Preston North End stalwart George Ross has paid tribute to the ‘character and humour’ of his former Deepdale team-mate John Barton who passed away at the weekend aged 72.
Goalkeeper Barton hit the headlines when he made his PNE debut against Arsenal at Highbury in December 1958 when he was just 16 years old.
He was on the Deepdale groundstaff at the time but was called up because of injuries to Fred Else and Alan Kelly.
A baptism of fire it might have been – but the Wigan-born teenager performed superbly, helping North End secure a 2-1 victory in London.
Ross, chairman of the PNE Former Players’ Association, came through the ranks with Barton and they were in the Preston youth team which reached the 1960 FA Youth Cup final against Chelsea.
“John was a real character, a true Wiganer with a great sense of humour,” Ross told the Evening Post.
“He was on the groundstaff, as it was known then, with players such as Alan Spavin, Peter Thompson and myself.
“When John played against Arsenal he was 16 and the club’s fourth-choice keeper.
“Fred Else was injured and I think Alan Kelly had a broken wrist. So he got whisked off to London on the Friday in order to play against Arsenal on the Saturday.”
Many national newspapers gave Barton their man of the match award, and he was taken by taxi after the game to the BBC studios to be interviewed for Sports Report.
He played in Preston’s next two games – both against Blackpool on Christmas Day and Boxing Day – then had to wait until late in the 1961/62 season for his next match.
In the meantime, Barton returned to the groundstaff to continue learning his trade. Said Ross: “After John played those three games he came back to training with us and would joke how saving shots from us in training was a breeze compared to facing Arsenal. He was right too!
“I remember watching the Christmas games against Blackpool, which John also played in – Stanley Matthews was terrific in them.
“John had to wait a couple of seasons to play in the first team again and was mainly an understudy to Alan Kelly.”
Barton passed away at his home in Orrell, Wigan, on Sunday after illness.
In December 2008, Barton gave an interview to the LEP to mark the 50th anniversary of his debut.
Recalling his shock call-up, he said: “I was scrubbing boots under the Pavilion Stand when the kit man shouted, ‘John, the boss wants to see you’.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is this all about’? so I gently knocked on the manager’s door, and there was Cliff Britton, sat bolt upright behind his desk.
“He said, ‘Sit down, son, I’ve got a bit of news for you. How do you fancy playing at Arsenal tomorrow’?
“I was gobsmacked. I thought he was joking, somebody was playing a trick on me. I’d caught the train from Wigan that morning and walked to Deepdale.
“Anyway, they rushed me back to Wigan sharpish in the car and I just had time to tell my mum I was playing in the first team and grabbed my suit.
“I was back on Preston station for the three o’clock train to London.”
Barton played 54 times for PNE before joining Blackburn Rovers in 1966.