Article written by Gordon Mills.
During one of Fulham’s perennial slumps in form during the middle sixties, the manager at the time, the globetrotting Vic Buckingham, took the unprecedented step of dropping the great Johnny Haynes, establishing George Cohen as captain and picking a group of untried youngsters from the youth set-up under the tutelage of one time water pistol bandit Mark ‘Pancho’ Pearson in a desperate attempt to turn the team’s fortunes around. One of the debutants that day was someone close to my heart, an ex-schoolmate called Les Barrett.
We knew Les would make it to somewhere close to the top because at school he had the knack of always being that bit quicker to the ball than anyone else. The funny thing was that he wasn’t actually the most gifted of footballers at our school – there were a couple of others, Clive Coast, Phil Hennessy, Alan Pooley, who were all his superior but they lacked Les’ determination and that knack to get to the ball first. When we got to school in first form, we were told in no uncertain terms that we wouldn’t be playing soccer, rugger was the sport for first formers. That didn’t faze Les who used his speed and anticipation to make it into the Under 12 team as centre or wing without any difficulty. When we went back for Form 2 he switched to football with a bunch of others while people like myself kept playing rugby.
Until he left school at the end of Fifth Form, we tracked each other’s progress and he was already on Fulham’s books by then. It gave us a sense of pride to see his name in the programmes as a member of the junior team and so we approached his first team debut with intense interest and anticipation. At that time he was playing as an inside forward – he wore number 8 on his debut – and while he didn’t exactly set the Cottage alight that day, he did retain his place after the 2 – 1 victory. (Can’t remember who it was against.)
Eventually he found his best position of course, which was on the left wing. For someone who was not naturally left footed he did remarkably well, using his speed to go past full backs on the outside and get as close to both the by-line and the goal before crossing low into the path of one of the strikers. He wasn’t a great crosser of the high ball but he got into some really dangerous positions from which his low deliveries caused havoc.
Les was one of the few Fulham players who excited the crowd when he received the ball; there was an air of expectancy, that something exhilarating was about to happen. He won Under 23 caps for England but never made it to the full side. I watched one of his appearances for the Under 23s in the traditional eve of cup final game between the full England side and the Under 23s at Highbury. The Under 23 front three were Clarke, Marsh and Barrett and they were unstoppable. Les gave George Cohen quite a roasting and Rodney, a QPR player by this time, tormented Bobby Moore all evening. The Under 23s won 5 – 0, Clarke 2, Marsh 2 and Barrett were the scorers. Unbelievable.
Les wasn’t a prolific scorer but he was a great provider. One season he was our leading scorer and I wondered if he was going to concentrate more on his finishing but he didn’t. One of his most famous and important goals was in the sixth round of the cup against Carlisle – the only goal of the game that took us to the semi final and eventually the final in 1975.
He didn’t have one of his better games in the final. West Ham put two men on him and Mullery and Moore kept moving the ball the other way towards Jimmy Conway. The Guardian in its headline above the report on the Monday said something like "Fulham Fail To Walk the Barrett Way" a play on the slogan of the Barrett’s shoe shop and the fact that Fulham didn’t get the ball to him enough. When they did feed him in the last quarter of the game, he made some typical runs down the wing but by then it was too late. (My favourite Guardian football headline was for a Crystal Palace game when Gerry Queen was sent off for fighting. The headline read "Queen In Rumpus At Palace".)
After the consecutive relegations, I was very surprised he stayed at Fulham but he was nothing if he wasn’t loyal and, like Haynes before him, he gave all his best days to the Whites. I wonder what he would have achieved though, had he moved to Tottenham as was rumoured on more than one occasion. In these days when the nomenclature "Legend" is bandied about without rhyme nor reason, Les Barrett stands tall as a true legend of Craven Cottage and I’m proud to have had him as one of my schoolmates.
Anyone who remembers this era is welcome to reminisce with Gordon at email@example.com