My Time At Town - Billy Barr: “It meant everything to me”

Billy Barr was a Halifax lad who lived the dream of playing for his hometown club.

Saturday, 6th June 2020, 1:19 pm
Billy Barr. Photo: Johnny Meynell

The defender’s seven years of service at The Shay produced few highs, while Town were relegated from the Football League for the first time in their history in his penultimate campaign.

But his intense pride at graduating from the terraces to the team endures to this day, echoing right back to first joining Halifax in 1983.

”I played in a cup final at The Shay for St Mary’s under 14’s and I scored a hat-trick, and I scored schoolboy forms the week after,” he said. “Gerry Brook (youth team manager) came to my house.

Billy Barr scores for Town at Carlisle. Photo: Johnny Meynell

”There was interest from Leeds but my parents didn’t drive and it was too far, and I’d grown up a Halifax fan anyway so it was a privilege to sign for the home-town club.

”It was schoolboy forms, there was no apprenticeship. That was earned as time went on.

”It was totally different to how it is nowadays. We only had a basic squad of players, we didn’t have big squads.

”We trained once or twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they’re really happy memories.

A touch of class: David Jason at the Shay for filming of 'A Touch of Frost' is pictured with Halifax Town players David German (left) and Billy Barr

”At times we’d train at the back of the goal at the away end, and then there was the outside court, which was brand new at that point.

”That was a car park originally and we’d train on the car park too. Totally different to what players experience now but really enjoyable.

”That was from 14 to 16. There were people from St Mary’s there too, like Lee Richardson, and a few other lads.

”The games weren’t as regular as they are now, I remember it being quite ad-hoc, but you’d still play for your boys club. You were getting the best of both worlds really.

Barr after scoring for Town against Shrewsbury in March 1993. Courtesy of Johnny Meynell

”I was a centre forward back in those days, but that changed along the way.

”Our first proper pre-season was spent training with the first-team, and that was a great experience looking back.

“The guidance you got from the players, the examples that were set, good and bad.

”We’d still train on Tuesdays and Thursday nights. The youth team ended up winning the Northern Intermediate League in our second year, 1986-87, which was unheard of.

”We had Gerry Brook as the manager, Jack Haymer was around, we travelled everywhere on a minibus.

”They tried to treat us the same as you would be in the first-team, so everybody was dressed the same, we had sponsorships.

”Some of us were full-time and some were part-time, some, including my brother, was in the year below.

”We beat Leeds 4-0 at The Shay to clinch the title. Both Sheffield clubs were in it, so were Newcastle and Sunderland, Leeds, Huddersfield, Bradford.

”But it was little old Halifax that ended up winning it. Still to this day I hold it as one of my most memorable achievements in football.”

Still basking in the glow of silverware, Barr was handed an unexpected debut in an unexpected role at the start of the 1987-88 season.

”Wayne Allison, Lee Richardson and myself were offered professional contracts and we all broke in at the same time really,” he says.

”I was a centre-forward at this stage. Phil Brown got injured the day before the season started. Billy Ayre, the manager, pulled me into his office at two o’clock on matchday, first game of the season, and said ‘do you fancy playing right-back’ and I was like ‘yeah’.

”I don’t know whether he expected me to say yes or ‘I’d rather not’ but you don’t turn an opportunity down, even if it is out of position.

”Maybe that was a pivotal point of my career without realising it, that had I stayed as a centre-forward, I was very slight, I wasn’t rapid, maybe I was better suited with the game in-front of me.

”Phil Brown was fit after that so I went on the bench and I ended up playing the first four years of my career as a left-back. A big change to what I was used to but great memories of the people I played with.

”Phil Brown was our captain and a good teacher of the game, someone you looked up to.

”I think I ended up playing about 40 games that year. I can’t remember what point I got in and stayed in.

”It took a bit of adjustment, with a different position and a different mindset. I wasn’t really a great defender, I wasn’t quick but I was athletic and I could run all day so I could maraud up and down that left side.

”I’d probably get found out more nowadays but I must’ve done something right because I ended up playing nearly 300 games at Halifax.”

The vast majority of those appearances were for a side fighting at the wrong end of the table.

”Perennial strugglers,” says Barr. “They were even as a supporter of the club before that.

”A small football club really within a working class area.

“When you go back you still see the same faces and it’s something they’ve stuck with their whole lives.

”There’s not been many highs along the way. Halifax fans are proper football fans.”

Barr is one of them.

”The FA Cup against Man City,” is the match he picks out as a highlight from his formative years.

“We were behind the goal.

”The place was an absolute sell-out.

”Amazing scenes at the end. Maybe the pitch helped, it wasn’t the best.

”That’s the game that sticks out. Things like that don’t happen very often.”

You can say that again.

But around the time Barr’s breakthrough, the club had a crop of promising youngsters who offered hope for the future.

”Lee (Richardson) and Wayne (Allison) got sold, so there was money made there.

