Ray Barlow: Footballer at the heart of West Bromwich Albion's free-flowing 1950s side

 

Ray Barlow was a footballing artist, the sweet-passing midfield fulcrum of Vic Buckingham's delightfully free-flowing West Bromwich Albion side of the mid-1950s, and it was not only Baggies loyalists who scratched their heads in perplexity that the stylish wing-half was awarded only a single England cap. Certainly there was no shortage of shrewd observers within the game who reckoned the tall, rangy Wiltshireman preferable to Jimmy Dickinson, the splendidly consistent and defensively ultra-solid Portsmouth stalwart who kept Barlow out during his prime, Dickinson wearing his country's colours 48 times in the process.

As befitted a former inside-forward, Barlow was primarily an attacker, and a gloriously entertaining, endlesslysubtle one at that. His speciality was threading exquisite deliveries through the tiniest of gaps in opposing rearguards, seeming to sense openings which appeared only fleetingly and of which more mundane operators were not even aware.

Often he was the most strikingfigure afield, dictating the tempo of a game with an imperious authority whichcontrasted vividly with his engagingly unassuming character away from the action. Yet for all the elegance of his work on the ball, Barlow was a powerful presence, too, his dynamic box-to-box surges and his strength in the tackle being notable features of his all-round excellence.

Having joined West Bromwich from amateur football in his home county as an 18-year-old in 1944, he was pitched immediately into emergency wartime competition, then made his senior debut in September 1946, scoring from inside-left in a 7-2 victory at Newport County. Midway through 1948-49 he cemented a regular position in the side and, still operating mainly as a forward, scored in the 3-0 win at Leicester in the campaign's penultimate match which was to secure Albion's promotion to the top flight as runners-up to Fulham, the Second Division champions.

Among the élite, Barlow's poise and polish were all the more evident, especially when he settled in his most effective role of left-half, although such was his versatility that sometimes he was pressed into service at centre-half, inside-forward and even centre-forward. His input was never more effective than in 1953-54, when the Baggies were within four points of becoming the first club in the 20th century to achieve the League and FA Cup double, finishing as runners-up to their West Midlands neighbours Wolverhampton Wanderers in the old First Division and beating Preston North End in the Cup final.

Barlow, who was the last Albion survivor from their Wembley line-up, shone brightly in defence and attack under the twin towers, linking up with left-back and captain Len Millard to nullify the potent threat of Preston's fabulous Tom Finney, the newly-crowned Footballer of the Year, and surging forward to earn the penalty from which Ronnie Allen equalised on the way to a dramatic 3-2 victory.

Internationally, though, there was less satisfaction. There were two outings for England B, four for the Football League and an FA tour of South America, but it remained inconceivable to all who placed a high priority on skill and imagination – particularly in an era when England were twice humiliated by the magnificent Hungarians – that Barlow should be limited to 90 minutes in the full national team, the one which beat Northern Ireland 2-0 in October 1954. That day in Belfast he was part of an experimental side containing seven débutants, of whom Johnny Haynes was the only one who would carve out a regular niche, and it seemed to many in attendance at Windsor Park that Barlow and the brilliant Fulham schemer might have forged a fruitful long-term combination on the football fields of the world.

Happily for Albion, his club form was not affected by his country's cold shoulder, and he continued to thrive at the Hawthorns, meshing particularly smoothly with fellow wing-half Jimmy Dudley, deep-lying centre-forward Allen and, as the decade wore on, the attacking midfielder Bobby Robson. In the late 1950s he succeeded Millard as captain, leading them to fourth and fifth in the First Division table in successive seasons before, having reached the veteran stage, accepting a move to second-tier Birmingham City in August 1960.

Not surprisingly, given the accumulation of physical knocks during more than 450 competitive outings for the Baggies, Barlow didn't last long at St Andrew's, moving on to non-League Stourbridge in 1961 after only a handful of appearances for the Blues. Adevoted family man, he went on to run a tobacconist's and sweetshop inWest Bromwich, then a post office in Stourbridge, always retaining his connection with the club he had served with such distinction and which accorded him a signal honour during its 125th anniversary celebrations in 2004, when he was included in Albion's all-time 16-man squad.

If further proof of Ray Barlow'seminence were needed, it came from Sir Bobby Robson, who not long before his death in 2009 described his former Hawthorns comrade as one of the finest players he had ever worked with.Considering that Robson had played for and managed England, then managed Barcelona and Newcastle United among others, that was a meaningful tribute indeed.

Ivan Ponting

Raymond John Barlow, footballer: born Swindon, Wiltshire 17 August 1926; played for West Bromwich Albion 1944-60, Birmingham City 1960-61; capped once by England, 1954; died Bridgend, South Wales 14 March 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future