For more information on the Players I Would Play To Watch series read the introduction.
The first memory I have of John Barnes is of him setting up Ian Rush to score against Everton in the 1989 FA Cup final. Rush turns after scoring and there is Barnes doing a little jig. Back in the day I was desperate to get a Match or Shoot magazine in the hope of reading up on Liverpool’s exploits. There was also the chance that there might be a double-page poster of Barnes and if there was it would be going up on my bedroom wall.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, although my preference was for Peter Beardsley, that was never to deny the fact that John Barnes from 1987-1992 was an amazing footballer to watch. In those five years his performances for Liverpool were mesmerising. Sure it had to do with his speed, in full flight, few could keep up with him. Yet what set him apart from any player in the league at that time was that he was able to match the speed with an incredible array of ball skills and a craft and flair that none, certainly no Englishman, could match.
It was thrilling as a Liverpool supporter in those days seeing Barnes pick up the ball and run at the defender knowing he would either take him man on and leave him flat on his backside, or her would identify a player in a better position, make the pass and provide the run for a return pass if needed.
Before Barnes, Liverpool were not really a team for flair. Their success was based on the pass and move mantra that merely required their players to be of the hard working variety who were good at moving into space as well as defending as a team. When you think of the Liverpool greats of the 1960’s to the mid 1980’s perhaps the only name that you could slightly link with flair would be Peter Thompson who was a winger as well in the 1960’s. Other than that, you have industrious players utilised properly, all knowing their roles, all fit as a fiddle, all capable of playing the Liverpool way and thus being the ingredients to the trophy-laden success of the time.
More than anyone, Barnes broke the mould. Yet it was not as if Barnes was a player who flit in and out of matches. Contrary to the laid back image some associated with him, he was a strong and hard worker player. The hard work ethic was something he had from his upbringing in any case, but it was further entrenched on the pitch by his time at Watford. By the time he came to Anfield, he was ready for the step up and the country was not prepared for the mastery he would display, even if they still thought his goal for England at the Maracana was sensational.
On that score, with regard to his England career, much has been written about people confounded as to why he didn’t translate his club performance for his country. Yet even at the time, for me it was evident that the England set up was not designed to make the most of his strengths. Willing though he was to accommodate his needs for the good of the team, it was evident that so-called players like himself and Chris Waddle would struggle to fit in the type of game England played at the time.
At Liverpool, Dalglish gave Barnes license to innovate and create. Though he was known as a winger a lot of his time at Liverpool in the first five years was about him coming inside and almost playing as a support striker. The relationship that Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge had at one stage was almost telepathic and in as much as I’ve got a lot of time for Rush, I always preferred this triumvirate as the attacking force for Liverpool and in my mind it’s the greatest attacking force Liverpool have had to date. That is in no small part down to the role John Barnes played in the team.
It was simply a delight watching him play in those years, and the memory of that guy in full flow beating defenders for fun before either dispatching the ball in the back of the net, or setting up a team-mate to do that was attacking football at its best. In my lifetime there has not been a better English winger – indeed for a while the whole deal of playing out wide and beating players with skill as well as speed before crossing or shooting was almost alien to English football.
Indeed thinking about it now, name four quality English wingers – Wright-Phillips? Scott Sinclair? Stewart Downing? Adam Johnson? Well they are not awful, but they are leagues behind the standard established by Barnes at his pomp. That just highlights both the dearth in quality English players (which actually isn’t about the ‘foreigners coming here and crowding out the local lads’) and marks Barnes out as an outstanding player in his generation and beyond.
He suffered an Achilles injury in 1992 that meant he had to change his game rather significantly, and he had time to spend a few seasons giving Liverpool quality service more as a central midfielder. He wasn’t bad in this position and his creative play helped considerably at times, but just as Liverpool were no longer the league winning force they were, neither was Barnes the game-changing factor he had once been.
That’s football, though, there inevitably has to be a decline if a player plays long enough. That decline, will never, however, tarnish the memory of an extraordinary man who would undoubtedly be among those players I would pay to watch.
(Also worth reading this tribute to Barnes from the Give Me Football website.)