IT’S Sunday afternoon, where I am. Don’t know when it is where you are, don’t know what it’s like; here, the sun’s cracking the flags. And I’m sat inside, writing this. Because I promised Robbo I would. I saw him at the Evening With John Barnes last night, we talked about what i had. Told him I had a piece about time moving on, and memory, and the assumptions that you make about everybody else, having seen what you saw, and that sometimes you sit back and realise that you’re that bit older and may take for granted all the incredible stuff that you saw as it happened. The stuff that other people simply regard as history.
And I told him that I’d kind of got into this train of thought because of Ali passing away, somewhere between Friday night and Saturday morning, and I’d written a great intro about Ali and Bowie and Prince and how it’s easy to take for granted the greatness that we have lived with. I’d written about how I’d started to really worry about Dylan, as he’s turned seventy-five, and how I was concerned for Springsteen, as his end of night ‘We’ll see you again’ has turned into ‘The E Street Band loves you’, and sounds like a goodbye. And, how a bloke in his late sixties can’t possibly keep doing three hours plus each night of a tour. I talked about how this related, tangentially, to John Barnes.
I saw Ali fight. I’m old enough for that. I can’t remember the details, I can remember the feeling. I don’t know if I saw the Thriller in Manilla and the Rumble In The Jungle as they happened, or if I saw them the next night. I know I’m old enough to have looked at the rope-a-dope tactic and gone, as most did at the time, “What’s he doing? He’s getting battered.” Or however I phrased it at that age. I know he was always there. Took it for granted that most people saw this happen. Like I always took it for granted that everybody had seen Star Wars on a big screen, seen Bowie live, seen U2 in small arenas, seen Prince’s career really kick in. All that stuff that’s actually somewhere back in history.
John Barnes is a fortnight younger than me. That seems ridiculous. He seemed to be a grown up when I first saw him play, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. He clearly had more talent than anybody else in English football. I was working in a record shop. At 20 I was working in an Insurance agents on County Road, he was scoring THAT goal in the Maracana; that goal that will always stand as one of the greatest England goals of all time. The idea that I’m exactly the same generation as John Barnes is bizarre. He’s also aged a hell of a lot better than I have. I know this, I stood next to him last night, had my arm around him. I’m taller than him though. So, I’ve got that.
Last night was the night that it hit home that not everybody saw John Barnes play; I was sat with Anna Walsh and Craig Hannan. Barnes was Anna’s first footballing hero (my first footballing hero was sat next to Barnes on the stage, my first footballing hero was Cally), Craig never really saw him play. Craig’s twenty-five. The twenty-five year old’s out there didn’t really see the real John Barnes play. So, from those of us who did (although, let’s be honest, Mike Nevin’s going to have done this far better than me) to those of you that didn’t, this is what I remember about John Barnes.
Obviously there’s that goal. That England goal. Obviously we saw what he was able to do at Watford. And, let’s be honest, Watford wouldn’t really have been anything without Barnes; he gave them a magic, and a grace, that they wouldn’t even have been in sight of without him.
I remember the transfer saga. I think it may be the first transfer ‘saga’ that really resides in my memory, think it was that point where the papers had decided that they should report the speculation as much as the sport. The idea was that we wanted Barnes but the stories seemed to indicate that he wasn’t convinced, didn’t want to move to Liverpool. Liked the idea of Arsenal if I remember correctly. Or was it QPR? And if I remember correctly, it was the Mirror that was letting us have that little story. I know differently now, of course. Heard it from the man’s lips last night; the deal was sorted in January, he was always going to sign for us in June 87. We just didn’t know it. Thank Christ Twitter wasn’t about back then. The fume would have been legendary; “If he doesn’t want to be here, don’t f***ing have him.” “Let him go to f***ing Arsenal then, ungrateful bastard.” That could have put him off. Might want to bear that idea in mind over the summer months, while we’re repeatedly complaining about the state of things that we have no information about.
And he didn’t even come in as the big signing. Beardsley was the big signing. And Beardsley struggled until the new year. Barnes didn’t. Barnes was a revelation.
The way I remember it, and we’ve already established that everything here is about how I remember it, is that we started the season with a few games away, because of a bloody big hole suddenly appearing under The Kop. I always thought of it as being six or seven games until we saw that season start at Anfield. Research it though, and I do research some of this stuff at times, and you find out that it was only the fourth game before we hit home soil. 12th September 1987; John Barnes home debut. Obviously he scored. Home debut, first Liverpool goal. Second goal in a two-nil win over Oxford. The other goal is Aldo’s. Barnes had already made one for Aldo in his first game, nine minutes into the opening day in a two-one win at Highbury. Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge combine and, nine minutes into the new season, the new era has started. It’s going to become something, going to become something very soon.
