IT’S 20 years ago today that Liverpool signed Paul Ince. The England midfielder arrived for £4.5million from Inter Milan and was immediately dubbed as the “the final piece in the jigsaw.” The arrival of the hard-tackling midfielder was a headline-grabbing move, particularly given Ince’s previous connections with Manchester United. Very few players have ever played for both clubs, Peter Beardsley sneaking under the radar, and Michael Owen still despised by many for doing just that. Despite the unusual sight of a former United star holding up a Liverpool scarf outside Melwood, the move wasn’t as controversial as you might expect, writes DAVID TULLY.
While there were a fair few grumblings from fans about the identity of their new holding midfielder, there were louder voices in the media arguing that the self-styled guv’nor would bring the exact qualities that Liverpool had been lacking. The mid-’90s Liverpool were an exhilarating side on their day, but famously brittle once the going got tough. Ince, a combative presence with a no-nonsense personality, was supposed to provide the perceived missing steel that would turn Roy Evans’ underachieving Reds from perennial contenders into title winners.
However, amid the attention over Ince’s arrival, a legend quietly exited through the back door. John Barnes, after two league titles, 407 appearances, and 106 goals for the Reds, was allowed to leave on a free transfer. The way his exit was handled is a particular shame for all concerned. Unlike the more recent departures of Liverpool greats, there was no forewarning or long goodbyes. As the 1996-7 season concluded nobody, outside of perhaps the Liverpool management, was aware that Barnes had reached the end of the road at Anfield. As such, there wasn’t an opportunity for supporters to pay a special tribute to Barnes, no guard of honour at his final Anfield appearance — nothing to recognise the lofty perch he occupies on the totem pole of Liverpool greats. Barnes, as an undisputed Liverpool legend, was more than deserving of a warm send off from The Kop.
Little is mentioned about this brief period now because Barnes is rightly remembered instead for the many magical moments he provided the club but, as Liverpool stumbled in the home straight of a race for the title in April 1997, a veteran Barnes was singled out for criticism by the media and some sections of the home support. It had become a theme from January 1997 onwards that the 34-year-old’s presence in the centre of the pitch was holding the team back. Liverpool were developing a reputation of being a fair weather team, and those looking to remedy this began to point the finger in the direction of the makeshift holding midfielder.
But for many it was disheartening to see an all-time great singled out for criticism. Perhaps it can be blamed on a lack of patience because, after all, Liverpool were now an unthinkable seven years on from their last league title. It wasn’t fair of course; Liverpool’s shortcomings had little to do with Barnes’ performances. His fading legs paled into comparison to the team’s collective, occasional, laissez-faire attitude against sides fighting relegation.
In truth, some supporters always struggled to accept the style of player Barnes had become during the autumn of his career. In his younger days Barnes was an elegant winger who regularly produced the sublime. Blessed with pace, power and poise, Barnes was the chief artist-in-residence in one of the finest Liverpool teams of all time, powering the Reds onto league titles and FA Cups in the late-’80s and early-’90s. As the English Footballer of the Year in both 1988 and 1990, Barnes was the jewel in the Liverpool crown. However, a ruptured right Achilles tendon while playing for England in 1992 robbed him of his pace, and precipitated a decline in fitness. Post injury, Barnes had to adapt his game to new physical limitations. No longer could Barnes be the extraordinary attacker that cut through opponents with breathtaking ease.
After Evans took over as manager in 1994, Barnes entered into a renaissance period by relocating his skillset to the centre of midfield. Though he had to adapt his game to new restraints, an ageing Barnes morphed into the brains behind a fluid Liverpool side reborn in the pass-and-move philosophy. The transition actually made a lot of sense. Though he had lost his pace, Barnes hadn’t lost his vision and technique. From a central area, Barnes could pull the strings and supply the likes of Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler with the ammunition. Now conducting operations from a deep-lying position, the veteran took the value of keeping possession to a religious degree as he recycled the ball over and over again as he and his team-mates slowly passed their opponents to death.
As holding midfielders go, Barnes wasn’t a traditional one by any sense. There wasn’t the bite and power of a Roy Keane or the rampaging aggression of Arsenal’s young Patrick Vieira, but Barnes was ahead of his time in how he played the position. The veteran played the holding role like a conductor leads an orchestra. Supporters are sometimes used to more of a blood and thunder approach from their “number six”, but they’d never get that from the graceful Barnes. Despite not being as combative a midfielder as some of his opponents, Barnes had a knack for reading the game like few of his peers could. Despite the legs not being what they once were, he was rarely found out of position. I can’t remember too many sliding tackles but I remember even fewer times that he lost the ball. A wayward pass from Barnes was a collector’s item and, because of his consistency at picking the right pass, his team dominated possession.
Evans’ 3-5-2 wing-back system had transformed the Reds from the underachievers of the Graeme Souness years, and propelled them back into the title picture. However there were times when it appeared the system held them back and, after every slip up, more questions were asked. Some saw the system as too negative, it didn’t allow for enough forward players on the pitch. Some wanted to see The Reds revert back to a similar 4-4-2 system to what their title rivals were employing.
In the 3-5-2 formation, Barnes lack of mobility was protected to a degree by the number of options around him. But voices in the media, and a section of the supporters, began to demand that Liverpool be less pass and move, and more direct in their play. That meant seeing less of Barnes weaving the play together. As the most senior player and club captain, Barnes was a powerful figure in the dressing room. This was used against him as some accused the Liverpool management of accommodating him despite his weaknesses. Each time The Reds slipped up, accusations were made that Liverpool’s patient passing approach was too soft and too nice to play against. Barnes, some complained, was living on former glories. According to Robbie Fowler’s autobiography; Stan Collymore, an unpopular member of the dressing room, was voicing the same concerns at Melwood.
