John Barnes: the adopted Scouser

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat across the table from him, an icon that graced our sport and largely defined the 80s and 90s. You see pictures and videos and over the years you hear stories, but you are still never fully prepared. There were no surprises. John Barnes was eloquent, articulate and intelligent with an aura of calculated and composed passion that never faded.

His recent documentary Poetry in Motion that aired on BT Sport gave an insight into the career enjoyed by Barnes, from the serenity of Jamaica to the lows of racial abuse in England. His honesty and pride throughout gives you an understanding of the man from Kingston, the adopted Scouser.

John Barnes only ever wanted to play football. Growing up in Jamaica, he supported Cavaliers FC and although there was no professional football in the country, he imagined playing for his side. He never dreamed of playing professionally in England, in fact this never crossed his mind until the age of 16.

He was happy in Jamaica, kicking a ball around with his friends, care free and passionate about his sport. This changed when his father, a colonel in the army, was given a role in England. The family arrived in the winter of January 1976 and John joined Stowe Boys Club, where his footballing education continued.

One Saturday, whilst playing for Sudbury Court, he caught the eye of a passing taxi driver and a Watford supporter. The recommendation prompted the club to watch the teenager who was swiftly signed by Graham Taylor’s side.

Barnes impressed under Taylor in a period of remarkable success for the Hornets. The youngster from Jamaica was the standout performer. He boasted a direct attacking flair that he combined with natural pace and dynamism. Predominantly left-footed, Barnes could ‘go either way’ when running at defenders and was easily one of the most feared wingers in the country. Taylor and Barnes led Watford to the top flight where they would finish in second place behind Liverpool as the winger’s stock began to rise. An FA Cup Final defeat to Everton in 1984 saw the then 20-year-old introduced to the world. A disappointing result did not undermine the club’s recent rise but now Barnes was attracting a lot of attention, from big clubs. This was about to increase as the name Barnes was introduced to a global stage.

The Maracanâ, Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and the world is watching. It’s June 1984, just weeks after Barnes’s final disappointment at Wembley and he is about to leave his mark on another of the great footballing arenas. The famous stage where legends are formed in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer is about to witness one of the great England goals, from their number 11, the man from Kingston, Jamaica.

Against the famous yellow and blue, Barnes controls a ball from Mark Hateley on his chest, he skips inside Leandro with pace, a faked shot at the edge of the box and another step to his right proceeds a delicate roll with his left foot to effectively round goalkeeper Roberto Costa before finishing with his right. It’s a stunning display of skill and instinct that puts John Barnes’s name up in lights.

Barnes is frequently asked about this goal, a moment that defined his International career and a performance that gave birth to a star of the game. But typically of the man, his reflection on this iconic instant is modest:

“That is not anything that was planned and I don’t think any player thinks: When I get the ball I’m just going to dribble until I score, or lose the ball. You look to pass it, you can’t see anyone so you continue to run and then eventually you are in front of goal.”

Three years after his heroics in Brazil, Barnes joined Liverpool in a move worth a reported £900,000. Liverpool had finally got their man after long admiring the talented winger. Kenny Dalglish also signed Peter Beardsley with the two brought in to replace the outgoing Ian Rush.

The move to Liverpool was a culture shock for Barnes. The Jamaican born winger had thrived under the methodical and disciplined guidance of Taylor and was now revelling in the creative, football-orientated environment of Liverpool. Moving to a new club always brings with it elements or risk and upheaval; Merseyside in the 80s and 90s certainly wasn’t going to represent an easy transition for the former Watford star but he found a home within a community that will forever be a special place for boy from Kingston. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Digger’ by the supporters, Barnes was adored across the city, but there was one community that truly embraced him.

Throughout its history Liverpool has been a multi-ethnic and multi-racial city and is home to the oldest black community in the country, Toxteth. Located in the South end of the city, the area suffered the worst social deprivation and police harassment, particularly of young black youths – leading to the Toxteth riots in 1981. This black community lived essentially separately from the rest of the city and there was an undercurrent of racism in the streets and in the terraces. That being said, Liverpool was largely more accepting that the majority of areas in the UK and white youths were seen supporting the riots of ’81, not for the first or last time, there was a sense of unity.

Barnes spent a lot of time in Toxteth, he has lifelong friends in the community, a society that embraced and adopted their new hero.

“I had a lot of friends there, I got my haircut there, and had they lived somewhere else then I would have had that community. Howard Gayle came from Toxteth, he was the first black player to play for Liverpool and I suppose they really took me to heart because it gave them a lot of enjoyment watching a black player do what I did.”

