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. Kicking it all off is Barnes’ No.1 fan on The Anfield Wrap, Mike Nevin.
JOHN Barnes is, without doubt, the greatest Liverpool player I’ve ever seen. We will all be lucky if we see his like in a red shirt again.
Our sense of reminiscence, and wistfulness for years gone by is sharpened by a yearning for our own halcyon days. My love of a Liverpool FC synonymous with John Barnes will have something to do with his debut and first Reds’ goal — in a friendly against Bayern Munich — coinciding with my 20th birthday in July 1987.
However, even allowing for nostalgia, the evidence of my own eyes still crowns John Barnes as King among Anfield men.
Others will claim with certainty that the majesty of Kenny Dalglish; the prodigious, enduring talent and drive of Steven Gerrard, the wiles of arch-conjurer Luis Suarez, the leader supreme Graeme Souness or assassin-in-chief Ian Rush deserve the accolade of Anfield’s finest.
But for me, despite the obvious, unquestioned lustre of those heralded names, Barnes wins out for the sustained, consistent brilliance of his Liverpool exhibitions between 1987 and 1991.
Others will write elsewhere about a reincarnation of Barnes, post-Achilles tendon surgery, which gives his Liverpool career a longevity extending to 10 years, but this piece is concerned with saluting the explosive footballer who rampaged, albeit with the palpable grace and flair, through English football after signing for Liverpool in June 1987.
The respective greatness of the Liverpool teams who won league titles in 1978-79 and 1987-88 is debated long and hard. There is a strong case for both, but few would argue with the “Entertainers” tag that attached itself to Kenny Dalglish’s second great Liverpool side, which romped to the 1988 title amid a flurry of goals with four games to spare.
For years, I’ve referred to 87-88 as the “Barnes and Beardsley” season. However, although they signed during the same summer — Beardsley for the record fee of £1.9million — it was Barnes, acquired for the relatively modest sum of £900,000 who was the true catalyst to Liverpool playing football that won the hearts of the nation. The sheer splendour of the Reds’ displays nationwide that year earned them new support from all over the country.
It seems crazy to reflect that not everyone was happy when Dalglish secured Barnes signature. A Watford debutant at 17 in 1981, the Jamaican-born winger came to prominence during the 1982-83 season when the Hornets were runners-up to Liverpool in Division One.
A run to the FA Cup final in 1984, featuring a signature winning goal at Birmingham in the fifth round, further advertised Barnes’ emergence. Then came his solo summer dribble for England, cutting a swathe through the Brazilian midfield and defence at the iconic Maracana; announcing him to a wider audience.
Perhaps the form of a young Barnes then reached a plateau, for while he performed consistently well for Watford, his England career never really accelerated.
At Mexico in 1986 he started on the bench, and only a brief — albeit stunning — wing cameo in a losing cause against Argentina reminded the country of his latent talents. An unfair narrative surrounded Barnes, that predominantly a winger; he was a luxury player, with inconsistency at his core.
When manager Dalglish declared his interest, the press reported that Barnes was holding out for a move abroad, or to Arsenal. Something of a saga ensued, and many Kopites mindful of the advertised, brittle Barnes were not amused (Barnes, interestingly, says that there was in fact no saga, and that he, Watford and Liverpool all knew in the January that he would become a player at Anfield in the summer – the Press, however, did not know).
Barnes was deemed a flair player and doubts emanated as to whether a mercurial winger could harness with the Red Machine; a term sometimes used for the communist football ethics of the relentless, pass and move pattern established over more than two decades of Anfield supremacy.
It was also quietly noted that John Barnes was black. If Anfield wasn’t exactly famed for its racism during a shameful period in English football, when the attitudes of the National Front held sway on terraces, Liverpool bigotry did exist in pockets. Viv Anderson of Nottingham Forest and Spurs’ Garth Crooks were singled out for mocking abuse; and racist chants, a tragic feature of the times, occasionally rained down from The Kop.
John Barnes, when his arrival was publicly confirmed in June 1987, would have to win over some mordant minds as well as vacant hearts; not to mention ubiquitous football sceptics.
We needn’t have worried.
Remarkably, the beginnings of the Barnes Liverpool FC legend were written before he had even kicked a ball at Anfield. A collapsed sewer on The Kop meant Liverpool would play their first three matches of 1987-88 away from home. At Highbury, on his official Reds’ debut, a whipped cross on to the head of John Aldridge for the season’s opening goal; and a virtuoso display at Coventry’s Highfield Road in a 4-1 win were the talk of the town. Thousands travelled away from home and word spread like wildfire back in Liverpool.
After a draw at West Ham, Oxford United were the first Anfield visitors of the season and, hours before kick-off, queues for the Kop snaked down Rockfield and Breck roads to get a glimpse of Barnes and this expansive new Liverpool.
With an acute sense of occasion, within three minutes “Digger” set up Aldridge with some trademark left-wing wizardry at the home end.
Just before half-time, from a free-kick worked by Beardsley and Ronnie Whelan, a curling Barnes left-footer into the Kop net cemented the beginnings of a love affair with Liverpool supporters.
Racist chanting died its last Anfield death that afternoon. For a small minority, there couldn’t be an abrupt end to an ingrained lazy prejudice acquired during a different era, but there was budding respect for the beauty of Barnes’ football — in a Liverpool shirt.
Football has the ability to instantly transcend attitudes — not always for the best — but in this case watching John Barnes was certainly a positive education for some. Liverpool’s crowd changed culturally from that moment, especially at away games in the south of England, with more black and Asian faces welcomed without sneer or question.
Barnes, too, never really looked back from that September afternoon. From the word go, the definition most often used by opponents to describe him was “unplayable”. That 1987-88 season was a riot. Whether you were there, watched on telly or accessed the old clips on YouTube, you’ve already seen the goals, the crosses; the defence-splitting passes.
