One of Britain's greatest footballers must rue playing in an era in which warrior-like qualities were valued over skill and creativity
There is a tendency in English football to judge players on their consistency over many years. Players such as Bobby Moore, Bryan Robson and Gary Lineker are looked on favourably for their ability to maintain high standards over a long period of time. But it's easy to assess performance when you have simplistic, almost binary, expectations of a footballer. Moore stopped attacks, Robson roared and Lineker scored goals. Do these things and earn praise. Easy.
But sometimes a player comes along who doesn't fit the mould. English football in the 1980s and 1990s wasn't ready for John Barnes. When he emerged at Second Division Watford in 1981 an inflexible 4-4-2 was de rigueur. The terraces pulsated with a dark and brooding tribalism. Supporters wanted the 11 men who represented them to do so in warrior-like fashion.
The tricky wingers of the 60s and 70s were a dying breed. Physicality, perhaps encouraged by a failing youth system and the macho image of the English game, was seen as the way forward. The bigger you were the better you were. There were countless stories of players being passed over at youth level due to their short stature – Peter Beardsley being a chief example. At almost 6ft Barnes never had this problem. And having arrived in England from Jamaica at 15, he also avoided having the application-before-expression mentality drummed into him that hindered many a talented player's career at the time.
But his blend of power and poise made him hard to pigeonhole. He wouldn't just run. He'd dangle the carrot and wait for the bite, before gliding away and then slowing down again to weigh up his options and play the perfect ball into the box. He was a forward comprised of physicality and cerebral brilliance in equal measure.
He passed the ball short. And moved. And passed it again. His strength gave him the ability to hold on to the ball and wait for the opposing team's formation to shift, before releasing a delicate but devastating pass. The end product was always so graceful. Even if Barnes had just shrugged off a defender in a race to the byline, the resulting cross would be the flick of an artist's brush rather than a crude arrow drawn on a chalkboard. When he scored, he did so by placing the ball with calculated accuracy.
Barnes showed flashes of all these attributes at Watford under Graham Taylor, scoring 13 league goals and helping the side earn promotion back to Division One in his debut season. At only 19 he scored 10 goals in the top tier the very next season when Watford surprised everyone by finishing runners-up with their exciting attacking style. To boot, Barnes was instrumental in the club's FA Cup run to Wembley a year later.
He soon earned an England call-up. And his bittersweet relationship with the national team began. It was at the Maracanã in 1984 when he scored that goal, which was both dazzling and distorting. The 35-yard run and finish, in which Barnes beat five Brazil players with elegance, lightning footwork and no little pace, would forever be a millstone. Had Leandro tried harder to stop him Barnes's relationship with the England team – and their unforgiving fans – would perhaps have been easier. "It changed people's perceptions of me," Barnes said earlier this year. "It also changed people's expectations of me every time I played for England after that."
It really did. In just the same way as Lineker was expected to score, Robson run and Moore tackle, Barnes was now expected to slalom towards goal every time he received the ball. But in an England team that was so prosaic, when Barnes played he touched the ball so rarely it was not possible. England should have built a team around Barnes. But instead they just bolted him on to the side and turned him into a flashy but ineffective accessory.
He said himself that at Liverpool, who signed him from Watford for £900,000 in 1987 (much to Sir Alex Ferguson's consternation in later years, when he admitted that he had hoped to take him to Old Trafford), he could receive the ball over 20 to 30 times in a match from team-mates who were schooled to draw players and pass short. In a statuesque England team, where he was chained to the left wing, it could be as few as six or seven. The chances to impact the game were few and far between, with a lack of movement inhibiting Barnes's inclination to play a one-two to get on the move in the first place and then let the magic follow some simple but effective buildup play.
These days it is accepted that elite clubs are often superior to national teams. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are considered greats because of what they have done at club level. Neither could be said to have shone as brightly for Argentina and Portugal. But in the 80s international football was still seen as the pinnacle by many. And with Barnes unable to showcase his talents in Europe due to the five-year ban on English teams (six for Liverpool) following the Heysel disaster, the spotlight and pressure on his England career grew ever more intense and his brilliance at club level was perhaps deemed less impressive than it would be today due to a lack of global exposure.