Howard Gayle was the original trailblazer, his substitute appearance against German juggernauts Bayern Munich in the second leg of the European Cup semi-final in ’81 etched the forward’s name into Liverpool history, his defiance and resilience against racism did much more than that.

Barnes’s signature was not universally welcomed with murmurs of discontent floating around the famous terraces of Anfield. Whilst the colour of his skin made him unpopular with a minority, the winger’s reported inconsistencies forced many to disagree with the price tag, the same fee paid for Mark Lawrenson. John Barnes forced the valuation into distant memory and many consider that he made the racial displays unacceptable, transforming the face of English football.

John Barnes 1 final
John Barnes by MonkeysvsRobots

He provided a watershed moment for the ‘minorities’ of Liverpool. Those that were under-represented inside Anfield were now attending games. They were not free of fear from abuse but they were supporting John Barnes, the first black player to be signed by the club.

Steven Scragg, freelance football writer and lifelong Liverpool fan recalls the early weeks: “I can remember being at Anfield for one of Barnes’ early games for Liverpool, in the Kemlyn Road, when he tore Derby County apart. There were two old fella’s sat in front of me and one turns to the other and says: he’s not as black as I thought he was. It was said tongue-in-cheek but it summed up the way a lot of people thought.”

The game was slow to afford opportunity to black players, and it’s easy to forget that John Barnes’ arrival at Liverpool came just nine years after Viv Anderson became the first black player to represent the country. It is also worth remembering that it would not be until 1994 that Daniel Amokachi became Everton’s first black player after signing from Club Brugge in Belgium

There is a famous image, a poignant image; it shows Barnes back-heeling a banana thrown in his direction by Everton fans, a show of nonchalant defiance to the abuse. Ian Wright later claimed that Barnes could have peeled that particular piece of fruit with his left foot, had he seen it coming. This was how Barnes dealt with the abuse, as he explained: “It was water off a duck’s back for me, but that’s how I dealt with it. That doesn’t mean it’s the way to do it, everyone has their own way. It worked for me but that doesn’t mean it would work for others.”

The summer of 1987 was a difficult and testing time at Anfield, the mood was glum and changes were sought. Liverpool had finished second in the league, although not a disaster, it brought with it a sense of disappointment and under-achievement as their arch-rivals enjoyed the summer sun as champions of England. Everton had won the league, leaving a bitter aftertaste, only intensified by the departure of Ian Rush to Northern Italy and Juventus.

Barnes was signed alongside Peter Beardsley who largely shouldered the burden as Rush’s immediate replacement, signing for almost twice the price of Barnes. Pressures and strain rear their head in different ways and with Beardsley having to replace a Liverpool icon, Barnes had to fight against an altogether different symbolism. Those doubts over consistency were quickly put to bed as Barnes provided the lift that the red half of the city needed. There was an expectancy surrounding the winger as fans flocked to see their new star with breathless anticipation greeting Barnes every time he received the ball.

I remember Chris Waddle enjoying the sound of plastic seats clapping as fans rose in anticipation when he faced up a defender, but Barnes had a different impact on Anfield. There was no clapping of seats and no surge of energy greeting Barnes in possession, only a deafly silence of expectancy around the ground. The fans were turning up to watch Barnes dance and weave his way past defenders as well as having the physical strength to hold off opponents, threatening on almost every occasion. He gave Liverpool a surge of hype, a throwback to the 60s. His reputation was growing and so was his confidence. His two goals in a 4-0 win of Queens Park Rangers in October had pundits and supporters jumping on the Barnes bandwagon, a now popular trend.

His second goal in the fixture is a fine example of sumptuous skill, balance and once again instinct. The winger somehow glides between two defenders with two touches from his gifted left foot. He barely breaks stride going outside and then inside before slotting the ball right-footed into the bottom corner, a feast for the eyes.

Barnes scored 15 league goals in his first season as Liverpool coasted to the league title, suffering just two defeats. More FA Cup final heartbreak was to follow for the winger though as Wimbledon miraculously triumphed at Wembley.

His wait for FA Cup glory would be over just a year later as Liverpool defeated rivals Everton 3-2 in the ‘88/’89 final at the home of football. It would be Barnes’ only FA Cup victory. His performances and actions on the pitch had him revered by the fans and respected across the globe but his grace and dignity off the field gave him a home for life in Liverpool. A true ambassador for the club, he was always there when called upon, he understood the relationship with the fans. They loved him and he loved them, a family.