The first cross for Aldo isn’t the important thing. The first goal at Anfield isn’t the important thing. Not for me. You know the story of that season. If you’re as old as me, maybe a little younger, but not a lot younger, I was still pretty young then, you lived it. The greatest Liverpool team you’ve ever seen. The greatest performances you’ve ever seen. Absolute magic. With Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton and Aldridge at the heart of it. A new team built at the beginning of the season, a new team bedded in immediately. With the magic of John Barnes, standing imperious in a manner that’s truly hard to define. I found a way to define that manner; I’ll tell you about it at the end.
It’s hard to really do justice to the shock of the new, to give an idea of a world where you hadn’t seen this happen before. I showed my twenty-year old son the first ever Cruyff turn. He doesn’t get football but he got the beauty of that, he got the skill and technique but he got it through the lens of seeing others do similar. Imagine a world where the Cruyff turn hasn’t happened yet, and you see it for the first time. Imagine the first time you see the Cruyff turn being the first time it’s happened. Imagine that. Imagine a world where the first time you hear Prince sing Kiss is the first time it’s ever been played on the radio, and you have no idea what it is, and nobody knows what’s just happened. Imagine a point before Born To Run exists, imagine seeing Ali take punch after punch after punch and just lean on the ropes and wait and wait and then come out and do what he always knew he was going to do.
Imagine seeing the young John Barnes play in a red shirt for the first time. Honest to God, it’s the same thing. It’s that incredible, that remarkable, that bloody new. It’s not like watching Steve Heighway. And I loved Steve Heighway. It’s like….imagine if Luis Suarez came on in his first game for us and put in that Norwich at home 13/14 season performance with the flick round Fer and the wheeling away and the delight that we’d seen something unreal. That’s what watching John Barnes, in the flesh, in the red, for the first time, was like.
The problem with the future is that you have to filter your memories through the past that’s already happened, and you have to think back to the eighties through the nineties that followed. You have to think of the young John Barnes through your memories of the older John Barnes, the one who’d suffered the injury, who’d lost that blistering explosion and had to reinvent himself as an elder statesman, as a central midfielder who could dictate the pace of play from the centre and bring through the lads that would hopefully be the future.
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That John Barnes has already had the glory, already had the accolades, already had 1990, already won the league with twenty-two goals from the left wing. John Barnes scored four more goals than Ian Rush that season. John Barnes won Liverpool’s last league title. The young, brilliant Barnes of whom Peter Beardsley said, “For three or four years at the end of the eighties, John was possibly the best player in the world.”
That’s the John Barnes that had scored fifteen league goals in his first season as we went unbeaten for the first twenty-bloody-nine games of the season and went one refereeing fiasco from the double double. The John Barnes who was the PFA player of the year as he debuted for us, the team that gave us that game against Forest. And if you want to know what that was like…..remember that El Classico where Barca dismantled Real? Imagine seeing that as it happened, from the stand and being an actual Barca fan. That’s what the Forest five-nil was like, that’s what that team was like. Shall I compare Digger to Messi? Sod it, I’m going to; that’s what he gave us every bloody week. He was a miracle on the wing. On our wing. While we were the greatest bloody team you’ve ever seen, he was the greatest of us.
And they’re all the facts, here’s what I remember:
I was still living at home. A fortnight older than this lad that I’d just watched play at home for the first time, but still living at home. Mum and Dad had organised a holiday. No idea where, doesn’t matter. Sod’s law that they were away for that first game, in that disrupted start to the season. I had Dad’s season ticket that day. No idea why I wasn’t in work but there you go, I wasn’t. Dad rang home.
“So, what was he like then?”
“What was he like? Honest to god, you’ve never seen anything like him. He’s something else, he’s on a different planet to everybody else. The things he can do with the ball are unreal. Honest to god, you have NEVER seen anything like him.”
As Bruce says when he hits the last verse of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, as he talks about this man from long ago who came in and changed everything, as he tells us ‘the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band’ he lets us know that, “This is the important part.”
This is the important part. That phone call, that’s the important part. Trying to put into words to my father what I’d just seen in the flesh for the first time. Trying to do justice to this brand new thing that had just happened in front of my eyes. Trying to express exactly how incredible it was without the benefit of hindsight or knowledge of what was about to happen, just knowing that something had changed. Instantly. Totally. Changed.
This is the important part. John Barnes, honest to god, you’ve never seen anything like him.