THIS week marks 29 years since Liverpool paid Watford £900,000 for the services of John Charles Bryan Barnes, a player who proved to be one of the finest ever to pull on the red of our club. The Jamaican-born winger clocked up 407 appearances for Liverpool in 10 years at Anfield, scoring 108 goals — many of them special — and winning the League in 1987-88 and 1989-90, the FA Cup in 1989 and the League Cup in 1995. With so many tales to tell, so many aspects to his 10 years with the club, we thought it only fitting to dedicate a week to Digger. We’ve got shows, opinion piece and interviews. Mike Nevin, Karl Coppack and Gareth Roberts have had their say already, now Simon Hughes speaks to the man himself for The Anfield Wrap.
Before you joined Liverpool, what was your impression of the club from afar?
There was a mystique and aura surrounding Liverpool. In the 12 years before, after arriving in England from Jamaica, Liverpool had won the league title seven times. Nobody could figure Liverpool out.
I’d train with England and you’d be surrounded by players from Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. Those players would be bigger names than the ones included from Liverpool. Whereas Bryan Robson was a superstar, Alan Kennedy, Phil Neal and Sammy Lee were not considered in that bracket. I would think to myself, why are Liverpool so special? I wasn’t alone.
I signed for Liverpool in the same summer as Peter Beardsley. I remember talking to him and both of us were wondering whether we’d receive some sort of indoctrination and find out what The Liverpool Way really is. There was so much talk about The Liverpool Way and what it meant yet nobody knew what it was, unless you represented Liverpool. I was very keen to try to find out what it was that made Liverpool a special club.
How would you define The Liverpool Way? Most players seem to have a different impression of what it is…
The Liverpool Way to me is subservience to the team. The team is the most important thing. There can be no superstars and certainly nobody who thinks of themselves as particularly better than anyone else. There are superstars in the team, of course, but nobody sees it that way.
The Liverpool Way is serving the team with the same ethic and humility whether you are Sammy Lee or Kenny Dalglish and understanding what it takes to make the team special. At Liverpool you also have to appreciate the club’s relationship with the city and its people: the community. This stems from Bill Shankly and how he lives on.
I began to realise this after a few months. Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans would talk a lot about Shanks and the standards he expected. It was almost like he was sitting there next to us in the dressing room. It felt as though I was playing for Bill Shankly. Maybe this part of The Liverpool Way has been lost because there are few people left at the club who connect the dots to the past, reminding everyone of what it takes to be successful in true Liverpool style.
What did you know about Bill Shankly growing up in Jamaica?
I’d never heard of him. Chelsea and Arsenal were the only two clubs I knew about and that’s because they’d visited Jamaica on tour.
My idols as a child were the West Germany national team, you know? They won the World Cup in 1974. I loved Franz Beckenbauer. A lot of my friends at school in London supported Queens Park Rangers, so I used to go to Loftus Road a lot in the early days after moving to England. I can remember Liverpool needing to win at Wolves in 1976 to win the First Division. Any other result and QPR would have won the title.
My best friend, Anthony, was the only Liverpool supporter in the school. He was Liverpool crazy. The result gave him a lot of satisfaction. Me? I was quite disappointed. I’d developed a soft spot for QPR. Earlier on in the season I’d celebrated at Loftus Road when Gerry Francis scored to help QPR to a 2-0 victory over Liverpool.
A year later Liverpool won the European Cup for the first time. The success helped me understand more about the culture of the club.
And what was your impression of the culture of Liverpool as a city?
I loved it. I realise Watford is a very different place to Liverpool, but the football club’s relationship to the environment it existed in was similar to Liverpool’s. Watford needed the support of the supporters to achieve results.
At Watford we used to do a lot of work inside the community. It was written into our contracts that we had to do 14 hours a week community service, although in reality it was probably less than that — maybe five hours a week, involving charity events. At Liverpool I didn’t expect the club and the team to have the close relationship with community that existed at Watford. But it did.
There was a feeling amongst Liverpool supporters at time that you would have preferred to stay in London when leaving Watford. Is that fair?
Not at all, no other club made Watford an offer. Liverpool’s approach to sign me came in the January (1987). Graham Taylor was the manager and a person I respected. He told me that I was going to move to Liverpool but it wasn’t going to happen until the end of the season. That message was relayed to Liverpool. Everybody knew where they stood.
But, of course, in the 1980s every transfer story wasn’t played out in the press. It certainly wouldn’t have benefited either club to release the details of the transfer. The space of time was filled by gossip in the papers because I was doing OK for Watford and it seemed a natural step for me to move elsewhere. It was to Liverpool’s credit that the agreement was kept under wraps. They did their business quietly back then.
A perception exists now that Liverpool is a city of the liberal left but that hasn’t always been the case. Racist graffiti was daubed on the walls of Anfield after you joined…
My only concern was football. I was arriving at a huge club. Was I good enough to meet the standard? I realised that whether I was black or white, if I didn’t play well I was going to get it from the fans. However, I also realised that if I was a black player and I didn’t do well I was probably going to get it more. But I must emphasise after one week — after one week — I realised it wouldn’t be a problem. Training had gone so well. Everything gelled so quickly. I knew that I was going to play well at Liverpool and in a professional sense I’d never been more excited in my life.
