“Not for many moons has there been such a succession of sensations... the first being the announcement that the first £10,000 transfer fee had been paid and a day later there followed the news that Frank Barson, the famous centre-half of Watford, had been suspended for the rest of the season. Both these happenings set the tongues wagging and pens writing.” 

Bantam’, Midland Daily Telegraph, 20 October 1928 

In July 1928 Frank Barson, the 37-year- old ex-England, Barnsley, Aston Villa and Manchester United centre-back, signed for Watford of the Football League Third Division South on a free transfer. 

Barson was a controversial character, his on-field misdemeanours and consequent run-ins with the game’s authorities providing football fans in the 1920s with plenty of entertainment. At a time when there was no other coverage of the game except print and little by way of photography, fans were still able to spot Barson the moment the teams ran out. 

Harry Godwin, born in 1914 and for many years a scout with Manchester City, told an interviewer in the 1980s: “The first time I saw United my dad said to me, ‘Which is Barson?’ We didn’t have a programme, the players weren’t numbered in those days and I hadn’t seen any of them before. But I knew which was Barson. It wasn’t so much that I picked him out as that he made me pick him out. He was so obviously what everyone had told me he was, the boss of the 18-yard box, a powerful man with his hair parted straight down the middle and sleek...” 

Opinion was divided on Barson. Was he a merely a thug who kicked opponents off the park or was he a force of nature, who simply blew lesser opponents away? 

Dr Percy Young, musicologist and football historian, was in no doubt: “To the thoughtless who do not discriminate between toughness and roughness, he was a rough player. Nor did a dominant personality and an instinct for natural justice endear him to referees. If Barson was maliciously treated by an opponent he issued due warning of the wrath that was to come. He also frequently advised the referee.” 

Barson’s footballing creed was quite simple: if you played football for a living, then you had to devote yourself to it wholeheartedly; winning was as much a matter of mind as matter; pain was something you would encounter in a game that involved a great deal of physical contact; and the team was always more important than the individual. He would certainly have slotted seamlessly into one of Bill Shankly’s teams (and strangely enough, Barson’s boyhood nickname was ‘Shanks’), the only problem being his exact position on the field of play. 

Barson’s heyday was in the years before the alteration in the offside law that came in 1925. He was a centre-half, but not as we once knew it. He was certainly not just a defender: he was a ‘pivot’ around which the team revolved. His post-Second World War equivalent might have been John Charles or Duncan Edwards. Today, perhaps, a combination of Roy Keane and Virgil van Dijk. 

By 1928, however, his career was winding down and Manchester United decided to let him go on a free transfer. Barson commented that he was, “agreeably surprised”. They had paid big price for him, he said, but he felt, without boasting, he had repaid them. Examined by a specialist, he was found as good as ever... 

Watford’s certainly was a surprise move for Barson. The Hornets had just been re-elected to the Football League Third Division South. They were also in some financial distress. In August it was reported that they were having trouble paying the local council rates and that the club was looking into the idea of merging with a greyhound racing organisation who would pay £2000 a year in rent – a ‘salvation’ for the club, apparently. What’s more, Barson, despite his age, appeared to have many other possible choices. 

The Derby Daily Telegraph, however, revealed one of the reasons why, despite their financial woes, Watford had secured Barson: “His transfer is really the story of two Franks – Pagnam and Barson. The former now manager at Watford, as well as being mine host of a well-known hotel was also one of the most popular players that ever kicked a ball in the centre-forward position. He and Frank Barson are old friends. Therein you have the secret why Barson has gone to Watford.” 

Pagnam was an unconventional character with a colourful past. The son of a bank manager, he made his name before the First World War as a robust Liverpool forward. In 1917 he gave evidence in a libel case in connection with a notorious Manchester United versus Liverpool match-fixing scandal, testifying that he had been illegally approached but had refused to participate.

He’d signed for Arsenal in 1919 and during his time at Highbury had also found time to become the manager of the nearby Finsbury Park cinema. He scored prolifically for the Gunners for a couple of seasons before moving on to Cardiff in 1921, a move that didn’t work out. He then signed for Watford and scored 74 goals in 157 games before being appointed manager in 1926. He was a non-conformist whose quirky personality was not universally popular. While still a player, he’d had to apologise to the directors for behaviour which had been the subject of complaint by his colleagues and he retained his individual streak after taking charge. 

Many years later George Jewett, who played under Pagnam, recalled him as “barmy, a bad-principled man, who didn’t get respect.” Jewett also revealed that Barson had told him that he was “finished” when he signed for Watford but had got Pagnam drunk as a means towards securing the engagement for which Barson had received £1000 from Watford chairman Kilby on signing. So much for Watford’s financial ‘distress’! 

