John Barr, super scout

John Barr, super scout

John Barr, Super Scout
Elland Road, home of Leeds United the club where John Barr built up his legendary reputation as a scout under Don Revie.

In an age when Britain’s biggest clubs scour the world for stars, prospects can seem limited for Scottish talent on a bigger stage, as the national game lurches from crisis to crisis and Scots players takes on the cast of ‘poor relations’. But it wasn’t always the case.

In 1966, the year England won the world cup (as the English media never tire of reminding everyone), Scots contributed a remarkable 20 per cent of players within the squads of, what was then, the English First Division and throughout the 70s and 80s no self-respecting top tier dressing room was complete without a Scottish contingent at its beating heart.

In no small part, that record is a legacy of the work begun in the 1960s by two unheralded Scottish scouts, John Barr at Elland Road and Jimmy Dickie at Old Trafford.

As a young manager at St Mirren, Sir Alex Ferguson knew both men and benefited from their advice. He says: “I learned about scouting by watching games with them.” And indeed to this day Sir Alex maintains that the one attribute that he wishes he’d been born with was John Barr’s ability to evaluate young prospects so consistently accurately.

Sir Alex says: “John used to visit me at Love Street and when I came to Manchester, Jimmy became my main Scottish scout.” Ferguson says the two professional rivals “were of the old school. They always treated people with respect. Even though they were competing for the same boys’ signatures, they went about their jobs with an integrity that didn’t harm their friendship”.

“I’d like to think that view was in some part shaped by the experience of watching young players with John when I was starting out as a manager in Scotland.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

Though the two scouts are associated with a raft of Scottish stars from a bygone golden age, Sir Alex says that their legacy has been felt just as keenly, for the Man United boss, in recent times. “I remember when David Beckham was just a young boy his parents came to see me and asked if I’d consider releasing David. He was still quite small and their concern was that it would break his heart not to make it at United and that it might be better to release him early. I assured them though that David Beckham could have a career at United and also that he would grow to be able to compete at the top level. I’d like to think that view was in some part shaped by the experience of watching young players with John when I was starting out as a manager in Scotland.”

John Barr’s career began at Third Lanark, where he played as a centre-half, and, like Bill Shankly and Matt Busby, his contemporaries, his playing career was interrupted by war. After spending four years as a prisoner in Germany, he resumed his career with QPR, eventually graduating to a scouting position with the club.

It was not, however, until he moved to Leeds to join Don Revie in 1961 that he began to make his reputation, maintaining his association with Leeds until his death in 1997, aged 80. Under Revie’s stewardship and inspired by Barr’s signings, Leeds United became the dominant force in English football between 1967 and 1974. Scottish prospects like Bremner, Lorimer, McQueen, Jordan and the Gray brothers, constituted the backbone of the side, becoming world-class talents.

“We were so strong that we could have put the milkman in goal and it wouldn’t have affected the result in many games.” – Tony Collins. Leeds United chief scout under Don Revie

The statistical record of that period: two League Championships, the FA Cup, one League Cup and two European Fairs Cups, barely does them justice. If Leeds weren’t winning, they were usually a close second. As Tony Collins, Leeds’ chief scout under Revie, recalls: “We were so strong that we could have put the milkman in goal and it wouldn’t have affected the result in many games.”

This superiority allowed youngsters to be introduced into the first team, giving Barr a platform to attract the cream of Scottish talent.

According to Peter Lorimer: “Barr convinced players that Leeds would be the club of the future, even while they were still in the Second Division in the early 1960s.” By 1973, there were 17 Scots on the books at Leeds. Most of them, like Bremner, McQueen, Jordan, Harvey, the Gray brothers and Lorimer were just as important to the national side as they were to Revie’s domination of the early 1970s.

Scottish values

The solid Scottish values of integrity, modesty and patience exemplified by Barr and Dickie may be unfashionable now, but the lessons of their insight influenced Ferguson. “The great scout has a vision of how a player’s potential might develop, rather than assessing their raw ability,” he says. “That can only be learned by watching different types of players develop. It is the kind of experience that gave me the confidence to reassure David Beckham’s parents that he would develop physically into the player he is today. Barr and Dickie had that talent to spot players. I learned from them and I would always respect their judgement and opinions.”

While Barr’s ‘Scottish brigade’ gained Leeds a profile for a brand of football that was physical, skilful and occasionally ruthless, Dickie’s job at United in the 1970s and 1980s was much more difficult. Players like Holton, Buchan, Forsyth and Albiston gained international recognition while at United, but Dickie’s proteges were given fewer opportunities as successive managers sought to buy a team to recapture the glory of the Busby era. Ironically, Gary McAllister, the future Leeds and Scotland captain, was recommended to Manchester United by Dickie, as was Eddie Gray, a great servant to Leeds as a player, coach, manager and then assistant manager to David O’Leary.

Gray remembers Barr, who eventually signed him, as a terrific man. “I first met him at 13 when he watched me playing for Glasgow Schools. I think he was chief scout then. I was training with Celtic, but as soon as I came down to Leeds, at 14, I was really impressed – that was it for me.”

For Peter Lorimer, John Barr’s skill lay in judging potential. “It is a great achievement to take a youngster from a public park in Bonnyrigg or wherever and see them develop to the point where they run out at Hampden as a full international. Mr Barr did that again and again.”

Joe Jordan, Leeds United
A John Barr discovery. Joe Jordan turns out for Leeds United.

Joe Jordan adds: “He must have seen something in me that others didn’t. There was hardly a queue of scouts at the door waiting to sign me.”

Gordon McQueen retained a warm friendship with Barr until his death. McQueen remembers “a quiet, unassuming man whose life revolved around the simple pleasures of football, family and caravanning, which he tried to combine with watching games”. McQueen says: “Don Revie married a Scot and was a great admirer of the Scottish character and John Barr was a similar type, an unassuming man in the Revie mould.”

McQueen says: “While I was at Leeds I was a bit blasé about playing with such a strong contingent of fellow Scots and so many great players. I assumed it was the same at every club. The enormity of it only dawned on me once the team had broken up.”

Unassuming influence

And amazingly, though cries of ‘Scotland, Scotland’ would regularly emanate from the stands at Elland Road as Revie’s side dominated the early years of the 1970s, John Barr’s pivotal role at the club went largely unnoticed by both fans and subsequent Leeds United managers for whom John Barr continued to supply his immaculately hand written reports from his old fashioned triplicate notebooks. Most likely, the unassuming Scot was simply happy to remain in the shadows, content that he was able to aid the careers of people and players he admired.

As a result, Peter Lorimer unsurprisingly confirms: “Revie thought the world of Mr Barr, his influence was appreciated, and many players who were given their chance by him kept in touch until his death.” He says: “It saddens me as proud Scot that the imported players at Leeds these days are more likely to be Scandinavians or Irishmen than Scots.”

Ultimately, though, it is Barr’s signings which leave the greatest impression. As Dickie suggests: “You look at the long list of great players John Barr signed, the mind can barely take them in now.” Dickie may have been beaten to a few signings by Barr, but his greatest loss was on a personal level when John Barr died in 1997. Barr was his closest friend for more than 50 years and Jimmy Dickie says: “Nobody in the game would have a bad word to say about John Barr. He was impeccable as a man and as a scout. Our clubs employed us, but they didn’t own us. “Our friendship was always more important than any player.”

This is an extended version of a feature originally published in The Sunday Times