THIS is what I remember.
A free-kick just outside the Oxford penalty area, no more than five yards from the angle of the box. John Barnes and Peter Beardsley standing over the ball, weighing up options, full of confidence, full of intent. The yellow-shirted wall, its fears betrayed by exchanged glances and urgent pointing, traces of panic undisguised. The expectation on the Kop, even now, so early in his career, a tangible thing.
And then. A slight touch from Beardsley. An invitation for Barnes. Never refused. The left foot wrapped round the ball, a celebration of grace and elegance, more than you’ve ever seen on a football pitch, more than is fair. The ball curls round the outside of the wall, dips, quickens, and, inevitably, finds the top corner. A goalkeeper left grasping at air like a child chasing butterflies. We are witnesses to an explosion of controlled power, matchless technique, and clinical accuracy. We are witnesses to John Barnes’ first home game in a Liverpool shirt. But there’s something else, something bigger. We are witnessing the birth of a legend.
Despite the romanticised image Liverpool liked to cultivate, the one where players signed from lesser teams and learned their trade in the reserves, they never shied away from headline-making deals.
For every Kevin Keegan, stolen from Scunthorpe, there was a Kenny Dalglish, a British transfer record. For every Emlyn Hughes there was a Mark Lawrenson. In the summer of 1987, Liverpool set the back pages ablaze. John Aldridge had arrived early, a nominal replacement for the departing Rush. But more was needed. A team that had squandered a nine-point lead the previous season, and had lost its arrow-head, was clearly in need of reconstruction.
The rumour-mill was in full flight.
The prospect of Peter Beardsley, England’s selfless, swivel-hipped, wizard of the jink was universally welcomed. The links to Barnes were greeted with, if not hostility, then unquestionably a degree of uncertainty.
A number of issues converged. There were concerns over his playing style, and its suitability to a Liverpool team grounded in Bill Shankly’s ‘pass and move’ ethos. It was difficult to see how someone widely perceived as a languid, inconsistent winger could fit into the established Anfield set-up.
There was discontent over his reluctance to commit himself to Liverpool. Word went round that he was waiting for Arsenal to come in, that he wanted a move abroad, that he didn’t fancy a switch to the north. True or not (he says not), it didn’t help endear him to the locals — particularly when those locals had a uniquely well-developed sense of self-pride and a refusal to put up with people from outside messing them around.
And there was another thing. John Barnes was black. Time and distance do a good job of holding the absurdity up to the light but this was, unmistakably, a big deal. Only one black player, Howard Gayle, had ever represented Liverpool and his Anfield career was dogged by tales of casual racism, from supporters and teammates alike, and restricted opportunities. Barnes was high profile. He had a reputation. He cost close to a million pounds, a figure Liverpool had, at least until Beardsley’s acquisition, still to exceed.
It serves no good purpose to ignore the reality that, prior to Barnes joining, there was a significant racist element in Liverpool’s support. In common with most other grounds, black players visiting Anfield were met with the most repulsive sustained abuse. Venomous chants, monkey noises, stomach-churning insults, I heard them all and often. For three years in the early 80s, I had a season ticket in the Main Stand next to a craggy, misanthropic dullard whose only contribution to the atmosphere was to spit poison at any opposition player that didn’t fit in with his own twisted notions of racial identity. It is my lasting regret that it took until the third season for my disapproving tuts and icy teenage glares to progress into full, open condemnation.
And Barnes himself had experienced it first-hand. Just a few weeks earlier, when Watford were the opponents for Anfield’s final game of the 1986-87 season, he had suffered the familiar cat-calls and boos that were, by now, standard practice. When the transfer speculation led to racist graffiti appearing on walls outside the ground and letters of complaint being sent to the club, it was perhaps no surprise that he harboured doubts as to whether he saw his future at Liverpool.