Alcohol was clearly a key factor in Barson’s move. Pagnam had set up himself up as landlord of the nearby Swan Hotel, Rickmansworth, and within a month or so Barson was making a move to do likewise. Benskin’s Brewery was keen for him to take the licence of the King William IV pub on Watford High Street and applications were made to the local magistrates. Barson clearly saw Watford as his final stop on the long football journey from his native Grimesthorpe. 

At the same time, he was by no means finished on the pitch. Newspaper reports of his initial Watford appearances, albeit generally skimpy, suggest he was his usual dominant and skilful self and a class above both his teammates and opponents. He controlled his new team just as he had various Manchester United squads. There was also a great deal of the Barson trademark aggression: in his debut match at Crystal Palace he was cautioned early on in the game and, ominously perhaps, when the Watford player Joe Davison was later sent off, the referee reportedly said: “Off you go, Barson.” (Not the first time a referee had mistaken an erring player for Barson, although this time, perhaps, an inadvertent warning?) 

Watford lost the match 3-0 but drew the next and won twice in September with Barson scoring. In the second of those, a Coventry player was struck on the head and played on in a semi-conscious state before collapsing and in the following game Watford’s Warner broke a collarbone and left the pitch after 25 minutes. Against Plymouth, Barson conceded a penalty as Watford lost 2-0. 

Amid the mayhem, some unease must have been stirring in official circles because for the next Watford match, a home fixture against Fulham, a significant appointment was made. The referee chosen to oversee the game was a Mr WE Russell, an official of some 20 years’ experience who was considered to be a refereeing strong man, someone to be called upon when trouble threatened and noted for his coolness and firmness in controlling difficult matches. A First World War hero, the recipient of a Military Medal, another outstanding personal characteristic was said to be the irrevocability of his decisions. The Birmingham Daily Gazette correspondent noted in 1924: “He came into special prominence during the last few seasons, being given special assignments by the FA when trouble threatened in certain South Wales matches, he being at the last moment selected to take charge of games when a fear of unruliness asserted itself. Again, in the trouble between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal two seasons ago he was appointed to take control after being assigned an ordinary routine match far distant from the Metropolis.” 

At the same time Russell had received the stamp of approval from another referee who’d already featured heavily in Barson’s career. Jack Howcroft had given Barson a public warning in the minutes prior to the start of the 1920 FA Cup final to the effect that, if Barson committed just one foul he would be dismissed. “At a public meeting, in the presence of Russell and Fleming, the famous international forward, Jack Howcroft, declared that Swindon possessed as brilliant a referee as it did an inside-forward, and prophesied that which has now matured, viz, that Russell would shortly be selected for the premier honour among referees.” 

Indeed, Russell had duly been awarded the 1924 FA Cup final, a big surprise apparently and said to be due to the FA’s desire for more control to be exercised over its showpiece event. 

Professional players were not quite as enamoured of Mr Russell, however. Rather than quelling dissent, his decisions were said on occasions to have caused it: “A bossy-boots by nature,” Geraint H Jenkins said in How to Be a Swan, “Russell treated the players like errant schoolboys and, once the game was in motion, he made a habit never to venture beyond the centre-circle.” 

Without lapsing too far into conspiracy-theory territory, it appeared rather odd that Russell had suddenly been given a Third Division South match to control. Nevertheless, on 29 September, eight games into the season, Watford entertained Fulham and, late in the first half, trouble ensued, as described by the Sporting Life football correspondent: “Exactly how the situation arose it would be difficult to say – things happen so quickly in football. But with the centre of play some 15 yards away I saw Barson and Temple, the Fulham outside-right, spinning round apparently locked together. Temple was clinging to Barson round the thighs and the Watford man was striving to free himself. Barson, obviously annoyed by Temple’s refusal to release himself, lifted his arm into what the police would call a ‘striking attitude’. Before any blow could or would have been struck, however, other players came between the pair. 

“Now the referee, Mr WE Russell of Swindon, was following the play and could not have been a witness to the incident. He at once went across to the linesman on that side of the ground and, presumably acting on what was told him, ordered Barson off. Barson argued his case in vain and though Barrett the Fulham captain added his entreaties, the referee stood his ground. Opinion was unanimous on the ground at the time that the other party was the aggressor.” 

The Watford supporter Mr CT Edgar of Railway Cottages, Hatch End claimed in the Daily Herald that he had seen the incident and Barson was not wholly to blame. “I say he has been most unfairly dealt with.” On the other hand, a Fulham supporter ‘Veritas’ of Maida Vale, who said the incident took place directly in front of him, declared that “it was significant that the home supporters, who outnumbered the Fulham supporters by about 50 to 1, were silent and there was not the slightest demonstration against the referee.” 