“Phil Whitehead, who was in my brother’s year, got sold, so there was money made there.

”Paul Fleming and Dean Martin were around for a long time before they were sold, so there was probably money made there.

”Craig Fleming was a few years later.

”When you look over the course of those years, people like Terry McPhillips came from Liverpool, Terry had an unbelievable season one year and there were rumours he was going to go for a lot of money but it never happened.

”I think there was a lot of good work done with young players.

”For whatever reason, we weren’t a successful football club.

”But I still look back with fondness and pride, and I’m still in touch with some of the people I played with.

”Socially we were really good as a group, we were really tight, did stuff together all the time like end-of-season holidays.

”Even though it wasn’t blessed with promotions, I still look back with fond, fond memories of my years at my home town club.”

That link from the terraces to the team ensured a strong bond between player and club.

”Lee and myself went through school from four-years-old together. We were both Halifax fans and we used to go to the Halifax games together with Lee’s family, my brother and my dad.

”Wayne became a Halifax fan, even though he was from Huddersfield.

”It did mean a lot, I was proud of the achievement. I stayed a bit longer than them, I think they both signed for Watford.

”For anybody to pull on the shirt of their home town, it’s a proud moment.

”And to captain your home town is an even prouder moment.”

It was during Town’s doomed 1992-93 season that Barr was first handed the honour.

”Russell Bradley was captain but he was injured and Mick Rathbone made me captain.

”I’d spent that season out of the squad under John McGrath.

”We came back on day one of pre-season and he gave his talk that everyone was in the same boat, everybody’s fighting for a position and then there was four of us he pointed at and said ‘go and train with the youth team’.

”That was me, Jamie Paterson, Neil Griffiths and I think Greg Abbott.

”He’d made his decision, he was going to try and force us out. But luckily for us Mick Rathbone took training.

”I think it was my cousin Kevin Megson that was keeping me out of the team.

”I eventually broke in and stayed in. And I think it was at Carlisle I ended up playing my first game that season.

”So that season didn’t start great or finish great but it was probably my best season, I ended up getting player of the year. But obviously I’d have swapped that to stay in the league.”

Up until then, relegation had been a constant threat, with Town finishing 18th, 21st, 23rd, 22nd and 20th during Barr’s previous seasons as a first-teamer before the club finally succumbed in 1993.

”I think that was always going to be the case because the budget wouldn’t have been the greatest, crowds weren’t the biggest,” says Barr.

”Staying in the league was the biggest thing and I think the board would have been happy with that.

”I think we started one season really well, scoring lots of goals, up in the top half of the league but I think we ended up selling someone.

”You hoped at the start of every season, you worked as hard as you could to change things, but the quality of player we had wasn’t as good as the other clubs that had more money and could attract better players.

”The first proper matching training kit we had was under Billy Ayre and we all had Adidas with numbers on, and it was like ‘wow!’

”Little things like that meant a lot because it had been odd rugby tops and all sorts of things just to keep warm while you trained on Savile Park or Old Earth.”

Before the 1992-93 season, Barr had only worked under two managers at Halifax, but that number had doubled by the time Town were relegated.

”I thought I’d gone through a lot more managers! he says.

“Billy Ayre was fantastic. Mick Jones and Billy were the first management team I worked under and then Mick left and Billy was installed as manager.

”He was dead honest, straightforward, no buttering things up, he told you exactly what he felt and you respected him for it.

”I’ve tried to take that into my own managerial career.”

On Ayre’s successor Jim McCalliog, Barr says: “Jim was working in the community and nobody really knew of him.

”He got the job, and the team was different. Jim had had a good career, played in the FA Cup final, maybe he came into it and expected it to be easy and tell people what to do, and he struggled with it.”

As did the man who followed him, John McGrath.

”He’d done well at Preston and quite a few ex-Preston players signed for us.

”I was in the team initially and it got to the end of the season, and the season after didn’t start great.

”John wasn’t my cup of tea if I’m being honest, he was totally different to what I’d ever experienced before.

”He liked his own voice. I remember we’d have meetings on a Monday morning after the games, and some weeks they’d go on for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, just sat in the dressing room.

”And it would mainly be his voice. Some days you wouldn’t even train, that’d be it.

”The success he’d had with better players at Preston didn’t materialise at Halifax.

”The players he brought from Preston were good but maybe they’d had their best days at Preston.”

Was it inevitable he would leave as that relegation season progresses?

”As time went on, yeah. We were definitely in a dog fight and there was a sense of, when Baz got appointed, ‘we can get out of this’.

”I remember Baz’s (Mick Rathbone) first game, a cup game against Huddersfield, and it was the first time we’d really had music, and Baz being an upbeat character, played Tina Turner, Simply The Best, at full volume.

”And then we lost 5-0.”

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life might have been more appropriate, but Barr says there was a belief in the squad that they would escape the drop.

”Even before the last game against Hereford.

