Sunday, 18 January 2009

Billy Barnes: West Ham’s First Star Player

On 29th June, 1895, Arnold Hills, the chairman of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, announced in his newspaper, the Thames Ironworks Gazette, that he intended to establish a football club. Charlie Dove, an apprentice riveter with the Thames Iron Works, was one of those who paid an annual subscription of 2/6 (12.5p) to join the club. Other employees who played in the team included Thomas Freeman (ship's fireman), Johnny Stewart (boilermaker), Walter Parks (clerk), Walter Tranter (boilermaker) James Lindsay (boilermaker), William Chapman (mechanical engineer), George Sage, (boilermaker), George Gresham (ship's plater) and William Chamberlain (foreman blacksmith).

Billy Barnes was only 16 years when the club was formed and was considered too young to play in the first game, a friendly against Royal Ordnance, on 7th September, 1895. However, at the training sessions on the fields in Hermit Road, Canning Town, Barnes showed that he was a talented young winger.

Barnes had been born in London on 20th May, 1879. His father was a foreman at Victoria Dock and his mother had a coffee shop in Silvertown. The family were involved in local politics and William’s brother, Alfred, eventually became the Labour Party MP for East Ham.

It was not long before Barnes had forced himself into the first-team. Thames Ironworks had not yet joined a league but they did take part in the West Ham Charity Cup. The club reached the final against Barking Woodville. The first match ended in a 2-2 draw with Robert Stevenson and Johnny Stewart scoring the goals for the Irons.

The replay took place at the St. Lukes ground at Beckton. Watched by a crowd of 3,000 people, Thomas Freeman and George Sage missed some good opportunities to open the scoring. After 20 minutes, Langford, one of Barking's forwards was forced to go off with a bad injury.

In the second-half Johnny Stewart with his "mazy runs" continued to cause Barking problems. Thomas Freeman was injured and both sides were now down to 10 men. Near the end of the game, William Chamberlain had a shot deflected for a corner. George Sage took the corner and the 17 year old Barnes, fired in a low, fast shot, scoring the only goal in the game.

In 1896 the Thames Iron Works entered the London League. It was not long before clubs in the First Division of the Football League began sending scouts down to the Hermit Road ground to watch the talented Barnes. After considering several offers for his services he eventually signed for Sheffield United in 1899. The team had recently won the FA Cup and the First Division title and was considered to be the best side in the country and included English international players such as William "Fatty" Foulke, Ernest Needham, Walter Bennett and George Hedley.

Sheffield United had a good cup run in the 1901-02 season. They beat Northampton Town (2-0), Bolton Wanderers (2-1), Newcastle United (2-1) and Derby County (1-0) to reach the final of the FA Cup against Southampton. Unfortunately, Barnes was not selected for what became a very dramatic final.

Sheffield took an early lead but Southampton scored a controversial equalizer and the game was drawn. Fatty Foulke, who weighed over twenty stone, was furious that the equalizing goal had been given and after the game he went searching for the referee. The linesman, J. T. Howcroft, described how Frederick Wall, secretary of the Football Association, tried to placate the goalkeeper: "Foulke was exasperated by the goal and claimed it was in his birthday suit outside the dressing room, and I saw F. J. Wall, secretary of the FA, pleading with him to rejoin his colleagues. But Bill was out for blood, and I shouted to Mr. Kirkham to lock his cubicle door. He didn't need telling twice. But what a sight! The thing I'll never forget is Foulke, so tremendous in size, striding along the corridor, without a stitch of clothing."

Billy Barnes was selected to play in the replay. The game was only two minutes old when a massive clearing kick by Foulke reached Jack Hedley and Sheffield United took an early lead. Led by the outstanding Ernest Needham, Sheffield dominated play but Albert Brown managed to score an equalizer. Southampton began to apply pressure but according to the Athletic News, "Foulke was invincible". With ten minutes to go, Needham took a shot that the Southampton goalkeeper, John Robinson, could only block, and Barnes was able to hit the ball into the unguarded net. Sheffield won 2-1 and Barnes had won a cup-winners' medal, the greatest achievement in football at the beginning of the 20th century.

Barnes had found it difficult to settle in Sheffield and at the beginning of the 1902-03 season he returned to the club that had been renamed as West Ham United and were now playing in the Southern League. Unfortunately, a succession of injuries meant he was no longer the player he was when he was a teenager.

Barnes played 54 games for the club before moving onto Luton Town. He also played for Queen’s Park Rangers and Southend United before retiring from the game. He had developed a reputation as someone who thought deeply about the game and was invited to coach the Spanish club Bilbao.

His brother also achieved great success in politics and served in the government of Clement Attlee as Minister of Transport (1945-51).

Billy Barnes died in 1962.

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