Former Arsenal player John Barnwell talks about his years at Highbury


by John Sowman


I travelled to Nottingham on a beautiful last day of September to meet up with our ex-Arsenal player John Barnwell. John lives with his wife Eileen high up in their luxury suite overlooking the River Trent. From their balcony, when the trees shed their leaves in autumn, they are able to see Trent Bridge test cricket ground. Laughing, John says we are so near, we know from the crowd that a batsman is out, micro-seconds before the commentator on the television in their lounge can acknowledge it.

We retire to John’s office where there are many photos of his career on the walls and plenty of other memorabilia lie waiting for comment upon.

JS   You were born in Newcastle upon Tyne on Christmas Eve 1938 and as a teenager, played for the then top amateur side Bishop Auckland, captained by the ever -popular Bob Hardisty. In 1956 they beat Corinthian Casuals 4-1 at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park in the Amateur Cup final, after a 1-1 draw at Wembley. Were you involved at all in that triumph ?

JB    On the morning of the match the headlines of our local newspaper, the Newcastle Chronicle, stated that the young 17 years old John Barnwell would play at Wembley. Imagine my feelings! And Kit Rudd, Bishop’s secretary confirmed it. I had just returned from playing for the England Under 17’s in what was known as the Little World Cup, in Hungary, only the week before. Unfortunately England didn’t get out of the qualifying stages – beaten 4-1 by West Germany.

And then the bad news. Bob Hardisty, who had badly bruised ribs, was declared fit enough to play and I was out. It wasn’t just the fact that I was not going to play, it was the manner in which I was informed of it. I can tell you that it really did cast a deep shadow over my career at Bishop Auckland.

JS    I believe several leading Division One clubs were eager to sign you that same year, 1956. Was your home town Newcastle United one of them ? And what made you choose Arsenal above any of them ?

JB    That’s right they all were – Everton, Burnley, Spurs, Coventry, they were all very interested and of course Newcastle. They came along and offered my father a ‘substantial’ amount of money to sign for them. But my dad was not impressed. He knew an illegal approach when he saw it – an inducement to sign and he sent them packing. It was Arsenal that won the day and do you want to know why? Because they guaranteed that I would be well looked after by continuing my education off the pitch as well as on it. So, in November 1956,  after prolonged negotiations I signed amateur forms for the Arsenal.

Incidentally, I can recall hearing about Arsenal’s attempt to sign Stanley Matthews from Blackpool in 1951. Apparently, Stan made it clear that he wanted a couple of thousand pounds from the deal. But do you know what? Tom Whittaker told him straight that that was not the way Arsenal did business!

JS   You made your first team debut for Arsenal against Sunderland at Roker Park in April 1957 aged 18. What do you recall from that match ? How did it feel to be playing in front of Newcastle’s greatest rivals and the dreaded ‘Roker Roar’ ?

JB    I remember the absolute thrill of being picked for the first team – and against Sunderland too!  About 20 minutes into the game, I dropped my shoulder and went past left half Billy Elliot, beating him well and truly. He didn’t like that very much and told me in no uncertain terms that if I did it again I would regret it. About six or seven minutes later, I did do the same thing again and Elliot immediately delivered an extremely late and painful tackle – resulting in a badly damaged ankle. I had to go off straight away and have it strapped. I then returned (no subs then of course) with the instruction to make myself a bloody nuisance at centre forward.

JS    Like so many players of that era, National Service took you away from your new club soon after joining them and it was not until November 1958 that you played your next senior match for the Gunners in a 3-0 win at Chelsea. You got Arsenal’s third goal that day, which of course was your first for them too – it was a long range drive that beat their goalkeeper Reg Matthews – tell me about it.

JB    Did you know – I was one of the very last conscripts to be called up! Arsenal did their very best to keep me out but the army would not be denied. I was a bit lucky though. They made me up to Corporal, which was a bit unusual for a non-regular. I even had my own room, which our old sweat of a sergeant didn’t like one little bit. He never took to me you know? But that’s another story and quite a good one – maybe for another time though.