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The need to make a favourable early impression had rarely been more important. But John Barnes was never one to disappoint. His quality was evident from the start. His first appearance in a Liverpool shirt, a friendly against Bayern Munich, gave a glimpse of what was to come, with a clinical left foot volley from the edge of the area capping an assured, astute performance. By the time the season opened, in August 1987, word had got round: Barnes was alright.
With Anfield undergoing emergency repair work following the discovery of a collapsed sewer under the Kop, Liverpool’s first three games of the new campaign were away from home. In hindsight, it couldn’t have worked out better.
It was soon apparent that this was a different Liverpool. Whereas the emphasis had previously been on supplying Ian Rush with the kind of defence-splitting, slide-rule passes his movement demanded, the presence of Barnes heralded a shift to a more fluid, explosive style. He immediately provided the revamped team with width, power, balance and delivery. He linked with Beardsley, with Aldridge, with Steve Nicol, with Steve McMahon. He didn’t just change the dynamic; he moulded it to his will, re-invented it, placed himself at its core and challenged others to come with him.
The buzz grew. First Arsenal, then Coventry, swatted effortlessly aside in a flurry of angles and invention. Barnes the catalyst. West Ham, somehow, escaped with a point despite being ruthlessly dissected time and again.
Everyone was talking about Liverpool. About Barnes. From a whisper to a scream.
There was one more hurdle to face. Anfield had yet to give its verdict. Would the home crowd withhold its appreciation, its love? Would it allow itself to be held back by the small-minded and the prejudiced? Would John Barnes be accepted as a Red?
By 3.45pm on Saturday 12th September 1987, we had our answer. As Liverpool and Oxford left the pitch at half time, the home team two goals in the ascendant, the standing ovation and the ‘Johnny Barnes’ chants said it all.
We were dazzled.
From the first whistle, Barnes was sensational. Carrying the ball, running at defenders, twisting and swerving, working the flank, coming inside. Strength, poise, control, authority. And end product. Just 13 minutes in, he collected in his own half, shrugging off challenges as he advanced deep inside Oxford territory, before delivering irresistibly, hard and low, for Aldridge to slide home.
By the time that free-kick arced its way into the Kop net 25 minutes later, a masterpiece of ambition and execution, all doubts had long been banished. We watched, transfixed, as this unstoppable force tore up all our notions of what to expect from a Liverpool team and reshaped them, thrillingly, unequivocally. It was an extraordinary performance, a home debut I’ve never seen bettered.
“For decades to come every home debut will be measured against Barnes’s against Oxford….His performance was rendered all the more astonishing by its proximity to perfection. A player of Barnes’s type, who runs with the ball and commits opponents, expects to win some and lose some, to trade errors for the confusion he prompts. Yet in 90 minutes I cannot recall his conceding possession once.” — Patrick Barclay (The Independent)
Just as significant was the fact that, almost immediately, the bigots fell silent. The widespread abuse of black opponents was no longer an option. As if, finally, some sort of realisation dawned. A realisation that, maybe, it’s not acceptable to abuse footballers for the colour of their skin when your best player, the man who makes you believe in the impossible, is himself black. Because, frankly, it makes you look a bit stupid. At the very least it could be seen as a desire not to be disrespectful to Barnes. That in itself is a tribute to his wide-reaching impact, both on the football pitch and beyond.
We know what happened next. How Barnes went from strength to strength, at the forefront of a Liverpool team that crushed all in its path on the way to an historic title triumph. Footballer of the Year, twice over; the best player in the land, perhaps in Europe; rapper; icon. For the best part of four seasons he was unmatched, before injuries robbed him of his acceleration and caused him to rethink his game. That he adapted so effortlessly to the role of deep-lying playmaker is testament to his natural ability and his unrivalled game intelligence.
But for me there will only ever be one John Barnes. The man who tore Oxford to shreds and captivated everyone lucky enough to witness it. The man who mixed flair and iron, who broke through barriers and in the process became a role model for a generation. The man whose talent, for a while, shone as brightly as anyone to pull on the shirt.
More than anything, that is what I remember.