Hall of Heroes: Les Barrett

The first game I attended at the Cottage was the Johnny Haynes Testimonial in 1969 when at the tender age of 6 I didn’t appreciate what an array of talent of talent was on show. The Maestro himself captained a team against a Bobby Moore XI while a Fulham past XI took on the Fulham present XI. That Fulham side were arguably the weakest of the four line ups that night as they were just being relegated for the second season in a row. The left winger in that team was a certain Les Barrett who had made his debut in 1966  at the tender age of 18 when he’d been thrust into a side that looked certain to be relegated from the top flight. Fulham were used to a scrap for survival but in that particular year they definitely looked doomed.

Les made his debut on 29 January 1966 in a goalless draw at home to Blackpool. Fulham had won just 5 of their opening 26 games at that stage of the season and were stranded at the bottom of the table. Another young forward in Steve Earle made his first start of the season that day and the selection of such callow youths indicated that this was the club’s last throw of the dice. Both obviously did well enough to keep their place and three games later Fulham produced the shock of the season in beating eventual Champions Liverpool 2-0 at the Cottage. This sparked a run of 20 points from the last 13 games ( 2 for a win in those days) which statistically at least was a greater escape than Roy Hodgson’s class of 2008. Les scored 4 vital goals in his 12 appearances and from that moment on was a fixture in the team.

In 1967 he earned an International call up and played for England under 23’s against Greece but this proved to be his only cap. As England were reigning World Champions it would’ve been very hard to break into the full set up at that time and it probably became impossible when Les dropped into the second division in 1968. In the current day a player of his calibre would leave a relegated club and  be snapped up by another Premier League outfit. However in those  pre freedom of contract days clubs hung on to their players unless they got an offer they couldn’t refuse.I don’t know if bigger clubs were sniffing around at that time but having seen Les’s quality at first hand over a number of years I’d be surprised if there wasn’t interest.

The first League game I saw at Fulham was at the start of the following season and my Complete Record book tells me that Les played in a 2-1 win over Gillingham that featured one of the Maestro’s final goals for the club. However, it wasn’t until the following season that I started to become more aware of what was going on and it was at a match at home to Bradford City in September 1970 that Les made his first distinct impression on me. My Dad worked Saturdays so it was a rare treat to be taken to an evening game under the lights. It must’ve still been school holidays for the trip to have got past my mum and I was thrilled to watch Fulham romp to a 5-0 victory. Even at that age, I was something of a budding statto and my joy was increased by the anomaly that our five goals were scored by numbers 7 to 11 in the match programme. Jimmy Conway was on the right wing, Vic Halom and Steve Earle were up front, Barry Lloyd was captain and playmaker while Les donned his trademark number 11 shirt on the left wing. There couldn’t have been a better pair of wingers in the lower leagues than Les and Jimmy and they were instrumental in our successful promotion campaign. Les was an ever-present that season and finished top scorer with 15 goals which is some achievement for a specialist winger.

By the following season, I was managing to get to all our home games as a neighbour and friend of my Dad’s offered to take me to Saturday games when he was working. There weren’t any 5-0 wins to celebrate like the previous year though and we only stayed up with a last-day draw at home to Sunderland thanks to Charlton helpfully getting stuffed that day and also to the fact only two clubs went down. Once more Les was an ever present which was a tribute to his reliability and nimble footedness in avoiding injury in an era where skilful players were offered scant protection from the cloggers most teams seemed to possess. Les chipped in 8 vital goals that season and when Alec Stock took over the following year there would have been no doubt in his mind that Les would be an integral part of the lineup. Stock did change and improve the squad and a much more comfortable campaign ensued. Les missed only three games and banged in another 6 goals and by early March it looked like we might offer an unlikely promotion challenge to Burnley and QPR who had surged some way clear. However, we fell away badly in the closing weeks and finished 9th which although disappointing was a vast improvement on the previous year.

Foolishly I thought we might build on that and offer a more realistic bid for promotion in 1973-4 but my optimism was wildly misplaced. It’s fair to say over the next 40 years or so I’ve learned the error of my ways. To be fair we did look a decent side on our day and our return of 42 points from our 42 games didn’t really do us justice. It was our failure to take chances that cost us with a paltry 39 goals scored but Les couldn’t be blamed as his return of 7 goals was decent enough from the wing. His ability to score goals was a bonus as he was also adept at creating chances. His speed, balance and ability to cut inside was guaranteed to give full backs a busy afternoon and trying to kick him didn’t work; Les was ever present again that season.

We started the next season well but any idea of a promotion challenge quickly petered out as our consistent inconsistency kicked in. We demonstrated our potential with League Cup wins over First Division sides in Wolves and West Ham but by the turn of the year, we were marooned in mid-table in the midst of a scoring drought that saw us go 5 games without a goal. There was no indication of the excitement ahead when we drew at home to Hull who occupied a similar position in the table in the third round of the F.A.Cup Optimism had already been replaced by fatalism in my 12-year-old brain and I assumed we’d be dispatched from the competition in the midweek replay. Little did I know that we were beginning a record-breaking journey that proved be the highlight of Les Barrett’s long Fulham career. This was the era before penalty shoot outs and a credit worthy draw at Hull meant a meeting at neutral Leicester the following week where an Alan Slough goal took us through. Three games obviously weren’t enough for us though as we decided to take four games to dispatch Nottingham Forest in the next round. It would be possible to win the Cup in six games yet 7 games in we had only managed to advance two rounds. Probably to no avail I thought as we headed North to take on First Division leaders Everton. However we demonstrated just how good a side we could be on our day and emerged with a thoroughly deserved 2-1 win. Excitement was starting to build especially as we drew Carlisle away in the quarter finals. Surely if we could beat Everton then the relegation-bound Cumbrians would be easy meat. It didn’t work out that way as we took something of a battering. A masterclass in goalkeeping from Peter Mellor kept us in it and Les pounced on a defensive error to steer us into the Semis from virtually our only chance.

Birmingham awaited in the Semis and we outplayed them at Hillsborough only for them to equalise John Mitchell’s thunderbolt and force a replay. Maine Road on a Wednesday night was a no go for a schoolboy like me so I listened nervously to the game on Radio 2 with my Dad at home. The game was drifting scoreless to the end of extra time and I’d already forced a promise to attend the third game pencilled in for Highbury when the commentator’s voice went up an octave. A cross came into the Birmingham box and Super Mitch forced home one of the untidiest goals you’re ever likely to see. Cue delirium in the Clarke household as me and the old man danced around like maniacs. What a reward for the elder statesmen in the side like Moore and Mullery but truly special for a guy like Les who had dedicated his whole career to the club. There wasn’t to be a fairy tale ending as we lost the final but it was fitting that such a sterling servant as Les was a part of the only Fulham side ( still) to have played at Wembley. Incidentally, it won’t surprise you to know that he played in every game of that epic Cup run.

Les was a regular in another mid table season the following year and had a richly deserved Testimonial match the season after against our Cup Final conquerors. It proved to be his last full season at the club as his appearances started to dwindle. He was sold to Millwall in October 1977 where he played just 8 times before calling time on his professional career. He wasn’t lost to the game completely and went on to play in non-league for quite some time. He was particularly successful playing in a decent Woking side as a sweeper. Even though he’d lost his lightening pace his football brain was distinct for all to see.

Over the years I’ve been privileged to see some fantastic players at the Cottage. Local Hero les wouldn’t be out of place in any of their company. We were lucky that such a talented and unassuming player spent so many years at the club. They don’t make them like that anymore.