John Barnes and his genius: Profile of a Liverpool and Watford legend
By Adam Bate
Last Updated: 04/11/16 5:40pm
When Liverpool take on Watford on Super Sunday, memories of John Barnes will stir. Having made 296 appearances for the Hornets and played 403 times for the Reds, he is a legend at both clubs. Adam Bate spoke to former team-mates and coaches to assess just what made Barnes so special…
Barry Endean's goal won Watford an FA Cup quarter-final against Bill Shankly's Liverpool in 1970. Tommy Mooney's winner gave Watford their first-ever points at Anfield in 1999. In the most recent meetings last season, both sides won their respective home encounters. But for many, Liverpool versus Watford means only one thing - the brilliance of John Barnes.
It's not often that a player makes the all-time best XI at two different clubs but there's no disputing Barnes's status. He is widely regarded as the best player to pull on a Watford shirt and is in the reckoning for that title at Liverpool too. He came seventh in an internet poll looking at '100 players who shook the Kop' but one Reds great ranks him rather higher than that.
Former Liverpool captain Phil Thompson was a coach at the club during Barnes's early years at Anfield and saw up close what the winger was capable of doing. Thompson tells Sky Sports: "For me he was one of the best three players ever to play for Liverpool, with Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard, which is high praise given the great players we've had."
For me he was one of the best three players ever to play for Liverpool, with Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard, which is high praise given the great players we've had.
Phil Thompson on John Barnes
Barnes's life began in Jamaica but it was in the less exotic environs of Watford that his journey to stardom began in earnest. Even before he'd turned up for pre-season training in 1981, talk of his vast potential was spreading. "We'd heard rumours of this kid that the club had acquired," remembers Luther Blissett, Watford's star striker then and the club's all-time top scorer now.
"This skinny kid turned up for pre-season and soon showed us all what an athlete he was. There was nothing any of us could beat him at and this was a 17-year-old boy. He was exceptional in terms of fitness but we were all thinking, 'Let's see what he can do when the football comes out'. As it turned out, there was pretty much nothing that he couldn't do with a football at his feet."
Blissett, now 58, has seen a thing or two in the game. Ask him to think of the best players of his era and there are mentions for England team-mates Glenn Hoddle and Bryan Robson. Michel Platini springs to mind, an opponent during Blissett's time with AC Milan. But it all comes back to Barnes. "You always think people are exaggerating but he really was that good," he tells Sky Sports.
"I remember one of John's first games. It was against Norwich. He picked the ball up on the left side and went at the full-back. He rolled the ball towards him with the sole of his foot and then rolled it back the other way and went past him. It was one of those moments where you just thought, 'Wow, did I just see that?' To do that to an experienced pro at that age…"
Watford were already on a roll having come up from the fourth tier under Graham Taylor, but in Blissett's words, it was Barnes who "added something extra that the team was missing". They won promotion to the top flight as runners-up in the youngster's first season and beat Manchester United on their way to a League Cup quarter-final too.
United boss Ron Atkinson was impressed and immediately tipped them to go all the way to Wembley. It would take a couple more years before they made it there, but what was a memorable cup scalp for the club at the time would become common-place before long. In 1982/83, Watford's first ever season of top-flight football, they stunned everyone by finishing second behind Liverpool.
Barnes was immense. Still only a teenager, he scored 10 league goals of his own that season but created many more. "We already had Nigel Callaghan on one wing and with John on the other there wasn't another team in the country that had two players like that in wide areas," says Blissett. "For a striker, it meant opportunities." He took 27 of them to finish as the top scorer in all four divisions.
Blissett promptly moved to Milan but it was Barnes who went global. He might not have been the first black player to play for England but he remains the best and his slaloming goal against Brazil in the Maracana in 1984 is arguably the finest of them all. "He just got better and better," says Blissett. In 1987, just days after Taylor left for Aston Villa, Barnes agreed a £900,000 move to Liverpool.
It was the right move at the right time. "The beauty about John going to Liverpool at that time was that he had the experience," adds Blissett. "John was pretty rounded by the time he left. He was quick and had great endurance but by then he had strength and power too. Everything about him improved, so when he went to Liverpool that is what elevated him above everyone else.
"It just exploded for him. Rather than playing with three or four very good players, he was now playing with three or four world-class players and a whole team of very good players. It was frightening and John just fitted in. It was like he was brought up to play in that team. The first two or three years there were just phenomenal."
Already a top team, Barnes made them better. English clubs might have been banned from Europe but that Liverpool side would surely have been a match for the continent's best. John Aldridge stepped up following Ian Rush's brief departure and the signings of Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton added a new dimension. And yet, Barnes still stood out.
"I was reserve-team coach when John was at Liverpool," recalls Thompson. "I remember going down to Coventry's old ground Highfield Road when he and Beardsley were in their pomp and saying to Kenny Dalglish after the game that I would have paid to watch him. I would have happily paid at the turnstiles and sat in the stands drooling with the other fans.