Anyway, there was this Chelsea left half, Saunders, a hard case who was giving me a bit of a rough time. Then Doc (Tommy Docherty) our right half said to me “Let him come through you son, don’t worry, I’ll take care of him” and he did and I had no more bother that day from Mr Saunders. We were already two nil up after a quarter of an hour through (Jackie) Henderson and (Danny) Clapton, and about half an hour into the first half, I found myself unmarked. So I looked up, spotted the opportunity to beat Matthews and cracked a shot in from about 25 yards, which went in just inside his right hand post.

JS   Your Highbury first team debut came just four days after the Chelsea game – an all-time classic in front of a huge crowd – Arsenal v Juventus in what was one of the last of the great floodlit friendlies against top continental opposition at Highbury. Do you have good memories of that particular match ?

JB    Yes of course. I needed a pass from the army to play in that one. Jack Kelsey and Danny Clapton were playing for their countries, England v Wales at Villa Park that same afternoon. After the game finished they hurried back by car to play in the evening at Highbury. Crazy stuff!

JS (interrupting) Did you know that Kelsey drove back down the fairly newly opened M1 motorway with a flat tyre in order to get to Highbury in time for the kick off ?

JB   No I didn’t. But then all goalkeepers are mad aren’t they (laughing). Anyway, I was being marked by their captain Boniperti, who was also Italy’s captain at the time. They took the lead very early but on the half hour Jimmy Bloomfield ran wide then lobbed their ‘keeper, leaving me with an easy tap in. Considering we were fielding reserves like myself, Johnnie Petts and Roy Goulden, whose first team debut it was, it was fantastic to go on and beat Juventus with Roy scoring our third and final goal.

JS   Arsenal were riding high that season (1958/59) – at the top for most of the first half of the campaign and regaining it briefly in March 1959, ultimately finishing a commendable third. What do you consider went wrong after such a storming start when first Everton, then Bolton were massacred 6-1 ?

JB   That’s very simple. Injuries. We had plenty of them – serious ones too. We just did not have a deep enough squad of experienced reserves to fill in on a regular basis.

You mentioned that Bolton match. Here’s a true story. After beating Everton 6-1 at Goodison the previous Saturday, we played Bolton at Highbury the following Tuesday night. Now Danny Clapton was unplayable during the first half of that season and that night he was up against an England international left back called Tommy Banks, who in true Bolton tradition was a real hard nut.

Now in those days at Highbury they used to leave wheelchairs in that area between the fence and the pitch for disabled supporters to have use of and have a perfect view of the game. As the teams were lining up for the start, Banks sidled up to Danny, who was never the toughest of guys, and said to him, pointing to the side, “ Ee, ye see thems chairs? One of they’s for you, lad.” And in the away game a week later at Burnden Park, he was at it again. Pointing to some red marks on his boot, he told Danny “See them lad? they’s left over from last week’s winger!” Poor Danny, he always kept a hankie stuffed down the front of his shorts!

JS   In the following couple of seasons you played in over half of the league fixtures under George Swindin but in his last season in charge you appeared in only 14 matches – despite gaining international recognition by winning an England Under 23 cap. What went wrong? Was Swindin becoming increasingly desperate as Arsenal struggled to stay in the top half of the table.

JB    Yes he was. I was in and out of the side all season. Do you know what he did for the fourth round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford? We were in the away dressing room just before the kick off and George gathered us around a table. He then pulled out a wad of bank notes and dumped them on the table – there must have been around a hundred quid there and he just nodded at them. We knew what he meant. We still lost 1-0 though but we were unlucky I can tell you.

Then Mel (Charles) left for Cardiff and a couple of weeks after that George was told he was out at the end of the season. It didn’t seem to hit him too hard at first but after that last game, home to Everton, he was in tears – he just couldn’t keep up the pretence any more. No matter what anyone said about him, I tell you he bled Arsenal – he was Arsenal through and through.

JS   1963/64, your last season at Arsenal found you starting at right half but moving to your old inside forward position for a couple of games in the autumn and also just after Christmas in an away win 4-1 over Birmingham. Back at right half for an FA Cup tie against Wolves, you then lost your place after sustaining a training collision injury with goalkeeper Ian McKechnie.

Was your transfer on 10th March 1964 a result of you losing faith in Billy Wright’s ability to restore Arsenal’s fortunes, or do you think you had failed to convince him that you were automatic first team material ?

