HAVE you ever been in the presence of greatness? Everything looks different, everything seems different, everything feels different. You cannot escape or ignore the enormity of a person whose aura taps you on the shoulder and follows you around.
Have you ever been in the presence of your childhood hero? Everything looks different, everything seems different, everything feels different. Regardless of your age, you’re transported back to the very memories and moments that made you happy, which widened your eyes and dropped your jaw.
Have you ever been in the presence of John Barnes? Everything looks different, everything seems different, everything feels different. It is all of the above plus so much more.
There is John Barnes the player, who was a completed checklist of football brilliance: intelligence, speed, strength, skill, vision and composure. Name it, he had it. He did the simple things superbly, and matched it with the things others simply couldn’t do.
He is unquestionably one of the absolute best to represent Liverpool, and given the club’s trophy-filled past, that is not an easy label to accrue.
A sizeable number of Reds legends cite him as the player to have shaken the Kop. Countless supporters who were lucky enough to witness how he could manipulate the ball and maul opponents with unbelievable grace, echo that sentiment.
But the most glorious aspect of John Barnes the player, is that John Barnes the man is as wondrous.
He takes the “never meet your idols” advice, doodles a moustache on it and renders it a complete mockery.
You want to meet John Barnes, you have to meet John Barnes, you need to meet John Barnes.
And you know what? You’ve got a great chance of that because he is incredibly accessible. He walks around Liverpool city centre as any other resident does, casually hopping into a taxi when he needs to head to the outskirts.
There are no tinted windows and entourages where the two-time Footballer of the Year is concerned. No VIP tape or hidden rooms. No ‘there’s me here, and then there’s you over there’ undertone.
Barnes gets stopped every few steps he tackles around town and while he simply can’t understand the fuss, he is ridiculously generous with his time.
Want an autograph? He’ll sort it. Want a picture? He’ll smile. Want to ask him something? He’ll answer honestly.
My first interaction with the gliding genius was as a 23-year-old. I had arranged to interview him over the phone while he was in the UK and I was in South Africa. I called, and the phone rang unanswered.
Numb. I was numb.
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Next year marks my 10th in football media, and when you hear those endless rings, you know the shoulder is being dropped. It is a guarantee of the job.
John Barnes had brushed me off with ease like the numerous markers he left lunging after his shadow.
Two minutes later, I received a text apologising for him missing the call. He was still busy and he said he’d call me back. I insisted that since I was doing the interview, it was my job to ring him. He countered saying it had become his responsibility as he couldn’t stick to the original time.
He won that little battle, calling me back and sharing an hour of his time, despite it only being pencilled in for 15 minutes.
It was the first time a player had not picked up on time, apologised and then called me back. I was flabbergasted. It was new to me.
There are footballers who could only dream of possessing five per cent of the talent Barnes had, who never bothered with such a courtesy.
He was the first footballer I ever idolised, and the first Liverpool player I ever interviewed. An experience I will never forget, and one that I will never stop being thankful for.
In the years since, I’ve encountered Barnes on many occasions. We both did analyst work for SuperSport in South Africa, and also chatted in the halls of Chapel Street, where LFCtv is hosted.
Last year, a fan won a competition to fly over from Johannesburg, watch a Liverpool game and have lunch with the Jamaica-born icon. I was invited to that meal at San Carlo on Castle Street, and watched as the supporter hung on Barnes’ every word. Afterwards he said to me, “I can’t believe this just happened. It feels like I’ve imagined it.”
Yes, yes. I know that feeling.
In February, I interviewed Barnes for Goal’s ‘Greatest Ever’ series that detailed Liverpool’s premier players. Again, he shared an hour of his time. Again, we had another mini battle.
I argued it was my duty, as the interviewer, to pay for the coffee and juices we’d ordered. My organisation would cover it anyway. He was having none of it, paid the bill and by the look of the waiter’s face, left a more than generous tip.
Every time I’ve had the pleasure of his company, I’ve always left wondering if John Barnes the man knows just how fucking unreal John Barnes the player was.
There is never a sign of any ego, there is no reference to his achievements, there is no desire to hang onto the days when he dazzled and dominated.
“Football players can’t help the way the fans see them, but they can always control how they see themselves,” Barnes told me four months ago.
It is evident that he thinks of himself not as one of the greatest to pull on the Liverpool shirt, but just one who was lucky enough to have such an honour.
The honour has always been all ours, John.
My mum bought me one of those red letter day things for my birthday when I was 14 or 15, it involved a tour of anfield, a meal with a talk and a trip to Melwood as the players were leaving. Paddy Berger ran past us and jumped in his car, David James almost ran over my foot, Mcmanaman and Fowler drove past, for a while my only signature was Phil Babb and I was getting a bit deflated. Then John Barnes came out – not walking to his car, but to see us. He spoke to all of us, took photos, signed everything, it made my day. It only struck me recently that he must have been doing this every day – spending an hour or so talking to the people waiting at the gates as often as he could. Absolute legend.