Things came to a head during a game versus Manchester United on April 19, 1997. Alex Ferguson’s men were marching on towards another title, but Liverpool were hanging onto their coat-tails. It was a do-or-die clash for The Reds. If they won the contest then they would move above their north west rivals and look down from the league’s summit with only three games to go. Once the match kicked off, Liverpool found themselves immediately under the cosh. The judgement of their goalkeeper, David James, had nosedived around this period and set-pieces against Liverpool were causing mayhem due to their goalkeeper’s indecisiveness. United cleverly exploited Liverpool’s weakness for they soon led thanks to an unmarked Gary Pallister heading home from a David Beckham corner. As Liverpool laboured, they almost seemed to be doing their best to gift United another goal. The home crowd began to get frustrated.
Despite the nervous atmosphere, Barnes popped up with an equaliser, getting his head on a Jason McAteer cross to glance the ball beyond the despairing dive of Peter Schmeichel. It felt like Liverpool were back in business, but their Achilles heel at defending set-pieces soon returned to haunt them shortly before half-time as James flapped at another Beckham corner and allowed Pallister to repeat the trick to send the Reds in at half-time 2-1 down. United made it 3-1 midway through the second half after another terrible error from James gifted Andy Cole an open goal that even he couldn’t miss.
The game was a real turning point for Evans’ Liverpool tenure. The midfield was simply overpowered that day and the calls for a change of approach became deafening. At 3-1 the atmosphere among the home crowd had turned to anger and the players, Barnes especially, were roundly criticised afterwards. Evans wasn’t happy with what he had seen either as the club captain found himself hauled off for Patrik Berger after 67 minutes. It later emerged that Barnes and Evans had rowed in the dressing room after the game. Amid further criticism from Collymore that it was Barnes, and not Evans, who was running the show behind the scenes, Evans felt that he had to act.
Five days later, Liverpool faced Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Barnes found himself dropped from the squad entirely. The 3-5-2 formation that Evans had employed since 1994, and suited Barnes down to the ground, was ditched in favour of a more orthodox 4-4-2 that simply did not. Despite a brave performance Liverpool exited the competition that night and limped on to the end of the season, eventually managing to finish fourth in what looked to be a two-horse race just weeks before. Barnes made his final appearance for Liverpool as a substitute on the last day of the season at Sheffield Wednesday in a game that finished 1-1 despite Wednesday striker, Andy Booth, ending up between the sticks. Barnes was let go on a free transfer that summer after 10 seasons at Liverpool. It was a sad epitaph to a glorious Anfield career.
The record books of the 1996-7 season showed Liverpool had scored the third highest number of goals in the league, and conceded the third fewest number of goals. On paper, there was little wrong that minor tweaking couldn’t address. Liverpool fell short because they dropped points to the sides towards the bottom of the league. But that and the high-profile implosions against the likes of Chelsea in the FA Cup and Middlesbrough in the League Cup had sowed seeds of doubts in the supporters’ minds about the physical capabilities of the men in red. They were criticised for being too soft, not strong enough to handle the rough stuff.
And so it was decided; Liverpool’s team needed a greater presence in the middle of the pitch. They needed a warrior that relished the physical battle. It was naive thinking, of course. One man alone couldn’t fix the problems, but the media theme became that everything else was already in place — they just needed that one final piece of the jigsaw. Liverpool might have believed signing Ince was the answer, but in doing so the questions being asked of them simply changed.
On reflection, it was unfair to jettison a proven winner in Barnes. Clearly the veteran midfielder had to be replaced at some point in the future, or at least given more of a rest, but in all fairness to the management, it’s worth remembering that these were still the days before rotation became the norm at Premier League clubs. Liverpool would send out the same first-choice 11 at home to Rochdale in the League Cup as they would away at Old Trafford. If you weren’t playing you were dropped and, with Barnes as club captain, benching him would have been a huge call in a period where Liverpool, despite their shortcomings, were genuinely challenging for the title.
Evans answered the demand for more aggression by recruiting the midfield destroyer that popular opinion demanded he did. But despite Ince impressing in his debut season, the team looked even further away from title winners than they did with Barnes in the middle of midfield. They finished third in the 1997-8 season, but 13 points behind the winners, Arsenal, and they finished with fewer points, fewer wins, and more defeats than in any of the previous three seasons.
Though Ince did bring more gnarliness to the team, Liverpool’s frailties didn’t go away in his presence. His United connections made his relationship with The Kop an uphill struggle and his performances did little to better that. Instead the 1997-8 season became a step backwards for all concerned. The only bright spot was the emergence of a superstar in the making in the form of 17-year-old Michael Owen. The precocious striker took all the headlines in a season that had promised much but delivered very little.
Sensing that Liverpool were now stagnating, the club employed Gerard Houllier in an awkward-looking managerial partnership with Evans in the summer of 1998. The writing was now on the wall for the last of the Boot Room boys, and come October he was gone. That Evans departed without at least one league title under his belt is a travesty for all concerned.
And as for John Barnes; he found a new home at Newcastle where he played Champions League football and in an FA Cup final for them. Though he was a fading force, he still had lots to offer a young Liverpool side, both on the pitch and on the training ground, and it’s a great shame for him and for Liverpool that he didn’t see out his career at the club where memories of his brilliance still live on.