There are too many to mention, but to crystallise the memories of a great, great season; picture the blaze of individuality that was Barnes’ slalom from half-way — in the watery autumn sunshine — to score (with his right foot past David Seaman) versus QPR.
Drool over the pass with the outside of his left-foot that split the Everton rearguard for Steve McMahon to slot a derby opener.
Marvel at the control and strength that precedes a one-two (with Peter Beardsley) and the stunning arc of the cross for Ray Houghton to head home against the same opponents in the FA Cup.
Barnes scored 15 league goals from the left wing in 38 games; not to mention offering God-knows-how-many assists. I’ve picked out three examples of his brilliance, but I was spoiled for choice. Every game saw myriad mazy runs, incisive passes; unerring shots with both feet, and inviting crosses. He was pretty good in the air as well, summed up by his “jack-knife” header at Aston Villa in the cup.
We were set to enjoy another great campaign from him in 1988-89, crowned by Ian Rush’s winning goal in the FA Cup final from Barnes’ typical teasing centre. That of course, was in the wake of Hillsborough when football, in the same breath, meant everything and nothing. It doesn’t need expanding upon but all Liverpool’s players, Barnes included, can be excused missing out on the double after losing to Arsenal in the final league game.
As a wide-player with an eye for the back of the net — as testified to by 108 goals in 407 Liverpool appearances — Barnes’ first positional transformation (prior to the necessity of an anchored holding midfield role in the 1990s) went almost unnoticed. After the departure of John Aldridge in September 1989, Dalglish deployed his erstwhile winger in a more central striking role to devastating effect; to the tune of 28 goals in 45 games as Liverpool reclaimed the title from Arsenal.
John Barnes scored in both matches against the reigning champions; at Anfield with an outrageous bending free-kick; and at Highbury with a cool low finish that effectively sealed the Reds’ eighteenth league title. It seems incredible to think, 26 years on, that was the last of that particular little lark!
An ailing Kenny Dalglish departed during the following February and, despite another 16 league goals from a still rampant Barnes, Liverpool again ceded the title to Arsenal in 1991.
In his first four seasons at Anfield, John Barnes had scored 77 goals in 182 games. He had two league championship medals, an FA Cup winners’ medal, two Footballer of the Year awards (1988 and 1990) and one PFA Player award (1988) to his name. However, it won’t be the stats, the gongs, or even the goals I’ll remember him for.
So, what was it that made him so great?
The immovable bastard was never on the floor. No bugger could ever get the ball off him. Opponents literally bounced off his solid frame. When running at pace, the ball at his feet was, it seemed, on a piece of string.
I can still see him now, tanking down that left flank about 10 yards from the touchline on the Kemlyn Road side at the Kop End. I can picture him riding yet another tackle, propelling himself past the next defender with the outstretched tip of the left boot.
I can recall the sense of sheer expectancy when he received possession and how you never tired of seeing the ball killed stone dead at his feet.
That was just the start, as you leaned forward in your seat. Would he go on the outside and skin the full-back; or would he cut inside, abruptly shifting from left to right foot; putting another defender on his backside?
When he did cut in from the left, he was as strong on his right foot as he was on his favoured left. There are players in the Premier League today who would amputate their left leg for John Barnes’ right.
Again, there are so many examples (of goals scored with his “wrong” foot) but to name but two, how about these? Firstly, another rainbow-shaped classic against Everton in the infamous 4-4 draw at Goodison in Kenny’s last match before resignation.
And (first up in the clip below) a last minute blast against Aston Villa in front of the Kop; memorable for Martin Tyler’s commentary. “Barnes, with as much strength as he can muster. Oh my word. What can you do about that? Absolutely nothing.”
Barnes had outrageous gifts but there was nothing indulgent about him. Despite those initial misgivings about his individual brilliance being at odds with a team pattern, he was the perfect cog in a well-oiled Liverpool machine. And yet, he used the magical flicks and mystical feints liberally with players who were soon on his wavelength.
The memories are forged on the left-wing surges, the runs through defences, the spectacular strikes but just as numerous were the intelligent lay-offs; the simple five-yard squares passes to team-mates; buying time for him to forage elsewhere. His supreme football intelligence and unselfishness were hugely underrated qualities.
In some ways, he was the last of the old-style footballers. In a Liverpool context Barnes had much of Ray Kennedy’s leaden beauty, but with an added athleticism that also made him a prototype of the modern player. He belongs as much to the eras of Dixie Dean, Tom Finney and Ferenc Puskas as he does those of Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Thighs like tree-trunks, accentuated by the shortest of eighties shorts, were the pistons that propelled him forward at warp speed. His barrel chest was always a willing cushion for long balls hammered towards him. Prior to injury, his muscular frame was remarkable. A contemporary of Maradona, albeit taller, he had the same low centre of gravity that made knocking him off the ball an impossibility.
Preparing notes to write this piece, I thought of the attributes that are required of great footballers. I concluded that John Barnes had them all. Then I thought of words to describe John Barnes’ mastery of each of these elements.
This is what I came up with: violent shooting, powerful heading, sublime control, flawless passing, vicious crossing, mesmeric dribbling, perfect balance, robust tackling, lightning pace, brute strength, peripheral vision, unflappable temperament. I didn’t really have a word that could accurately sum up his free-kicks; except to say that they normally went in.
Honestly, Barnes had everything.
Suffice to say, he never shirked his responsibilities to the team, but in remembering him there is real pleasure to state the redundant need for analysis of work-rate or mundane appreciation of his closing down. When it comes to John Barnes, the only pressing he was concerned with was the need for another Liverpool goal.