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Malcolm Barrass: Robust stalwart of postwar Bolton

In the 1953 Cup final the man he was marking, Stan Mortensen, played one of his best games

Rocklike yet somehow refined, Malcolm Barrass was a colossal presence in the Bolton Wanderers side during the decade immediately after the Second World War, initially as a versatile attacker, but mostly as a trusty central bulwark of the rearguard, the role in which he earned three caps for England. The tall, robust, left-footed Lancastrian thought deeply about the game. After every match he would mull over the action, kicking every ball over again in his mind’s eye, and his intelligent approach was a major factor in the Trotters’ steady tenure in the top flight of the English game throughout his time at Burnden Park.

Barrass, whose father Matt had played for Blackpool, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester City between the wars, signed for Bolton as an amateur in 1944 from Ford Motors, a Manchester works team, having turned down an offer from Wolverhampton Wanderers following a successful trial. At first he was a free-scoring inside-forward, hitting 22 goals in 40 emergency wartime games during 1944-45, then bagging a brace in his senior debut, a 3-2 home victory over Stoke City in September 1946.

He could put in a potent stint up front, too, contributing four goals in the 5-1 thrashing of Manchester City at Burnden in November 1948, and had it not been for the simultaneous emergence of the fearsomely physical young Nat Lofthouse as a centre- forward of international class, then the burly Barrass might have made Bolton’s No 9 shirt his own. As it was his combination of power, determination and composure, topped off with a dash of culture on the ball, saw him gravitate to the half-back line, and it was as a centre-half that he earned his first full England call-up, in October 1951, when he effectively blotted out the fearsomely combative Welsh marauder Trevor Ford in a 1-1 draw at Ninian Park, Cardiff.

Barrass, whose initial representative honour had been in the unofficial Victory international against Wales at West Bromwich in 1945, collected two more caps, never regaining his place after his immediate opponent, Lawrie Reilly, had scored twice for Scotland in a 2-2 encounter at Wembley in April 1953. Another crushing disappointment awaited two weeks later on that same lush turf, when Bolton, despite being reduced to 10 fit men by an injury to wing-half Eric Bell, took a 3-1 lead over Blackpool in the FA Cup final, only to slump to a demoralising 4-3 defeat.

 Though Barrass did not perform badly overall in the game, he was unfortunate to confront two of the finest footballers in the land at their most destructive. The man he was marking, the Seasiders’ centre-forward Stan Mortensen, was at his effervescent best and plundered a brilliant hat-trick, then the Trotters’ leg-weary No 5 was one of two defenders left floundering in the wake of the ageing maestro Stanley Matthews as he set up the injury-time winner. The nation rejoiced that the 38-year-old Peter Pan of football, the most famous and beloved player in the world at the time, had pocketed a winner’s medal at last in his third final, but for Bolton, and Barrass, there was only acute frustration. However, he was a resilient character and in 1953-54 he touched the finest form of his career as the Trotters climbed to fifth place in the First Division table for the second time in three years.  

Bolton continued to benefit from Barrass’s toughness and fortitude on and off the field. He was a strong-minded individual who didn’t mince his words and was always ready to stand up for his team-mates, especially the young ones, in their dealings with the club. This approach didn’t always endear him to the management and, following several disagreements with manager Bill Ridding, and after more than 350 games, in September 1956 he was sold to Sheffield United of the Second Division for £4,160.

The forthright 31-year-old, who was replaced as defensive pivot by the up-and-coming John Higgins, was sad to leave behind a promising youthful side with a feisty team spirit, but he did relish the chance to play under the Bramall Lane manager Joe Mercer, one of the game’s most inspirational personalities. It didn’t work out for Barrass, though, as he couldn’t eclipse the comparatively diminutive but ultra-competitive Joe Shaw, and in the summer of 1958 he was freed to become player-manager of non-League Wigan Athletic.

There followed a stint managing Nuneaton Borough, then he settled in Bury and worked as a sales representative while finding time to train smaller clubs such as Pwllheli and Hyde United. The Barrass family footballing tradition was maintained by Malcolm’s grandson, Matt, a full-back with Bury during the first few seasons of the new millennium.

Malcolm Williamson Barrass, footballer: born Blackpool 15 December 1924; played for Bolton Wanderers 1944-56, Sheffield United 1956-58; capped three times by England 1951-53; married (one daughter, one son); died Bury 4 August 2013.