A tribute to John Barnes: The footballer, the artist

Date published: Friday 3rd July 2020 12:47

Johnny’s journey through much-loved football people brings him to John Barnes…


Who’s this then?
John Charles Bryan Barnes OBE is a 5’ 11″ Jamaican-born, 56-year-old former winger who played for just four clubs: Watford, Liverpool, Newcastle United and, it is often forgotten, 12 games for Charlton. He played 751 club games and was capped 79 times for England for whom he scored 11 times. His 198 club goals don’t really tell the story of his career as one of the most talented, most exciting players of his or any era.

He made his debut in 1981 in the Second Division for Graham Taylor’s up-and-coming Watford side which was in the process of rising from the fourth tier to almost win the first within five seasons. A feat that is impossible today, but should not be.

He scored 14 in 44 that promotion year and was the standout player. The following year, Watford finished runners-up in the top flight behind Liverpool who Barnesy would eventually join. They were also FA Cup runners-up that year, beaten 2-0 by Everton in the final.

After playing 296 times for Watford, scoring 85 times, with Taylor departing to manage Villa, John was offered to Manchester United but Sir Alex Ferguson turned him down in favour of Jesper Olson and later, Ralph Milne. Proof that even the best can make monumental mistakes.

He was a key player in Liverpool’s last great era of English football dominance, being both FWA (twice) and PFA player of the year in 1988. He won two league titles, two FA Cups and a League Cup.

The 1989-90 season saw him collect his highest goal tally, netting 28 times for Liverpool who he’d joined in 1987. He stayed for 10 years, even as Liverpool spiralled into relative decline, eventually moving from the left wing into midfield as injuries robbed him of the explosive burst of pace that was a big part of his early game. However, he was still influential and while he scored fewer goals, he could dictate play from a more central position. Jamie Carragher was a young player at the club towards the end of John’s career.

“Technically, he’s the best player I’ve ever trained or played with, he was great with both feet, they were both exactly the same. I’d say he’s the best finisher I’ve ever played with (including Torres, Fowler, Owen). Barnes never used to blast his shots – they’d just get placed right in the corner. You speak with the players from those great Liverpool sides and ask them who the best player they played with was and they all say John Barnes.”

He’d made his England debut under Bobby Robson in 1983, scoring his first goal against Brazil in a friendly in 1984, a long mazy dribble which would both vaunt and haunt him for the rest of his career by displaying a standard that few could equal.

Indeed, his England career though long and many-capped was often a source of frustration as, especially when he was red-hot for Liverpool, he didn’t always replicate that form for his country. Liverpool’s team was far superior to England’s so in that sense, was a far better stage to allow John to perform on. When he came on v Argentina in the 1986 World Cup with England 2-0 down, he almost transformed the game, setting up one goal and nearly making another. For about 20 minutes Argentina were there for the taking and we all wondered how it had taken so long for him to be introduced. I vividly recall Barry Davies shouting at Barnes to just run at the flagging South Americans as he seemed to have the beating of them.

He was part of the 1988 Euro team which was so comprehensively beaten in all three games and went to Italy in 1990 only to get injured, volleying a superb but disallowed goal against Belgium. England’s failed Euro 1994 ‘Do I Not Like That’ qualifying campaign meant that his final cap came in a terrible 0-0 draw v Columbia at Wembley in 1995 a game enlivened only by Rene Higuita’s scorpion-kick.

Bobby Robson called Barnes’s fluctuating international form ‘an enigma’. Barnes himself blamed it on England’s more rigid system dedicated to power and pace rather than ball retention and skill. It would be a story repeated in the subsequent years.

His two seasons under Kenny Dalglish at Newcastle United were less stellar and while still with magic in his feet, he couldn’t move around the pitch they way he once could, leading to one wag at the time to say that he’d be quicker if he was pushed around the pitch in a wheelbarrow. He was clearly nearing his career end.

Incredibly, he was given the manager’s job at Celtic on retiring, with Dalglish as Director Of Football. This was bonkers and suitably enough, after the defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and the infamous headline ‘Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious’, he was given the old tin tack.

He then had a year managing Jamaica before coming home to boss Tranmere Rovers with Jason McAteer in tow. It lasted four months. Managing is obviously not his thing at all.

Since then he’s been on TV a lot, notably Strictly Come Dancing, but recently he’s grown in stature as something of a statesman in talking about racism, its causes and its cures. His early career had been notoriously blighted by it.


Why the love?
There was so much to love about Barnesy and how he played football. Early on, in the teeth of heinous racist abuse by shameful fans who hurled bananas at him, he conducted himself with a great degree of nobility and restraint. His back-heeling of one became an iconic photo of the era.

He was only the seventh black player to play for England, only the second to play for Liverpool. Football was almost wholly white in Britain and the National Front wanted to keep it that way. John was fighting and living on the front-line against all that. To have to play your football at the highest level is difficult enough, but to have to do it while being abused for the colour of your skin must’ve made it even harder. But John bore it all with fortitude, sticking their vile bile back down their throats by playing like a dream.

He was also a player unlike any other of the time. In the 1980s he stood alone in his supreme close ball control, quick vision and skilled feet coupled with a burst of speed. He was two-footed at a time when most could barely use one. He dared to do that which few could do. The cliche is that he played like a Brazilian. But not all Brazilians were Jairzinho or Zico.

It was an especially brutal and attritional period in the game where the most skilled players were dealt with by attempting to kick them off the park. In some ways he was born in the wrong era. If playing today, the Barnes of 1983 would have made the modern game look very easy indeed and he would have fitted into Liverpool’s title-winning side perfectly on the left of a forward three.

