This is an exclusive interview with Liverpool legend, John Barnes on Covert Racism, Coutinho and Fans’ Misplaced Priorities.
I heard Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m glad. More bemused than glad, however, at the contention of his honour, despite the fact that Homer and Sappho, both lyricists, are considered literary compasses, and then there’s Lord Tennyson who wrote sonnets and ballads. All texts of whom were meant to be performed, accompanied by instruments in provincial theatres.
What is poetry then if it is not an endeavour of an art despite itself to mostly compensate the inability of words with words? And what of poetry that extends the boundaries of the mind as well as the heart, poetry that elicits jubilation, romance juxtaposed with empathy and acceptance? How does one typecast transference? And what of all the poetry that exist without words?
As a nine-year-old, my first calling to poetry wasn’t in the pages of our primary school textbooks, it was in technicolour on our Sharp 26-inch lump of a cathode ray tube. One that had the faulty +Programme button, so you had to cycle through all the channels again if you weren’t paying attention.
A red speck of arms and legs on the far side; the sprightly stride of a gazelle evading its predators on the previous channel finds himself on the lush fields of Anfield Road to score another inspired goal. It was poetry in motion, and it was love at first sight. The interview with the poet has been two decades in the making – the embodiment of my childhood awe, and as I grew, of ethnic solidarity. Mentally, I went down memory lane, while physically going up the flight of stairs of the Lord Palmerston – an elegant Victorian-era gastropub on Darmouth Park Hill – and walking into a disarming handshake. Outside, it was a sun-kissed day in Central London. Inside, the function room seemed lit up by John Barnes’ greeting smile.
In 1965, Nat Hentoff of Times Magazine asked Bob Dylan to qualify himself as to what he was. Tangled up in blues, he denounced the labels of a folk singer, a messenger, consequently denouncing the pandersome media who were none the wiser of the societal truths of his messages and instead obsessed with his status as a celebrity.
Who wants to go get whipped? You know. If you do wanna go get whipped, aren’t you really being entertained? Right. So, do you think anyone that comes to see me, is coming for any other reason besides entertainment, really? – Bob Dylan
In 1988, John Barnes, despite his celebrity status as the first black trailblazer in the English football, had a banana thrown at him. Much like Bob, John did let his day-job do most of the talking for him, but when he did have a mic, his comments on football racism would be as incisive as his dribbles, and as hard-hitting as his pile-driver 30-yard-punts into the top-corner of public consciousness. Few footballers are ever as articulate off the pitch as they are on it. Back in the Lord Palmerston, it felt more like meeting an old friend than a larger-than-life legend.
Football Paradise: John Charles Bryan Barnes, not many people know this, but your dad named you after the greatest Welsh player ever to kick a ball – John Charles, who played as a centre-forward and a centre-back. He attained legendary status due to his versatility, and perhaps it’s fitting that you later in your career turned into a deep-lying playmaker, and did very well.
How difficult is it for a player when a manager makes that decision and you have to completely re-invent your game when you have played your life in a different position – tactically, physically?
John Barnes: [Laughs] Mine was out of necessity. For him, it was mostly because he could do both…It depends on the character of the player. It wasn’t difficult for me as I wanted to play. At Watford I learned at a very early age, then at Liverpool – the most important thing is the service you can give to the team, whatever the team requires.
From an egotistical point of view, players today may argue – ‘I don’t want to do that. I’m better than this, I’m a superstar’ – someone who just wants run down the wings for the adulation of the fans, than be sidelined by the manager. That, or do you want to still be of service to the team?
As a 17-year-old boy, I knew that at Watford. Coming to Liverpool, imbibing Bill Shankly’s philosophy, it was never a disappointment for me as I still could add value to the team. A lot of people can get depressed about it, but it never bothered me.
FP: Most of the fans who watched you play in the 90s would testify that you really did give it your whole.
JB: [Interjects] Even if the fans didn’t, it wouldn’t bother me as a professional as long as the manager thinks I can do a job.
FP: Let’s go back a bit, back to 1987. There was a prolonged delay for the first match of the 1987 season at Anfield due to some construction work. Having moved from “South of the Watford gap”, aged 24, to Liverpool, European giants at the time, to scoring on your home debut after that long wait, in front of the Anfield faithful – can you talk us through the sort of mental preparation that’s required for a player to be performing at such a high level?
JB: My mental preparation, how I approach the game would completely different. It differs from player to player, there is no right or wrong way of going about it. You do what is drawn from your character.
I was comfortable. I didn’t see my first game at Liverpool as my initiation. There was pre-season training, and by the end of the first week, it seemed like I have been there for my whole life.
FP: You felt that comfortable?
JB: Myself and Peter Beardsley struck up a partnership, and the way this team played together – by the first game vs Arsenal at Highbury, I felt no pressure. I knew that this was a fantastic team that I was a part of, so there was no sense of trepidation as to how the game was going to go, how I was going to fit in, how I will play.
Sometimes when you are with a new team, in those days people said, ‘you have to give the team six months, one year’ – you don’t know how long it’ll take to click. You need to give a team time. But I have to say, there was myself, Beardsley, Aldridge, and Houghton – from the first week, we all gelled. We played Bayern Munich in pre-season and then the following fixtures including that 1-2 win vs Arsenal made us feel so much at ease – the comfort that I’ve had in playing in that team, that quiet confidence superseded any fear of performing in front of the home fans.
