at left-back, the right-half slot was vacant for a spell, Barlow dropping in to fill the gap. Although it was only a seven game run, and although playing him on the right hand side cramped the potential that might be drawn from that scientific instrument of a left foot, it was clear that playing with the game in front of him, its possibilities there to be exploited, was far better suited to his extraordinary ability. He returned to the forward line for the run in as the Throstles clinched promotion, but a marker for the future had been laid down.
It was to be a little while though before that promise could be realised for manager Jack Smith persisted in playing him up front, though n 1949/50, he did get half a dozen games in the number six shirt that was to become synonymous with the great man.
It wasn’t until the following season that he made that shirt his own though, settling into a left side of midfield role that gave him the scope to unleash the full range of his passing, a quality that had the absolute precision of a Swiss clock coupled with the elegant, shimmering beauty of a Monet. In the post-war age of modernity, Ray Barlow’s football had already gone beyond the age, a sophisticated fusion of form and function that the design world had yet to grasp.
A footballer of such majesty does forever face challenges of course. If you are on another plane, if you see gaps before they arise, if you spot openings that nobody else has noticed, if you play a perfect pass into a place where nobody is expecting it, then frustration can be your lot, even if you are possessed of a temperament as equable as Barlow’s.
You see, Ray was a reader of the game, steeped in its lore, understanding it at some primeval level deep within his soul. Like all the true greats, he dictated a game, bending it to his will, shaping it to his whim. Players of that stature must, of necessity, be surrounded by others who understand, who possess the same instincts, who can react and respond to those shards of incandescent brilliance sprinkled so thoughtfully across the field.
As the 1950s gathered pace, so the Throstles gathered like minds around the central core of Ray Barlow, players who could revolve around him, make use of his mastery of the game. The arrival of Jesse Carver as Albion manager, swiftly followed by Vic Buckingham was critical. Both were men of the modern game, disinterested in the kick and rush that disfigured English football and left our national team bewitched, bothered and bewildered every time we came across more intricate foreign opposition in games that mattered.
Buckingham’s conception of the game chimed perfectly with Barlow’s, a game of movement, of rotation, of intelligence, not of rote, of run, of chase, of brute force. This was a game of infinite wit, of delicacy, of charm, the kind of football you could hang on your wall rather than pile on your compost heap. Albion football was beguiling in the extreme, a fresh take, one where so swiftly were the players thinking, acting, moving, it was as though they were on wires. And the puppeteer was Ray Barlow.
It was his great good fortune to be in the same team as Ronnie Allen, a rare player of commensurate genius, the two of them slicing up opponents like a biologist on the dissecting table. The two of them could pinpoint weakness in an instant, would combine gloriously to draw an opponent into his most vulnerable area then strike with the speed and poisonous intent of a snake, leaving him naked and desperately trying to cover his embarrassment as the Throstles smiled indulgently at another hapless victim.
The zenith of that combination, that “Team of the Century” as they were described, came in the celestial season of 1953/54 when, as folklore will tell you, we should have clinched the first double of the twentieth century. That we were denied the league title by an act of larceny that not even the great train robbers would have attempted has now gone down in folklore. But if we were only going to win one of the prizes, it was as well that ours came at Wembley in an altogether more sensible age when the FA Cup Final was the centrifuge of the season, everything else simply orbiting in its wake.
On May 1st 1954, we and Preston North End strode out onto the lush turf of Wembley, Ray typically towards the end of the Albion line, shying away from the focus as ever. The game begun, it was clear that Ray had a dual role on the day, not simply scripting and directing our attacking play, but helping Len Millard shackle Tom Finney, a magician of a footballer who, so the story went, was going to follow in the footsteps of the previous year’s Matthews Final by making this day all his own. The story that has passed down the years is that Finney didn’t get a kick, something of an exaggeration. Yet so well was he harnessed by the two Albion men that perhaps the most influential footballer of his generation had a negligible impact of the biggest game of his life.
Barlow, however, did not sacrifice his own game to snuff out Finney’s. Although he stuck to that task, he was still capable of having his own say at the other end of the field, most notably in the second half. Having fallen 2-1 behind to a goal so offside Charlie Wayman was almost outside the ground by the time he scored it, we were on the brink of ending a glorious campaign with nothing.
Albion pressed forward, the ball played into the penalty area, Barlow breaking forward onto it, only to be pushed aside by Tommy Docherty. A penalty was ours, Ronnie Allen scored and moments before the end, Frank Griffin won us the cup. Justice had been served. On your way home tonight, nip in the club shop and pick up a copy of the 1954 final on dvd and watch just how the brilliance of Barlow – and Allen and Finney – still shines down the years.
There were other highlights to come for Ray, including that single England cap in a game against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. The captaincy of the Albion followed in succession to Len Millard, Barlow leading us into the Soviet Union for a tour in 1957, and there were other darts at the FA Cup, reaching the semi-finals in 1957, only to be defeated by the Villa in a replay. The following year, the tide of emotion that carried the post Munich Manchester United on engulfed us in a sixth round replay at Old Trafford when it looked as if another Wembley appearance might come Ray’s way at the age of 31.
Injuries inevitably began to take their toll as the seasons flitted by, and ultimately he moved on, leaving us for a brief spell at Birmingham City and then off to retirement, leaving a gaping hole at the heart of this football club.
Questions as to his greatness are surely redundant, but should you require further evidence, recall simply that Bobby Moore, one of England’s giants, a man who wore the same number six shirt for club and country with such distinction, would always recount the tale that as a youngster, Ray Barlow was his idol, the man upon whom he based his game. Perhaps if the England selectors had had the same vision as Moore, Ray Barlow might have been handling the Jules Rimet trophy himself in 1954 or 1958.
And then there is the testimony of a man who was a club colleague for many years, a player later charged with taking over that number six shirt once Ray had vacated it. “One of the greatest footballers I ever worked with” was the judgment of Sir Bobby Robson, a man who had played and managed at the highest level all over Europe, when he spoke to the club a handful of years ago. “Ray was a wonderful purveyor of the long pass” he would purr.
It was an unusual, but very precise choice of language, for in that word there was a wealth, a depth of meaning and explanation. Such was Barlow’s ability, his sensitivity to the sport, the tenderness with which he could treat the ball, the very object of the game’s passion, he did not simply pass it, shovelling it on to its next port of call. He purveyed it, carrying it from one destination to another on a cloud of silk, delivered by a foot clad in golden velvet.
As he spoke, Sir Bobby’s eyes were looking far away into the distance, 45 years distance, to a muddied field somewhere, perhaps here, watching with wonder once again as Barlow purveyed the ball into his path, creating an opportunity for glory from a shaft of magical vision. As beautiful as any work of art in any gallery, yet created on the fly, filling the heart, lifting the soul, illuminating the world in a grain of football, infinity in the palm of his foot.
Ray was a footballer that God had chosen to make personally, lavishing his personal attention on a mould that he then threw away after use, rather than simply leaving him to the creation of the piece workers whose lot it is to churn out the standard stuff. A footballer of truly celestial gifts and a human being that was never warped or distorted by those extravagant talents. He will forever be a cornerstone of this football club, one of its true legends, one of the foundations upon which we are built.
“The great Ray Barlow”. It sums him up to perfection.