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 with the man himself. Mike Nevin kicked things off yesterday with an introduction piece, and now Karl Coppack recalls Barnes’ signing – and how, rightly and wrongly, it led to a focus on issues with race.
THE summer of 1987 was a strange one for Liverpool. Ian Rush had left, Everton were champions and our lads had underperformed. We were still second in the league, so things were not that bad, but such were the times and expectancy that even that finish was enough to let chins slump on chests. To finish second to them, too. That didn’t feel good.
Kenny Dalglish made some signings to re-invigorate the team. They were pretty good.
On June 9, John Barnes became Liverpool’s first signing of the new campaign, preceding Peter Beardsley’s arrival by five weeks. It’s easy to view those signings in hindsight, but it was the latter who was deemed to be the marquee signing, costing over double the Barnes fee.
In reality, though, Beardsley’s signing was in the bags months, even years, before. As far back as January 1986 he had made a point of applauding the Kop following a 1-1 draw at Anfield. He might as well have waved at the board and pointed at his chest. He was always going to be a Liverpool player after that.
The Barnes deal was viewed a little differently. Truth is, there were a few frowns at the announcement. There were already rumours that he’d prefer Arsenal or Spurs over us (which he later denied), and that, in any case, he was way past his best. His famous goal for England in the Maracanã was three years before and he hadn’t really moved on from that. A good and honest professional, sure, but we had Ian Rush to replace and needed better.
My own view at the time was that he was far too inconsistent, as many wide men are. He could throw in the odd performance but he had a propensity to knock the ball at the full back’s legs and win throw-in after throw-in. Think Jermaine Pennant. Of course, we were viewing him on his England performances, where he would only shine on rare occasions. Oh, he was quick, certainly, but with not much of a return when it came down to it. As a mate of mine once said of Steve McManaman, “he was a man with a glorious future behind him”.
The fee: £900,000. The same as Mark Lawrenson. That was a lot of money for Watford’s best player.
You know the rest. Barnes became the best player I’d seen in the flesh after Dalglish. The ground would go quiet with expectancy whenever he got the ball. The man could do anything.
The closest comparison I can make to him is to Luis Suarez and his four-goal performance against Norwich in December 2013. Suarez wasn’t just the best player on the pitch then — he was streets ahead of anyone in the division. He took the piss out of the sport, never mind the opposition. Barnes was the same. I can’t recall a poor John Barnes game that season. He lifted the whole club, he lifted the fans. He lifted the game.
At one game — Portsmouth at home, I think — an old man next to me on The Kop looked around at the terrace, which was full an hour before kick-off, and said, “It hasn’t been like this since the 60s.” I pointed out that we won everything in the 70s and 80s so they must have been pretty good then, too, but he just shook his head. “Not like this, son. Not to see one man.”
I knew what he meant. It wasn’t just Liverpool coming out. It was like awaiting the arrival of a championship boxer. You wanted to watch him warm up and get himself ready for what he was about to do to the poor sods on the other half of the pitch.
One thing that came up — and it surprised me at the time — was the colour of his skin. When it became clear that he was something special in this side, the press made a big thing about him being the first black player to wear the Liverpool shirt. Of course, this wasn’t true, as Howard Gayle would testify. The narrative then changed to the first “high profile” black player, but even that was unfair on Howie. I’d say that tearing Bayern Munich apart in the second leg of a European Cup semi-final was pretty “high profile” but that’s just me. It didn’t matter anyway. How the hell was John Barnes’ skin colour a story?
But, in some quarters, it was.
I suppose context is key. Barnes was only the second black player at the club. There were no black players at Everton, and wouldn’t be until 1994 when Daniel Amokachi signed. They at least had Cliff Marshall who played a handful of games in the early 70s and a mixed race FA Cup winner in Mike Trebilcock, but these were exceptions. Arsenal and Tottenham had black players but we were somehow behind, despite a large black community in the city.
This had nothing to do with a policy as we seemed to be doing well enough and Gayle’s inclusion was solely because he was quick and good enough to warrant a place.
The media made Digger’s signing a story because of what had gone on before. The dinosaur culture of the 1970s remained fresh in the memory, a fact demonstrated on the 1970 World Cup panel when Brian Clough described an African team as “a load of spear-chuckers who still eat each other”. As shocking as that comment was, what’s arguably more offensive was that it was laughed off as some sort of witticism. The game was slow to address the lack of opportunity for black players in the league. It took until 1978 for a black player to be selected for England when Viv Anderson made his debut. Less than 40 years ago, England were a whites-only team.
As to the signing of John Barnes, other myths came into play such as Liverpool fans changing their outlook on racism when he signed. Well, it didn’t.
I don’t want to be guilty of painting our fans as global everymen — there were incidents of monkey noises and the Banana Boat song had an occasional airing — but we were never really into that, or the whole National Front thing. Of course, there was the odd prick — but that was already being frowned at way before Barnes arrived.
There’s a story of an NF stand being destroyed before an away game at Notts County. That sort of thing wasn’t for us.