Local sentiment was roused, however, and within a few days a petition was drawn up, arranged by the Mayor of Watford, Alderman T Rushton, a Watford supporter but not necessarily a regular attendee at the ground, who also felt that Barson had been unfairly treated: “My view is that Temple caught hold of Barson’s leg and as far as I could see Barson was endeavouring to get his leg released when the referee ordered him off the field. I did not see Barson kick Temple unless he kicked him in trying to release his leg.” 

The petition was signed by some 5000 Watford supporters and letters from fans started to appear in newspapers, all generally supportive of Barson. A Daily Herald reader wrote: “I was booked off duty and went along with a Willesden friend to see a match in which Watford took part. This was the only time I had seen Barson play. Both my friend and I were neutral but it appeared to us that Barson touched an opponent and a free-kick was given against him. I should think this happened at least half a dozen times. When an opponent was to blame no action was taken. On one occasion a whistle was blown for a foul and both teams and spectators expected it was in favour of Watford but to the surprise of everybody it was given against Barson. What surprised me most was the fact that Barson always came up smiling instead of losing his temper as he easily might have done in the circumstances.” 

The secretary of the Football Association, Frederick Wall, was immediately contacted and agreed to meet Mayor Rushton on 12 October. Wall commented somewhat disingenuously: “I know nothing about a petition. There have been petitions from time to time but I don’t recall whether they had reference to cases of men being sent off the field.” On 16 October, however, it was announced that Barson would be suspended for the rest of the season, a ‘savage’ sentence that Barson protested (beneath a headline, Dream Shattered, A Bombshell) would impoverish him: “I have a wife and three children and am faced with the prospect of seven months without a livelihood.” 

Barson then gave his own account of the incident: “What exactly happened was this. Temple got hold of my left leg and persisted in holding it for between 15 and 20 seconds for which the referee gave the Watford team a foul. It was some five seconds after the whistle blew before I managed to free my leg. I hopped round on one leg trying to get the other free. The referee seemed in doubt and consulted the linesman, following which he came over and ordered me off the field apparently thinking I had been trying to kick Temple. The Fulham captain, Barrett, came up and told the referee that I could not be sent off the field as I had done nothing but he was ordered away. I understood that Temple informed the Football Association that he was not kicked by me. I asked to be given a hearing but this was refused.” 

As the confusion and outrage mounted, the question arose: what had happened to the petition signed by Watford fans and presented by the mayor? When questioned about it, Alderman Rushton was non-committal. He thought it inadvisable to say anything regarding the matter. “The player has been suspended for the rest of the season,” he said, “and the penalty is certainly sufficient for any offence he may have committed.” 

All would be revealed, however, a week later when Frederick Wall was interviewed by the Derby Daily Telegraph. When Mayor Rushton had arrived at the FA offices on the Friday morning, Wall had, again rather disingenuously, asked him why he had come. Wall then explained what had happened: “He said he had come to present a petition on behalf of Barson and he asked if he might read it. I said, ‘Before doing so, I think it right to ask you whether you have seen the referee’s report with reference to Barson.’ 

“He [the mayor] said he had not. I showed him the original report. It read: ‘A Fulham forward had the ball when in my opinion Barson viciously tackled him. I at once blew for a foul and was walking across to caution him when he deliberately kicked at this forward [Temple] who, to prevent Barson from doing him an injury, caught hold of his foot. On the Fulham forward releasing his hold of the foot Barson made a further attempt to kick him. [This was confirmed by the linesman nearest the incident, Mr AR Small.] When told to get off the field he did not do so at once but remained for three or four minutes and persisted in saying, ‘Wait until the game is finished I’ll smash your bloody face in.’ [signed by the referee] 

“‘Do you know,’ I asked the mayor, ‘anything of Barson’s history as a football player?’ 

“The mayor said he did not. I [then] read him information showing we – the FA – had had to consider numerous reports on Barson’s misconduct on the field; that he had been suspended on three previous occasions, once for a month, and twice for three months and reported three times for misconduct while playing for the Watford club. 

“I then asked the mayor what he proposed to do. 

“He said, ‘Well, Mr Wall, I will not ask you to receive the petition. 

“I said, ‘You have taken the right course. I feel that you have been placed in an invidious position.’ 

“The mayor said, ‘I don’t want to carry the petition away with me. Will you destroy it?’ 

“I destroyed the petition with his knowledge and approval. 

“‘Was it burned?’ asked the interviewer. ‘It was burned in his presence,’ Wall replied.” 

Suitably chastened, the mayor had headed back home while Wall proceeded to reduce to ashes what was left of Barson’s football career. 

Charles Buchan, the Arsenal forward who retired in 1928, wrote: “I am extremely sorry to learn of Frank Barson’s suspension. At this time of his career, for Barson has been playing for a good number of seasons, it may have serious consequences for it will be difficult to resume after such an enforced rest. In fact, it may mean the end of his playing days...” 