Preview: A free clip from our TAW Player And Could He Play Special on John Barnes
Were you aware that only one black player before had represented Liverpool’s first team?
Yeah, of course I knew about Howard Gayle. In the back of my mind I always knew one indisputable fact, though — if you play well and contribute towards success fans aren’t bothered where you come from, are they? Yes, if you don’t play well — whatever the colour of your skin — they would (at that time) abuse you. But I also knew that if you did well it would never be an issue at all.
Initially the question marks in the press were about my ability: was I up to the level? Could I make the transition moving up north where there aren’t many black players? As soon as I took to the training field at Melwood I knew I was playing with a group that suited my game and would bring the best out of me. That gave me the confidence to express myself.
You walk into the Liverpool dressing room – what are the character traits of the people inside?
You have your jokers, the ones you take the mickey out of and the serious ones. There is a pecking order — a hierarchy — and you soon find your own place relating on the kind of character you associate with.
It depended a lot on where you decided to live. Do you move across to the Wirral and live near people like Ian Rush, Jan Molby and Steve Nicol? Whereas in Southport you had Kenny [Dalglish], Ronnie Whelan, Steve McMahon and Alan Hansen.
You have to settle down quickly because a Liverpool dressing room is very unforgiving. There was a lot of banter and a huge amount of mickey taking. You needed to be able to get your head around it. But ultimately your success depended on your football ability. That’s where the final decisions were made. That’s where you found your place.
If you arrive as a superstar footballer but you are quiet, or even if you were not too intelligent but you were a great player, you’d be fine no matter what.
You were 23 when you joined Liverpool…
That was key. I went to Liverpool as an international player with four years’ experience in the First Division behind me. I had 20 or 30-odd England caps. I was ready for the next step.
Now, if you do well as an 18-year-old boy you move on after six months to a big club. I was grateful that I stayed at Watford for longer because I was ready for the move by the time I got to Liverpool. I was mature enough to deal with the environment and the demands of the club.
I remember Wayne Harrison (below), who came from Oldham and had a big reputation as a teenager. He was very talented. But he found it a bit difficult because he didn’t possess the experience.
I felt very fortunate the way things worked out for me. If a very young player like Wayne came to me now and asked whether I thought it was a good idea to move from a smaller club to a bigger club early, I would say don’t do it. Instead, back yourself by staying somewhere instead and proving yourself at a bigger club when the time is right.
You played against Liverpool 12 times at Watford, winning twice and losing eight: what was it about Liverpool that made them so difficult to beat?
They were the best team! In the same way Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two most dominant European clubs now, very few opposing clubs found a way to consistently get the better of them.
If Celta Vigo have played Barcelona 12 times over the last few years, I don’t think you’ll find they’ve won more than twice. Liverpool had the best team with the best players and that fostered a winning mentality.
Liverpool did what Manchester United did under Alex Ferguson — finding a way to win without playing well. Perhaps this is why Arsenal find themselves in the position they are in now. Arsene Wenger’s teams have usually had to play well — to play good football — to win games. At Liverpool, and later at United, that wasn’t the case. The winning mentality carried them over the line.
At Watford after some games we’d come off the pitch — even at Anfield — and think, how the hell did we lose that game? It was because Liverpool could win without playing well and by any means necessary. That was the sign of greatness and the sign of a true champion.
Did it make sense to you that Liverpool should recruit yourself, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge?
You know, I’d only started playing as a winger in men’s football at 17 years old. I’d been a centre back before. I’d dribble the ball out into midfield. Naturally, you can’t put a skinny kid at centre back in men’s football. So Watford turned me into a winger.
There was a desire inside me to get involved more because, especially in a long ball team, you can get isolated as a winger. As soon as I started training with Peter Beardsley, though, I knew I had to get close to him on the pitch because he improved my performances.
That’s why I started coming inside for the ball rather than just hugging the touchline. I remember in one training session, Aldo scoring a goal after Peter and I had been involved in the build up. Someone on the staff shouted over, “Keep coming inside!” So that’s what I did. My game evolved from there.
Why do you think so many players from the 1980s have remained living in Liverpool after retirement?
What Liverpool always did well was analysing the character of the player. They looked for players who were humble: players who could buy into the idea of living and mixing with the community.
Liverpool didn’t want to sign players who would move on after a couple of years because they believed consistency in selection nurtured the success. You needed to engage with the people of Liverpool, and I did. I love Scousers because they’re humble; they’re down to earth. You can’t walk around with airs and graces. A lot of the players shared that personality trait. On a personal level, staying wasn’t even a decision. I felt a sense of place in Liverpool.
You have always fought Liverpool’s corner when it is criticised as a city…
I try to defend everything I care about. Particularly when it involves critics who hold misconceptions based on what they’ve heard rather than what they’ve experienced.
When you talk about race and discrimination, Liverpool people are discriminated against. You know what they say about Liverpool — what rival supporters sing on the terraces — about there being no jobs, everyone being on the dole and everyone living in the city being thieves. This is a stereotype that is wrong and has been completely made up in the same way racial stereotypes about a black man’s intellectual and moral capacity are completely wrong.
You have to fight stereotypes.