FP: There have been innumerable breathtaking dribbles, you being an effervescent winger, and many more spectacular goals, a highlight being that one vs Brazil at the Maracana in ‘84, poetically – you were a Watford player then and already an established international…
JB: [Interjects] Yes, what also helped me adapt at Liverpool was the fact that I’ve already been playing in the top division for six years, and playing for the England for 4 years – I was a seasoned international player. The problem that you have now is when players play well for 6 months and they go to a big club – can you handle that, are you ready for that? There is a case of ‘too much, too soon’, and you haven’t really shown a level of consistency. In the old days, you have had to show a level of consistency before you get to a big club like Liverpool. By the time you get to Liverpool, you should be an international player, an experienced player who has over a period of four-five years has shown that you can do it week in week out. Whereas, what happens now, a young player has a few good games and commands a nonsensical 50 million pound transfer fee. As a young player, sometimes you’re good, sometimes you not, and patience wears thin, the player and the club suffer.
FP: Apart from those goals, personally, it was you casually back-heeling that banana at the Goodison, that was perhaps the most poetic gesture anyone has ever made against racism on a football pitch.
Do believe the racism has eased off in football or is it not as overt anymore?
Secondly, why is there such glaring dearth of black managers in football?
JB: In terms of overt racism, you don’t hear it anymore. If you participate in racist chants, you’ll obviously get kicked out of the ground. They keep their mouth shut, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So, when you strictly talk about overt racism, it’s virtually nonexistent, but every now and then you get to see it on the international stages.
You’ll just have to look at the situation, as you’ve mentioned with the lack of black managers – but you can’t prove that sort of covert agenda, even though it’s apparent. Back in the old days, it was out in the open, throwing a banana at you was accepted, as were racist chants…But if they still don’t like you, and won’t give you an opportunity at the helm of a football club, or owe you an explanation, then racism is still there, but you can’t prove it. That for me is the biggest hurdle to overcome in football – not overt racism, but the unconscious racism that’s still prevalent in all walks of society. It’s understandable that it creeps into football. You can’t separate football from society – what goes on in society will permeate through the sport.
IM: Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge, Ian Rush. Liverpool had great players around John Barnes that complemented him and vice versa, which helped raise everyone’s’ level, that competition for places.
With this Liverpool side which has lacked that consistent world class quality, collectively or individually, do you think it’s disillusioning for players like Coutinho, the way we kept selling our best players? Would Liverpool be better placed with a policy where instead of buying a player who would develop over 2-3 years, the club gets someone with immediate solutions?
JB: Well, a player who will provide you with immediate solutions is going to cost you more and demand a higher threshold for salary. Which we won’t pay but Manchester City, Chelsea will. Secondly, what you just said about John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge and Ian Rush, yes, great players, but what’s more important is the team of the 11 players collectively. It’s equally important for all those players that you’ve mentioned to acknowledge, respect and value their team-mates that fans may not consider ‘great’ – that’s what makes for a great unit that wins the ball for each other.
Unfortunately, what we do now, is sum up a team by the likes of a Steven Gerrard or a Luis Suarez, consequently putting them above their team-mates. That apotheosis makes them see themselves above their team-mates. The question you asked typifies that misplaced sense of loyalty – about how do we keep Coutinho happy? Listen, [laughs] Coutinho is the luckiest boy in the world, he’s playing for Liverpool Football Club. Why do we have to keep him happy? He has to keep us happy!
This is a featured irony of modern football, whereby clubs have to win matches and buy players to keep players motivated. We don’t need players who see themselves above the club. This is a big problem in modern football and in England more than anywhere else. Clubs need to wrestle back the narrative and subvert player-power.
So, the most important part is for players like John Barnes, John Aldridge, Alan Hansen to look at their teammates and think, we are not better than you, we are just like you, striving for a common good. So, when we lose, we take the responsibility for the result, all of us. We don’t do that now, do we? With Suarez and Gerrard and the likes, we say, ‘it’s not your fault, it’s all of theirs’. And if and when those great players start feeling that way, then it’ll be a recipe for disaster.
Liverpool isn’t a stepping stone. We have to sign players who will have the respect for the team and what the club stands for. What happened in my time is when players moved to a big club – if Liverpool’s not winning, you stay at Liverpool, because of the institution that it is. For example, Bryan Robson went to Manchester United, they weren’t winning but he persisted. Nowadays, even if you finish second, the player moves. Look at Arsenal. Why leave when you can help Arsenal finish on top the next season?
I think it’s time now for fans to understand that and give the power back to the clubs. If a superstar player disrespects the club by touting himself for a better payday or a new deal, saying the club lacks ambition, even if he’s scored fifty goals that season, the fans should come out and say – ‘leave, we don’t want you here.’
Klopp has said he doesn’t want players who don’t get the club, no matter who they are.
FP: That brings us to our final question. You’ve worked under a great manager in Kenny, and you can sense a lot of belief coming back into everyone associated with the club with Juergen Klopp. What would you say would be identifiable markers that a team is going in the right direction? How many can you tick off so far?
JB: In terms of Klopp’s philosophy, in terms of how the club should be run, the structure, and what have you, there are similarities with Bill Shankly. With Kenny Dalglish, however, we also won because we had great players. That’s why we won. So, it does come down to having a group of good players who can function as a team. Klopp finished 8th last season having come back in 10 games too late, which is not ideal. But this season he did have the time to implement his strategy and getting in better players, and it’s showing. We have a good manager, that’s in place; the fans are behind him – the progress has been made, now all that’s left to get are the results, and maintaining that level of consistency.