JB   I asked for a transfer as I could see no future for me or the club under Billy Wright. Don’t get me wrong, he was a smashing bloke – one of the nicest you could hope to meet. That’s the trouble, he wasn’t cut out to be a manager – he was just too soft. As I said, I asked for a transfer and Billy said no. I then asked our chairman Denis Hill-Wood the same. He said he didn’t really want me to go either but said that Arsenal had agreed a fee with Manchester City,  though he wanted me to go instead to Nottingham Forest as a favour.

Years later I found out that a fee of around £20,000 less than Manchester City had bid was actually paid by Forest. The reason behind it? Denis Hill-Wood knew Nottingham Forest would look after me well! I am almost certain that this story is correct, amazing as it might seem.

It wasn’t just me that fell out of favour with Billy Wright at that time. He had dropped Laurie Brown yet again and Laurie was searching for him in his office to have it out with him. But Billy wasn’t good at confrontations, so he locked himself in his office and when Laurie hammered angrily on his door, he kept quiet, pretending he wasn’t in. But Laurie had a cunning plan. He went outside the stadium, found a public telephone box and dialled Wright’s number. Unaware of who was calling, Billy picked up the receiver and said hello.

“Gotcher, ya bastard !” yelled Laurie “ I knew you were in there all the time !

JS   That’s hilarious. Back to your days at Nottingham Forest. When you joined them in March, you found at best a mid-table side but one more used to fighting relegation. But in 1966/67, Forest had what was then their best ever season, challenging Manchester United and finishing as runners up; also they were beaten semi-finalists in the FA Cup. Did your old Highbury colleague Joe Baker, who joined them that same year, have a significant impact in their success.

JB   Without a shadow of a doubt. He scored loads of goals for us. In my opinion he was the best centre forward I ever played either with or against. We used to call him Zig Zag at Forest, as he used to dart in and out – so quick and deadly with either foot. What a character and a very good friend of mine.

But he was very volatile. Do you remember what happened in a cup tie at Highbury against Liverpool in 1964? Joe and Ron Yeats, their giant of a centre half, had been niggling at each other all of the first half. Eventually, Joe, all 5’8” of him lost his rag and floored the 6’2”Yeats, who then retaliated with a mighty punch to Joe’s face. At that Joe went crazy and tried to pummel him with both hands. Of course the ref had to send them both off for fighting. But Joe had to be locked in our dressing room because he wanted a fight to the finish off the pitch. He really had lost it.

JS    Well John, unfortunately we seem to have run out of time. It’s been great talking to you – thank you so much for spending your time with me. Just one more question. I have been asked to invite you to be AISA’s special guest of honour and speaker at their December event in London. Are you able to accept ?

JB     I would be most pleased to accept.

JS     Thank you so much John, I will pass the good news on to them.      

ARSENAL: The Long Sleep 1953-1970 by John Sowman; foreword by Bob Wilson.

The Long Sleep recalls a time when professional footballers in England were inextricably tied by contract to their club and not allowed to earn more than the statutory maximum wage.  It traces Arsenal’s fortunes through that era, as well as the stand taken by one man who went on a 141 day strike against his club – a strike which led to the creation of football as we know it today.

Now available to purchase on line as book or Kindle version at





One Reply to “Former Arsenal player John Barnwell talks about his years at Highbury”

  1. Lovely interview John. I remember John Barnwell signing for Arsenal and have a lot of respect for him, a fine player.

    Interesting that great season they had at Nottingham Forest when they were runners up and if it wasn’t for the injury to Joe Baker towards the end they would almost certainly have won it. Baker was on fire and I always remember as a young man being on holiday in Blackpool that summer and two Forest fans staying in our guest house saying about the wonderful goals he scored.
    He was also a great Arsenal striker and glad John Barnwell speaks so well of him and I was thrilled when England recalled him after five years since his last cap and he celebrated with a super goal. His fall out with Billy Wright signalled the end for both of them at Highbury.

    I remember John Barnwell managing Northampton Town, one of many ex Arsenal men who also managed them including his contemporaries Dave Bowen, Bill Dodgin and Johnny Petts. All following the great Herbert Chapman who managed the Cobblers a long time before coming to Arsenal.

    Thanks again to the two John’s and wish you both well.

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