When he did get pulses racing in an England shirt it came in the form of brief cameos, such as the game-changing display as a substitute in the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina in 1986, when both he and Chris Waddle were brought on to chase the game with England 2-0 down. Barnes terrorised the three-man Argentina defence, dragging them out of position and creating Lineker's 81st-minute goal. In 15 minutes Barnes showed that he could influence a game every bit as much as Diego Maradona. But that Barnes and Waddle – two of the England squad's most creative and skilful players (Glenn Hoddle being the other) – were afforded such scant time on the pitch, showed the lack of proactive thinking that would dog Barnes's international career.
If England was a testing and ultimately doomed relationship, in Liverpool he had found his soulmate. Between 1987 and 1991 Barnes was a phenomenon. With Beardsley's willingness to double-up on the left , despite being a second striker, as well as John Aldridge's spooky ability to read Barnes's deliveries into the box, he flourished in a trio that scored 64 goals in their first season together. And the mazy dribbles that England fans craved from Barnes were now ten-a-penny on Merseyside.
Unshackled, his confidence and talent grew. His ability to beat players without appearing to change gear was a gift that only a select few players have ever been able to showcase. And for three years at Liverpool he did so effortlessly. His second goal in the 4-0 defeat of the league leaders QPR in October 1987 was a perfect example. After stealing the ball on the halfway line he picked up pace as he approached the penalty box, with Terry Fenwick and Paul Parker closing, he seamlessly shifted his hulking frame left and right to create a gap between them, before calmly emerging unscathed to slip the ball past David Seaman's outstretched left hand. "Whenever would-be tacklers came sliding in, I tried to toe the ball past them, ride the challenge and regain balance and the ball on the other side. After I pushed the ball past Fenwick, I landed and brought the ball back with my left foot in one movement. It was difficult to see why I didn't fall over," explained Barnes in his autobiography, making the sublime seem simple.
And there were many more moments like this during those heady days. There were pirouettes and escape acts; clever backheels; brave backheels; poacher's goals; perfectly-weighted assists; wonderfully-executed free-kicks and examples of Barnes's unheralded strength in the air. He was ostensibly a left-footed player but you would never know it. Left foot or right foot, the end product was the same. Liverpool purred to two league titles and an FA Cup with Barnes as the metronome drifting infield from a starting position on the left when other wingers of the day would be instructed to stay wide.
The high watermark for Barnes and Liverpool came in the 5-0 defeat of Brian Clough's third-placed Nottingham Forest on 13 April 1988 of which the legendary England winger Tom Finney said: "In all my time as a player and a spectator, that was the finest exhibition of football I've ever seen." And at the heart of it all was Barnes, applying the flashes of genius to a Liverpool masterpiece that brought them within grasp of a 17th league title. The ability to find his way back from the corner flag with a nutmeg and feint before laying on Liverpool's fourth still takes the breath away. It's little wonder Barnes won both the Players' Player of the Year award and the Football Writers' equivalent that season.
But Barnes was reaching his peak at a time when the English game was heading for oblivion. The European ban had taken its toll on the quality of English football with Liverpool's style – that had been formulated many years before and passed down like a family heirloom – the exception rather than the rule. And Hillsborough was the tipping point. It hit English football hard. Liverpool hardest of all. Barnes pulled out of an England game after the disaster and, like many Liverpool players who witnessed the horrific scenes at the Leppings Lane End on 15 April 1989, attended a heartbreaking and soul-sapping number of funerals, which understandably led to him having a more reflective view about the importance of football.
He still played a huge part in Liverpool's defeat of Everton in the FA Cup final that season , providing a trademark bending cross for Ian Rush to head home Liverpool's extra-time winner, thus helping to provide the smallest sense of normality to Liverpool fans who were struggling to find any relief in a city paralysed by grief. The season would end on a sour note for Barnes when it was his attacking mentality that led to him losing possession in the final minute of the title decider against Arsenal. Having taken the ball towards the right corner flag, Barnes chose to try to attack the goal instead of defend possession as he would do in later years – perhaps with this moment in mind. Kevin Richardson robbed him of the ball and Arsenal mounted one last attack, allowing Michael Thomas to score that goal, denying Liverpool the double. Barnes was a broken man at the final whistle. His body would match his emotions in the seasons that followed.
Liverpool's decline post-Hillsborough coincided with Barnes's physical deterioration and ill fortune. At the 1990 World Cup Barnes, rather than David Platt, could have been England's hero against Belgium, having had a perfectly good volleyed goal disallowed. But soon after he sustained a groin injury that ended his tournament. A troublesome hamstring injury followed that limited him to only a handful of appearances in 1991-92. And after recovering at the end of the season a ruptured right achilles tendon – again sustained in an England shirt before Euro 92 – effectively ended his career as a winger. Barnes was left with a six-inch scar and a calf muscle an inch and a half shorter than his left.