"He was one of those players that just excited you every time he got the ball. He had the ability to pick out a pass, a great first touch and could obviously dribble. There was something Brazilian in the way he played the game, like a downhill skier, the way he glided in and out of defenders." Liverpool won the league in his first season, with Barnes picking up the PFA and FWA awards.
The devastation of Hillsborough overshadowed his second season, one that looked to be on course for a double, and subsequent events had given rise to the view that things were unravelling for the club. The next league title, picked up in 1989/90, remains Liverpool's last. It was the end of their era of dominance. But it didn't feel that way at the time. Barnes, in particular, was better than ever.
This was the season of the 9-0 win over Crystal Palace. But there was also an 8-0 FA Cup win over Swansea. Home and away, the Reds put nine past Chelsea and seven past Manchester City. Everton were beaten at Anfield and Goodison Park with Barnes scoring in both games. Indeed, he was Liverpool's top scorer that season - finishing second only to Gary Lineker in the country.
Once again, Barnes was honoured by the Football Writers' Association. Take a look at the other players to pick up that award more than once and it's a clue to his level. Sir Tom Finney, Sir Stanley Matthews, Danny Blanchflower and Dalglish were the only men to do it before Barnes. Lineker, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo are the only ones who have done it since.
If there was a disappointment, it was at international level. His involvement at the 1986 World Cup was restricted to just 16 minutes of the quarter-final against Argentina, during which time he still came close to upstaging Diego Maradona, laying on a goal for Lineker and almost setting up another. The subsequent European Championship was a failure as England lost all three games.
Barnes finally got his chance to impress at a World Cup in 1990 but had a goal wrongly disallowed against Belgium and was injured by the time of England's semi-final penalty exit. By 1995, he'd picked up 79 caps and was being viewed as no more than a qualified success - a victim of both scandalous racism and the ludicrous expectations that followed his first international goal.
"It was a big burden for him to carry after scoring that goal against Brazil in Maracana but he carried it gracefully," adds Thompson. "That was the most impressive thing about the man, he was so humble and always played the game with a smile on his face."
In his later career, Barnes's good character assumed greater significance as he was asked to take on a senior role at the club. He eventually inherited the captaincy from Rush but not before inspiring a new generation. He played alongside Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler, while Michael Owen's first start also happened to be Barnes's last game for Liverpool.
Jamie Redknapp scored in that game at Sheffield Wednesday in May 1997 and got to play in midfield with Barnes on almost 200 occasions. He remains grateful for the support he received during his formative years. "When I signed for Liverpool they were the dominant force in football so there were obviously some strong characters in that dressing room," Redknapp tells Sky Sports.
"As a 17-year-old boy, you're wide eyed and extremely nervous. You're looking for a bit of support and for people to take you under their wing. That's exactly what John did. I'll never forget how much guidance he gave me. He was just a classy guy. They say never to meet your heroes but it was the complete opposite with John. He was the one I really wanted to meet and he was brilliant with me.
He was the hero of that era. The best player in the country and one of the best players in the world.
Jamie Redknapp on John Barnes
"When I was about 21, I started to get some real belief in what I was doing. We'd just beaten Blackburn and I'd scored. We were sat in the bath afterwards and he just turned to me and said I'd play for England soon. It hadn't crossed my mind that I was anywhere near that level. But he just told me to keep going. A few weeks later I was picked in the squad. He just knew football.
"If you did something good he'd be the first to tell you that you'd done well, but if you didn't then he'd let you know as well. It fulfilled a dream in playing alongside him. I can't lie, I had pictures of John Barnes all over my wall when I was a kid. He was the player that I loved watching. He was the hero of that era. The best player in the country and one of the best players in the world."
With a 10-year age gap between them, that era was coming to an end by the time that Redknapp was involved. Barnes had to convert from dazzling dribbler to holding midfielder. "I don't think it was what he wanted because he was so good going forward," says Redknapp. "But you can't be that marauding winger forever. You have to change your game and the Achilles injury had affected him.
"It stopped him being explosive. But he was so good tactically, it was easy for him to make the change. I think I can count on two hands the amount of times he gave the ball away in the four or five years that I played alongside him. I used to love it. It was an education really. He perhaps wasn't at his absolute peak, but the way he used to move the ball never changed. He was so skilful.
"He was a good reader of the game too. He could intercept passes and was spot on tactically. He was also very good in the air. He was just the complete footballer. It was all so natural. There wasn't really a weakness. He could even tackle." Jamie Carragher also claimed that he was the best finisher he'd seen. "He used to just caress the ball into the corners," says Redknapp. "It was a gift."
It was a gift. That just about sums it up. So where does Barnes rank? "He was the best that I played with and I didn't play with him at his peak," says Redknapp. "I'd still say that he was my favourite Liverpool player." When Liverpool host Watford on Sunday, there'll be many more at Anfield who share that opinion.