At Watford, and perhaps especially at Liverpool, he was such an impressive figure with such presence that somehow he appeared bigger than he was. Other lesser players seemed diminished next to him. In his pomp he commanded the ball and the play the way a conductor commands an orchestra. He could get you off your seat like few others.

As soon as he received the ball, there would be a palpable roar of anticipation as he took off past players with liquid grace and quicksilver intelligence. He was worth the ticket money on his own.

The Liverpool side of 1987-1988 was possibly the finest club side of the post-war era. Other Liverpool teams had won everything there was to win, but this Liverpool side did it with such thrilling elan. The options in the team were so many and varied, they were capable of playing such breathtaking football than even neutrals had to admire them, much in the same way as this year’s title-winning side does.

And of course we must also mention John’s part in the classic that is World In Motion.

This video never fails to provoke misty eyes for those of us who remember its release. It still, even after 30 years, stirs the blood. While it is the famous rap that we all recall, the very first frame of it is John, spinning the ball on his finger and he is the most prominent throughout. For a black player to be this high profile in the nation’s favourite sport was an important step forward towards progressive inclusivity. It’s also notable that he is the only player featured that somehow just looks like a modern footballer, unlike, say, Steve McMahon. You can easily imagine him as a 26-year-old in a Premier League team today.

Also, it is worth watching one more time for The Waddler’s utterly magnificent hair and to see these now middle-aged men, young and happy. I actually find it rather moving.


What the people love
The post bag was only half-full this week, perhaps because our readership demographic is a little too young to really remember Barnesy in his absolute stunning pomp and they know him more from his subsequent media career. But those who were there who lived through his era, will never, ever forget how amazing he was.

We start in the traditional way:

‘Somehow in a Liverpool shirt, he looked massive. He seemed to dwarf everybody around him, yet appeared to glide easily around like liquid gold.’

‘I may be too young to remember John Barnes the player, but I remember John Barnes the artist, with his classic rap “You’ve got to hold and give, But do it at the right time, You can be slow or fast, But you must get to the line.”‘

‘Back heeling the banana is still an absolutely iconic moment.’

‘Dreadful Celtic management spell but my wee Aunty positively swooned seeing him in the flesh so least he put a smile on her face.’

‘A maverick who burst onto the international stage young, but whose success, wealth and background was stupidly targeted by those with a racist agenda. Sounds familiar. . .’

‘Apart from the World in Motion rap and introducing me to the word “isotonic”, I remember him almost turning the 1986 quarter-final v Argentina. The next day at school, everyone was running to the byline and crossing.’

‘As well as all the Liverpool memories, I always felt he was the best player on the pitch when England played Argentina in 86′ and the hand of god shenanigans.’

‘What a player. Growing up watching him playing for Liverpool destroying defences. Outstanding. Whenever I see the Candy shirt, I think of John Barnes.’

‘Exemplified Hemingway’s idea of grace under pressure. A wonderful player.’

‘Brilliant player who put up with a lot of shit for being the wrong colour, at the wrong time, in the wrong country and also for playing for the wrong club (everybody hated Liverpool). Some mental strength as well as undoubted ability.’

‘He was some player at his peak. He was never the same after doing his Achilles but I remember seeing a documentary about his career a few years ago and he showed the difference in his calves due to the injury. A shame as he was one of the best.’

‘Arguably the reason I love football. What a player. A delight to interview unless you’re limited for time as the man knows how to talk!’

‘My memories of JB are very bittersweet. The promise of magic with him and Kenny Dalglish at celtic. Larsson, Viduka, Berkovic and Moravcik destroying teams in a lauded 4222 formation. Then defensive disaster, injuries and Inverness. He had no chance after that & never recovered.’

‘Growing up in the 80s and early 90s it would be a thing to say “have you seen Barnes’ goal against Brazil?” Because you just didn’t see football all that often on the TV, and you couldn’t believe an English man doing what he did against them.’

‘John was so technically gifted, had a great understanding of tactics and an excellent dribbler. Add all of these as spice to an all round great guy, with a great sense of humor. Always loved him.’

‘One of the greatest of all #LFC players. Handled the appalling terrace racism he was subjected to with dignity & class. As Dalglish once said “some people might have a problem with the colour of his skin, but they’ll definitely have a problem when he plays football against them.”‘

‘I am from after his time, and from a country far away, but it takes backbone and immense bravery to stand up, and keep standing up and talking, when all around you are telling you to hush, sit down, talk only within the box society has put you in, and polish your medals.’


Three great moments

England free-kick fantasy

Wonderful for Watford

Effortless against Everton


What now?
As I write John is currently appearing on Masterchef dishing up sizeable rustic portions of a tasty-looking curry. So there’s that. He remains one of the media’s first ports of call for discussion about racism in football and more broadly in society. An articulate and thoughtful chap, he’s even been on the shouty anger-fest that is Question Time. In 2016, he had to take one of the government’s most oleaginous lying goblins, Michael Gove, to task for saying he was in favour of Brexit. He wasn’t.

He’s presented football on Five. He’s been on Big Brother and many other shows, which must keep the Barnes current account topped up. And it seems likely he will continue to orbit the football world on a part-time basis.

But when all is said and done, I would not be surprised if his greatest legacy, that which is held in cultural aspic, that which will always warm hearts and cast a positive glow onto the darkest days will be these words:

“You’ve got to hold and give but do it at the right time

You can be slow or fast but you must get to the line

They’ll always hit you and hurt you, defend and attack

There’s only one way to beat them, get round the back

Catch me if you can, cause I’m the England man

And what you’re looking at is the master plan

We ain’t no hooligans, this ain’t a football song

Three lions on my chest, I know we can’t go wrong.”

He’ll even perform it on the Tube

And frankly, we should all wish for such a contribution to the nation’s happiness. Cheers, John. You made football a better place to be.

John Nicholson

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