John Barnes 2 final
John Barnes by MonkeysvsRobots

It’s at times of great heartbreak and tragedy that togetherness and unity are highlighted and this was evident in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. Barnes along with many other players and senior club representatives stood proud and tall in support of their fans, their club and their city, The man born in Kingston and now at home in Liverpool attended several funerals to represent his team and pay respects to the families.

“Well it was important for the families, I was happy to go to as many as I did and I would have gone to more had the families wanted me to. I never necessarily thought I want to go to funerals but at the request of the families who wanted me to go. But I would not say I want to go to a funeral because if they don’t want me there, I shouldn’t be there. It’s got nothing to do with me; I was completely guided by their wishes. Very much like when people talk about if we should have played again or not. I never lost anyone, I never knew anyone who lost their lives. Liverpool fans yes. If the families of the bereaved thought we should play again I was happy to play, if they thought we shouldn’t, I wouldn’t play. Some players felt strongly about whether they should or shouldn’t play but I didn’t think it was my place to have an opinion.”

John Barnes enjoyed a glittering career at Liverpool. His earlier league title was matched again in 1989-90 with the number 11 once again the stand out performer. Generous and selfless throughout his time on Merseyside, this season saw him recognised individually at a time when he could quite easily have been considered among the best players in the world. He was voted Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year after scoring 22 goals from the left wing. Imagine how much a goal-scoring winger with pace, flair, strength and composure would be worth in today’s market. Add in to the mix his technical ability and set-piece prowess and you are only beginning to get the idea. This form was expected to continue into Italia 90 and the Jamaican born winger became a poster boy in the build up to England’s campaign in Italy. This was only heightened by his appearance in New Order’s video for the official tournament single as he plays “keepie uppie’ in the background to Bernard Sumner before rapping his way into legend.

The track title World in Motion now seems synonymous with Barnes. But the word motion almost appears deceptive when talking about the iconic winger. Motion means the action or process of being moved, but I see him as the opposite, an immovable object. Insults and abuse bounced off of the Red’s number 11 like the opponents before him as he forced his way forward, headlong against adversity and discrimination and towards immortality on Merseyside.

The next few years were turbulent at Liverpool. The resignation of Kenny Dalglish ushered in the age of Graeme Souness who brought with him an abrasive character but a forward thinking youth policy. Barnes and Souness clashed, regularly, with the manager believing the player to be past his best.

Barnes though was determined to stay and help aid the progression of young talents including Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp. Injuries impacted his pace, but the former winger was finding his feet in a deeper midfield role. His experience, vision and technique provided a natural springboard for the exuberant youth around him. When Roy Evans replaced Souness in ’94, Barnes flourished again, reinvented in his new role and enjoying a run of form and confidence. The mentoring process was rewarding and added a youthful skip to his stride, it was a role he enjoyed and understood the importance of passing on experience: “It was one of those things where you help the young players brought into the team. That’s the way I was brought up at Watford with some of the older players, that’s what you do with your children. It was a natural progression, you learn from what you saw. When I was a young player Luther Blissett and Ian Bolton helped me, it was advice that they and Graham Taylor passed on to me and the benefit of your experience and so called wisdom acquired along the way.”

With the side playing attractive, creative football, Liverpool were title contenders again and Barnes earned himself an England recall. The skill never left and the natural athleticism once again allied itself with confidence. A stunning overhead kick against Blackburn is arguably his greatest goal in a red shirt, how’s that for past your best? A League Cup win in ’95 was followed by another FA Cup Final defeat a year later, this time at the hands of Manchester United, the dominant force in English football. Barnes was appointed full-time captain of the club after Ian Rush once again departed, this time for Leeds United. In August 1997 after ten years on Merseyside Barnes would also depart. Nearly ever present in his final season, it was time to seek pastures new with the dynamic and younger Paul Ince brought in as his replacement.

A free transfer, Barnes was snapped up by none other than King Kenny at Newcastle with the two Anfield heroes embarking on a title challenge of their own.

John Barnes brought with him a great deal of scepticism and questions when he arrived from Watford. He left Liverpool FC having largely changed the face of English football. He is a role model for millions, a great ambassador for one of the world’s great clubs and a beacon of light against a cultural issue that we still fight. Players and supporters remember him as one of the greats, he broke down barriers and provided a watershed moment for the city, his adopted home. Fate is a word thrown around too often, especially in football. But perhaps that young boy, who never dreamed of leaving Jamaica, was intended for Liverpool, a city that he transformed and a city that adopted a son creating an icon.

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Poetry in motion is released on DVD on the 4th of August with pre orders available now at: www.johnbarnesfilm.com

By Harry Collins with sensational artwork throughout from MonkeysvsRobots

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