Ken Barnes: Footballer, manager and scout whose service to Manchester City stretched across six decades

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The Independent Online

The debate about who is the finest uncapped English footballer is a futile one yet it remains irresistible to observers of the game who combine a whimsical turn of mind with a sense of injustice.

Fans of the outstanding Manchester City side of the middle-to-late 1950s, when they reached consecutive FA Cup finals but were overshadowed by their sparkling neighbours, the Busby Babes, are likely to look no further than Ken Barnes. An imaginative, inventive, boldly adventurous wing-half, the bandy-legged Barnes represented the heart and the mind of an attractive side of which the imposing German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, power-house half-back Roy Paul, deep-thinking attacker Don Revie and skilful inside-forward Bobby Johnstone were the acknowledged stars.

Consumed with passion for football in general and City in particular, he returned as a scout, working under 17 managers over a 30-year span, during which he spotted millions of pounds' worth of talent for the frequently cash-strapped club. Renowned for his vehement opposition to modern coaching methods, which he blamed for stifling flair and freedom of expression, Barnes was a stridently honest, often provocative personality who peppered his sentences with expletives and was never loth to excoriate those in high office.

Directors, most of whom he perceived to be ignorant about the game, were a particular target, and occasionally he was heard to urge City chairman Peter Swales to "Fuck off, you know nothing about football." Players loved him, though, and his office became a revered inner sanctum, a smoke-filled den to which they could retreat and talk to their hearts' content about their communal obsession.

As for Barnes' lack of international recognition, his forthright personality might have had more to do with that than any lack of ability. He didn't get on with Walter Winterbottom, the donnish England manager during his 1950s prime, and he was vitriolic in his scorn for the committee which picked the national team. As it was, he veered close to selection, making three appearances for an FA XI against Forces sides, being a reserve for the Football League in 1957 and actually being called up for another League encounter, only to miss the game with a broken toe.

The son of a railway worker, Barnes was born in Small Heath, almost in the shadow of St Andrew's, the headquarters of Birmingham City. He played constantly in the surrounding streets and revealed exceptional natural ability, joining Moor Green, the Midlands' leading amateur club, at 15. Junior appearances with Birmingham and Bolton followed, but after working for the Post Office, assembling switchboard components for less than £1 a week, then completing his national service as a storeman at RAF Stafford, he surprised friends and family by signing for Stafford Rangers.

Barnes flourished for his non-League employers, and after being courted by a posse of leading clubs, he joined Manchester City as a 21-year-old in a £900 deal in May 1950. At Maine Road, however, he faced fierce competition and played in only one league game in his first four seasons. He did well on that outing, in January 1952, but he was immediately dropped and asked for a move, spending several months on the transfer list.

Being held back behind rivals of inferior ability proved monumentally frustrating for the voluble, sociable Barnes, who never gelled with the manager Les McDowall, a remote figure aloof from the banter which the wing-half relished. The turning point came when inside-forward Johnny Williamson, playing as centre-forward for the reserves, drifted into a deep-lying role, taking on creative duties alongside Barnes and dragging the opposing defenders out of position.

This was a ploy soon to be used successfully by the superlative Hungary side, and in August 1954 McDowall had City's first team trying it, with Don Revie as the withdrawn spearhead. However, the system flopped until Revie told the manager, with some asperity, that Barnes was needed to make it work. The Midlander was promoted, with gratifying results, and he remained as arguably the key component of the side for seven years.

At last, given the responsibility his talent merited, the 25-year-old Barnes was revealed in his full glory. He wasn't much of a tackler; he was ineffective in the air; he used his left foot for little more than standing on and defending was not his forte; but in every other respect he was a footballing thoroughbred. His prime instinct was to get the ball down and pass it, which he did with vision, perception and consistent accuracy. The timing of his missives, often squeezed through gaps in opposing rearguards which barely existed, was exquisite, making him a dream to play alongside. Barnes wasn't pacy but he could run forever, and such was his enthusiasm for swashbuckling attack that sometimes he would gallop forward even when the other side had possession; then, when City won the ball back, he would be free and in space to make mayhem with his destructive skills.

Before long it became apparent that when Barnes played well City played well, which they did throughout most of 1954-55, when they finished seventh and reached the FA Cup final. Barnes was irrepressible, never more so than in the third-round defeat of Derby County when he hit his first goal for the club, carrying the ball from one penalty box to the other before scoring with a clever shot. At Wembley, City lost 3-1 to Newcastle, conceding a goal in the first minute and losing full-back Jimmy Meadows to injury, a crippling blow in the days before substitutes.

They bounced back even stronger in 1955-56, even nursing turn-of-the-year ambitions to become the first team in the 20th century to win the League and FA Cup double. In the event, they finished a creditable fourth in the table, well adrift of champions United, but triumphed in the Cup, then far more prestigious than it is today, beating Birmingham City 3-1 at Wembley.

Barnes was prominent, uncharacteristically devoting the first period to subduing the dangerous Peter Murphy but then surging forward to launch a series of devastating raids which carried the day. It was a match which entered folklore for the exploits of goalkeeper Trautmann, the former German paratrooper who played the last 17 minutes with a broken neck.

Everyone connected with Manchester City expected it to be a platform for sustained achievement. Instead it proved a pinnacle, and there began a slide into mediocrity – the result of top players moving on and not being adequately replaced – which was not mirrored by Barnes' continued excellence.

Made captain after the departure of Roy Paul in 1957, he remained a dynamic presence, driving or cajoling the men around him depending on their characters, all the time ruing the creeping decline. Still, there were highlights, such as his hat-trick of smoothly stroked penalties against Everton in December 1957 and, best of all, the productive link he forged with the coruscating, brilliant inside-forward Denis Law, signed from Huddersfield Town in March 1960. "Beaky" Barnes, so dubbed for his aquiline profile, took the young Scot under his wing, teaching him to drive and helping him to settle into big-city life.

In May 1961, with nearly 300 senior games behind him, Barnes moved to Wrexham as player-manager and led them to promotion from the Fourth Division at his first attempt. But they were relegated two years later, and his lack of diplomacy with directors made dismissal virtually inevitable; the sack arrived in February 1965.

That experience convinced him that he wasn't cut out for League management and he rejected the overtures of Rochdale to become a sales representative for a steel company. The siren call of football proved irresistible, though, and in 1965 he became player-manager of non-League Witton Albion while selling insurance by day. He then took the reins of Bangor City before returning to Maine Road in 1970.

This time he had been persuaded by the City manager Joe Mercer to look after the club's reserves, which led to a further three decades of service to the cause, much of it as chief scout. During that roller-coaster period, in which City's fortunes lurched repeatedly between joy and despair, Barnes was irrepressible. His enthusiasm, wisdom, irreverent humour and spiky refusal to bow the knee to self-important officialdom proved an inspiration, no matter how turbulent the times.

He was ousted twice, temporarily by Peter Reid in 1992 and finally by Joe Royle in 2000, but remains one of the most influential figures in the club's history. Barnes, whose son Peter was a mercurially brilliant winger, starring for City and winning 22 England caps, cooperated with broadcaster Jimmy Wagg in writing his life story in 2005.

On the cover of This Simple Game was the warning that it contained explicit language. For all that, it was a warm, thought-provoking memoir in which the home truths directed at the deluded men who complicate his beloved football were far more compelling than the sprinkle of profanities.

Kenneth Herbert Barnes, footballer: born Birmingham 16 March 1929; married twice (three sons, one daughter); died 13 July 2010.