It mustn’t be thought, however, that everyone felt sorry for Barson. George Jewett – considered a reliable first- hand witness, who was playing when the infamous sending-off occurred – recalled that at half-time, Mr Jeffs, one of the Watford directors, went to the changing room and told Barson he should be ashamed of himself, whereupon Barson grabbed Jeffs (apparently a very small man) by the neck and threatened him. 

Nevertheless, after the first petition calling for Barson’s sending-off to be rescinded had been ceremoniously (perhaps even gleefully) destroyed by Wall, a second one was raised by the Supporters Club, this time for fans across the country. It ultimately collected some 15,000 signatures and was equally futile. Whether the FA burned this one as well is not known. They simply stated that those who signed it did not know all the facts and thus declined to re-open the enquiry. 

There were rumours that the Watford team would refuse to play if Barson was not re-instated but Pagnam soon quashed that idea. “There is absolutely no foundation for such rumour,” he said, “We are playing Luton tomorrow at home and expect a big gate. The team will definitely turn out.” 

Thus the football caravan moved on, leaving Barson by the wayside, with the man Watford turned to as their new manager none other than Neil McBain, a player whose position Barson had usurped when first moving to Manchester United in 1922. 

Although a severe blow to him (his public house licence application was quietly withdrawn some months into the following year), Barson’s treatment by the FA raised issues of fairness that saw a small but significant change occur in the way it handled disciplinary cases. 

The FA had been caught somewhat unawares when its high-handed behaviour had not been as readily accepted as it once might. Burning the Watford petition was deemed particularly offensive, even though it had been the hapless Watford mayor’s idea. There was particular unease at the (surprising to some) revelation that, once such a decision was made on a disciplinary matter, there was no appeal allowed by the player. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph considered this issue: “Barson is reported to have stated to a press representative that he asked to be given a hearing which request was refused. Unless I am mistaken, the Watford club could have applied for a special hearing of the case, though it would have run the risk of having to bear the costs of an inquiry in the event or not of winning the day. At the same time, it is admitted that ‘trials’ by correspondence are not entirely satisfactory.” 

As it happened, Barson himself had raised the issue some four years previously in an article he’d penned
(or put his name to) entitled Players’ Court of Appeal. He wrote: “Under the present system of ‘trying players by correspondence’ there is far too much time wasted. Often it is six or seven weeks after a player has been reported for an offence that his punishment is announced, and during that time it invariably happens that letters have passed between the FA, the referee, the club, and the player – backwards and forwards – stating their own cases and rebutting or acquiescing in the statements made by other parties. 

“The system is old-fashioned and out of date. But there is another far more important aspect to this method of trying players for alleged offences. While I agree that there has been a better class of player attracted to football as a profession since the rate of wages was increased, there are still very many players who could do themselves and their case far greater justice were they able to give evidence by word of mouth. Many players can speak well and clearly, but many of them are not nearly so happy when it comes to putting their case in writing.” 

He referred to cases where players had not been sent off but had been subsequently suspended (a premonition, perhaps, as to what would happen to him in an FA Cup semi-final a couple of years later). In those cases: “The blow has descended out of the darkness, as it were, and seems somewhat out of place in these days of enlightenment.” He ended his article suggesting that: “True justice is never a hardship.” 

At the time his article appeared, in 1923, he had received some support from a Football League and FA luminary and solicitor CE Sutcliffe, who’d emphasised that the argument that personal hearings would cost too much money was deeply flawed. Players, he said, could lose a great deal of money and “justice should be seen to be done.” 

Five years later, and the pressure on the FA to alter the system had increased significantly. The Herts and Essex County FA, clearly responding to the Barson case and its handling by the FA, put forward a proposal at the following summer’s FA Annual General Meeting that would put an end to ‘trials by correspondence’ and in spite of determined opposition from some of the game’s administrators, an overwhelming majority of councillors carried it. 

At a time when the Players Union was experiencing something of a revival, with new offices being established in Manchester and a new, determined secretary appointed in Jimmy Fay, Barson’s treatment had touched a chord and thus contributed, albeit indirectly, to a significant change in the quasi-legal status of the professional footballer. 

Barson, that stormy petrel of the game, would no doubt have been pleased by such an outcome – a rare incidence of retribution for the many wrongs he considered, rightly or wrongly, had been done to him by the men in black. 

In later life, he would take a longer view and had a fund of droll stories to tell relating to his many encounters with referees. The Swansea and Wales forward Roy Paul recalled one in particular that might serve as his epitaph: “On one occasion Barson went up to protest to the referee, none other than the famous Jack Howcroft, who ruled the players with almost martial efficiency. 

“As Barson started to walk towards him Howcroft called, ‘One step nearer Barson and you are–’ 

“‘But I only wanted to ask you the time, ref,’ butted in Barson with his usual quick wit. 

“‘Time you carried on with the game, Barson, or you will be in trouble,’ Howcroft retorted.”