Big Interview: How John Barnwell is robbed of Wolves cup final memories
It was the last time Wolves won a major cup competition.
Wembley was the venue, Nottingham Forest the opponents, and Andy Gray the scorer in the 1-0 League Cup final victory on March 15, 1980.
Brian Clough’s Forest went into it as the favourites, having won the competition the previous year along with the European Cup, but Gray’s goal – the simplest of finishes after capitalising on a mix-up between David Needham and Peter Shilton – saw Wolves upset the odds.
And the celebrations were wild. George Berry, Emlyn Hughes and Kenny Hibbitt raced into each other’s arms when the final whistle sounded.
The cup winners were then given a hero’s welcome back in Wolverhampton as they showed off the trophy on an open-top bus. Incredible scenes that many Wolves fans will never forget.
However, the man who actually led the club to glory, John Barnwell, barely remembers any of it.
In fact, Barnwell, looking back, struggles to comprehend how he got through that period as Wolves gaffer.
The final came less than a year after he was involved in a serious car crash which left him with a fractured skull.
And although he remarkably got back to work in a matter of months – aided by his right-hand man, Richie Barker, to also guide Wolves to sixth in the top flight – it did affect his Wembley experience.
“The final against Nottingham Forest, where I had five very great years playing, unfortunately, I don’t remember much of the day,” admitted Barnwell.
“And I have only – in all these years, I’ve got the tape – watched it once.
“And I don’t know why. I think it’s because it’ll make me think ‘why didn’t I remember that?’”
Now 80, Barnwell regaled fans at the Cleveland Arms in Wolverhampton, with this and other tales from his time at Wolves at the click of a finger, in great detail.
But his life very nearly ended just a year before the cup triumph.
“The surgeons – the rearview mirror, or whatever it was, was stuck in my skull – and had it been this way or that way, there’s not much they could’ve done about it,” said Barnwell.
“I didn’t remember anything for about three months.
“My parents eventually took me out of the hospital and took me to Newcastle, and apparently they used to take me for a walk on the beach – and I don’t remember it.
“The season was about to start and Richie Barker had, thankfully, taken over, and was doing a good job – a very capable person. I was approached by two members of the board and they said ‘We’ll drive you everywhere’ and do this and that.
“But the medical people were saying it was too soon. Anyhow, I came back.
“From then, I just got on with things. But, when I look back, every day was a battle.
“I couldn’t answer the phone for a long period of time – I had to put it down. But we got through it.”
Barnwell speaks highly of Barker, who joined Wolves after a spell in charge of Shrewsbury Town.
“I couldn’t have got through without the help of Richie, who was manager at Shrewsbury and had been successful,” he said.
“He’d also been interviewed for the manager’s job at Wolves, before me.
“When they asked me if I wanted an assistant, I said no. I told them I didn’t need assistance, I needed a head coach.
“They had four names and on that list was Richie.
“I spoke to him and he didn’t want to know as he wanted to be a manager, but I persuaded him to come.
“He was excellent and during that period, he was extremely helpful.”
As well as the League Cup triumph and the sixth-placed finish, Barnwell took Wolves to two FA Cup semi-finals – losing to Arsenal in ‘79, Tottenham in ‘81.
His four-year reign came to an end in January ‘82, though.
He resigned with Wolves bottom of the First Division. They ended up getting relegated.
“It was a wonderful time for me in my management career, except having a major car crash,” said Barnwell.
“And when I look back now, how I stumbled through those two years is a strange one.
“The way I left the club too was not in the healthiest way I would’ve liked, but the years I had here are extremely fond in my memory.”
After Wolves, Barnwell managed AEK Athens, Notts County, Walsall and Northampton.
However, he was never able to recapture the magic he had at Molineux.
The League Cup success and sixth-placed finish mean Barnwell remains held in high regard by supporters.
He has hardly been back to Wolverhampton in the years since, though.
This meeting with former players Hibbitt, Willie Carr and John Richards at the popular Cleveland Arms recently, was the first time he had seen them, and chatted with supporters, for many years.
Richards remarked on the night it was the first time he had seen Barnwell for a quarter of a century.
But although he has kept his distance, Barnwell has always kept a close eye on Wolves.
And he thinks more success is in store for Nuno Espirito Santo and his talented crop.
“I’ve always kept a close eye on Wolves, while keeping my distance,” added Barnwell.
“Managers today work in very different environments, but the principles are the same.
“The off-the-pitch workings have to compliment the on-the-pitch workings.
“If they don’t, it makes on the pitch more difficult.
“From a distance, it would appear to me there is more stability off the pitch, and there’s now stability on the pitch.
“Therefore, I think it can only go onwards and upwards. I hope so, anyhow.”