”We had the supporters’ player of the year award on the Thursday night - I got player of the year and Chris Lucketti got runner-up.

”The questions on the night were ‘do you think we can get out of it?’

”Absolutely, of course we can, and with your support behind us, everybody will be fighting to get out of it”

”It didn’t happen but we still thought we could, definitely.

”We’d done it as a football club for many years but it just wasn’t to be.

”But we gave ourselves a fighting chance, we got out of it, slipped back into it, and then with two games to go we lost at Gillingham.

”I remember there being such a big following with us.

”And then it was Hereford the week after.

”The kick off was delayed, there was a big crowd.

”I remember different football shirts from West Yorkshire being there, coming to support us.

”I remember Derek Hall’s muted celebration when he scored.

”We’d had chances but it just wasn’t going to happen. Maybe the liuck we’d had over the last 10 or 15 years had run out.

”I remember self-isolating, as we call it now, after the game. I think we came in on the Tuesday afterwards, and that was the first time I’d left my house.

”It was just heartbreaking, being a Halifax lad and knowing a lot of people.

”I remember watching the local news on the Sunday when I was at my parents’ house having my Sunday dinner, in tears at what had happened, seeing people you know on the pitch.

”The luck of staying in the league the seasons before had run out and it was time for the club to choose a different direction.”

But not Barr, who stayed on to try and put things right.

”I remember in the changing room afterwards (against Hereford) some players were in tears, some weren’t really bothered if I’m being honest, in the shower and out.

”The enormity of it didn’t probably sink in until the Monday or the Tuesday.

”We were back in on the Tuesday for the end-of-season meeting with the manager.

”Then you go away for the summer and when you come back the memories have died down a bit and there’s the optimism of the new season.

”We ended up going down to Devon for a couple of days in pre-season.

”Wraggy’s (Peter Wragg) mission was to try and get us to bond but ultimately, it was going to take more than a couple of days down south.

”I could have potentially left after we’d gone down but I didn’t feel it was the right thing to do.

”There was interest from other clubs but I wanted to try and put right what had gone wrong.

”We probably went into that season in the Conference just expecting to bounce back, and it was a rude awakening.

”It was the first time in my time there that we had part-time players come in. We had a full-time group and then a part-time group. Strange really and it didn’t really work out the way we expected it to.

”We had Elfyn Edwards, who was a fireman, we had a centre-forward who was a postman. He’d only come in certain days as well.

”It was a blend of different characters and it didn’t really gel the way everybody would have expected.

”Wraggy came from the non-league scene and maybe thought it could work that way. I’ve bumped into Wraggy over the years and still have a lot of time for him.

”We did have good periods but it was totally different. It was rougher, it was tougher.

”People expected us to go up, even the opposition, so we became a big game, and that was totally different to us.

”There was no real thought of leaving, I just wanted to try and put things right.

”I did that season, went in for the meeting after the season finished and John Bird said ‘we’re going to have to give you a pay cut’.

”I knew that Crewe and a couple of other clubs had been interested the year before so I rang Crewe to see if the interest was still there. Terry McPhillips was there by that point.

”I met Dario Gradi and agreed a deal.”

With a heavy heart?

”Yeah. But I’d done nine years in total.

”I was getting offered a pay cut and a testimonial. Although that would have been nice I felt that I needed a different challenge.”

Billy’s brother Bobby also played for The Shaymen, but didn’t enjoy anywhere near the same longevity.

“He made his debut before me, as a first year apprentice,” says Barr.

”His career didn’t really take off, he ended up with a bad injury and came out of football.

”He was the commercial manager at one point and ended up as the youth team manager.”

But for both brothers to represent their hometown club was a source of great joy for their parents, says Barr.

”The pride that both my parents had for us both playing was immense.

“They were on the journey with us.

”I had to ban my mum from coming to games when I signed pro because she was quite vocal. If anybody slagged me off, she was over (to them).

”Dad came to the games with friends from the area and followed me when I went to Crewe and Carlisle.”

Barr is now a youth coach at Blackburn Rovers, teaching what he’s learned to the next generation with the pride and passion that were forged at The Shay.

”It means everything,” says Barr when asked to sum up his time at Halifax. “It was the starting point as a 14-year-old, being connected to your home town.

”At times, under 15s would train with the first-team, on the pitch. I think that was in the Micky Bullock days.

”It was my grounding as a person. We weren’t flash Harry’s, it gave us the work ethic we still have now.

”We met many a good person. I think back to Mrs Thompson, George Fairburn, who did the washing and the food back then, Norman Southernwood, Mark Hans. It wasn’t just about the football, it was about the people.

”It made you realise what you have to do to stay in an industry. You’ve got to work tirelessly every single day, every game.

”These are the messages I’m passing on now. I still try and instill the good habits that were formed many years ago.

”I have no regrets from my time at Halifax. Obviously higher league positions would have been better.

”It meant everything to me. To become captain of the club - proud, proud moments.”

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