Shorn of pace, Barnes suffered impatience and abuse from the stands. The appalling boos that greeted his every touch for England against San Marino at Wembley in February 1993 could have ruined less thick-skinned footballers. But he had survived racist abuse on and off the pitch through the 1980s with incredible dignity and instead he took stock of his remaining attributes and reinvented himself as a deep-lying central midfielder.
That he could do this was no surprise to anyone who had witnessed his ability to join up play when drifting central during the late 80s. He was a thinking-man's footballer who had been blessed with a talent to impact the game from wide areas. And his ability to maintain equilibrium in the most fraught situations – in much the same way as Zinedine Zidane – made him perfectly equipped to move infield and influence the game from deep.
But even here Barnes was playing a role that had not yet come to be appreciated. A ball-hogging midfielder – Barnes regularly gained possession over 100 times in 90 minutes and rarely let a pass go stray – would be heralded after the millennium. But in the 90s fans wanted more direct passes and bombastic gestures. The Premier League brand was built around bursts of excitement and had no time for a player who believed patience and possession were the foundations upon which a successful football team could be built.
If Barnes was telling a story when he had the ball, he never wasted a word. The ball kissed his feet and left as quickly as it came. Jamie Carragher said in all his time training with Barnes he never saw him lose possession once. This may be an exaggeration, but anyone who ever witnessed his mid-90s displays under Roy Evans would not be surprised if this were true. Even when he scored goals from distance they were calculated passes into the net.
Under Evans Liverpool played some of – if not the most – attractive football of the 90s. Manchester United were direct and dominant, with the most effective blend of physicality, speed and ruthlessness. But Liverpool's "Spice Boys" were the decadent pretenders and pleasing on the eye, regularly passing teams to death with Barnes directing each short, sharp blow as they did so. There were still flashes of the old Barnes in the new rebuilt version, such as his sublime scissor-kick at Blackburn, but his brilliance was now more considered and although he never reached the heights of the late 80s, not many wingers could adapt their game so successfully after such debilitating injuries. Imagine a crocked and rebuilt Cristiano Ronaldo deputising for Xabi Alonso, or Marc Overmars playing the Edgar Davids role for Barcelona instead of retiring through injury in 2004.
In a talented but ultimately flawed team it is testament to Barnes that he could still be so effective. Even in his mid-30s, with a thicker waist and a few more rings within those aged tree-trunk thighs he successfully directed traffic in Liverpool's midfield. "Barnes … Rush … Barnes … still John Barnes … Collymore closing iiiiin!" is an enduring second career highlight.
He earned one England call-up in his new role, against Colombia in 1995 – a match more memorable for René Higuita's scorpion-kick – but his attributes in a central role would soon be deemed ineffective. He left Liverpool in 1997 after 407 appearances in which he scored 106 goals, with Jamie Redknapp considered to be the better option as a playmaker alongside Paul Ince, who was brought in to supply the energy that fans and Evans believed was the "last piece in the Liverpool jigsaw".
At 34 Barnes was not energetic (he hadn't been for some time) but neither was he ineffective. Replacing Barnes with Ince didn't work and showed the kind of backwards thinking that was still prevalent in English football in the 1990s. Gladiatorial charges forward and aggression were still in vogue. Not till Claude Makélelé began to boss games for Chelsea with his clever reading of play and recycling of possession, was the holding player truly valued in the English top flight.
He would score six more goals as an auxiliary forward at Newcastle under Kenny Dalglish before his career wound down at Charlton in 1999.
A part of Barnes must rue being born into an era in which he was stifled at international level and denied the chance to showcase his talents at Europe's top table. But Barnes was a one-off: a beautiful and brave footballer of frightening talent who probably arrived too early. It's scary to think of how good Barnes could be in the 4-2-3-1 formation so loved by modern-day managers – whether as a winger, a playmaker or the holding player he later became.
Barnes should be remembered as one of the greatest British footballers; perhaps running George Best close for the title of most naturally talented, with Paul Gascoigne for company. That successive England managers failed to get the best out of him is indicative of the lack of imagination and flexibility that has held the England team back for so long.
English football was lucky to have him.