Much of this had to do with Liverpool’s need to be a different than the rest of the country. For us, outright racism (there being a difference from the institutionalised kind) was more of a London thing. All a bit Millwall. We prided ourselves on being more politically savvy. Left wing by nature, we were wearing “Coal Not Dole” stickers in 1984 in support of the striking miners and decrying Thatcher from the terraces so to indulge in racist chants, at least collectively, was — not to put too fine a point on it — a bit wool.
Sadly, although racism in the 1980s at Anfield was rare, there was still some aversion to addressing the issue within the club. In 1992, The Farm released the Love See No Colour album and approached John Barnes with a view to visiting schools and youth groups to talk about integration and tolerance. Understandably, Barnes was all for it, but had to seek permission from the club. This was refused and the band were told that “racialism is a hot potato”.
Given that John Barnes was a hero to absolutely everyone in Liverpool (and still is), and was the perfect ambassador for both the club and the fight, this made absolutely no sense at all. The chance to address a serious topic turned down out of hand.
Barnes was regularly abused at away games during his Watford days, but the first time I really noticed it when he was a Liverpool player was during the League Cup game against Everton in October 1987. Back then Everton fans would happily congregate on the standing Kop towards the Main Stand side and sing at us from our own area. Those derbies were great, as it’s not often you have the chance to shout at people in the very stand you’re in.
They were also the main games of the season as we had been the top two teams in the league for a few years. Victories against them were always the sweeter as they were, in many ways, a better side than us but Rush would remorselessly break their hearts time and again.
But now there was no Rush to help us out and Everton were strong and worthy champions. We may have been hammering everyone in sight with a record that read P10 W9 D1 L0 in the league, but they were a different prospect. This was the first derby of the season. The first showdown. The champions against this Barnes led new side Dalglish had created. What’s more we had them in the League at the weekend too so this could be the defining week in the season even though it was only a couple of months old.
It wasn’t to be our night. We lost that League Cup game to a deflected Gary Stevens goal. Everton deserved the spoils and it should have been a bigger margin had Graham Sharp rolled the ball into an empty net in the second half but, uncomfortable as that was, it wasn’t that which stunned me at the time. It was hearing the Kop singing “Everton are white” when John Barnes took a corner. You can hear it at three minutes 50 seconds here:
My reaction was one of sheer disbelief. I knew we didn’t do that sort of thing and couldn’t make out why they did. Same city and all. After a while you go back to the game and concentrate on that, but that song really shocked me. I don’t remember hearing it when we beat them in the league game a few days later. The following January we played them in the FA Cup at Goodison, and won 1-0 thanks to a sumptuous John Barnes cross to Ray Houghton. During the game a photographer took a picture of Barnes back-heeling a banana off the pitch.
A lot of racist shouts are defended as “generational”– a term that was used to defend Ron Atkinson’s abuse of Marcel Desailly — along with the ludicrous notion of “You can’t say that any more.” Anyone who has read Dave Hill’s excellent Out of his Skin would be appalled by Tommy Smith’s views on what he would do if his daughter brought home a black man. George Best reputedly described Pele as “not bad for a n*****’”– a word he would later use to describe Andy Cole. Neither was condemned. It’s that world that was shook up by John Barnes’ signing. Not ours.
I’d like to think that these dinosaurs have been replaced in boardrooms all over the world and that it would be laughable to have whole stands proclaiming that they are a “white” club or that racism is too difficult a subject to address. Though I didn’t feel it at the time, I’m more disgusted at Liverpool FC’s attitude in 1992 than Everton fans at that game. One advocates the other.
It should be noted that Everton have done a great deal to counter their reputation and operate a zero tolerance policy on racist abuse. It will always be impossible to stop the odd moron but they feel they’re winning the war.
Barnes, an outspoken and eloquent speaker on the subject, sees the problem as a wider issue.
“From bananas being thrown on the pitch to overt racist chanting – just because we’re not hearing it any more, the nature of racism hasn’t changed,” he said. “For 90 minutes people aren’t allowed to say or do certain things, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. And the more we believe that it has, then the bigger the danger is.”
Barnes also questions fines and banning orders, which only temporarily punish the offenders. He’s right, too. In 2012, UEFA fined Nicklas Bendtner £80,000 for wearing underwear that bore the name of a gambling site, stating that they were “keen to protect the interests of our sponsors”. In the same year they fined Porto £16,700 for the fans’ racist abuse towards Mario Balotelli. Priorities, lads. Once again, it’s that world which is the main problem.
So, John Barnes didn’t deliberately set about addressing the issue of racism in the game and it didn’t alter the views of Liverpool’s support. We’ve never really been about that — a fact that made the Suarez and ‘Klanfield’ stuff the more laughable.
Barnes was simply an intelligent man who could express himself well, and with dignity. He elevated the debate through his natural charisma and affability and that was to be welcomed by all. I’d like to think that there will be a role for him at the club at some stage. We could do no better.