I grew up and got into football at an unfortunate time. The mid 90’s seems like the misty connection period between the romanticised 80’s and the modern-day, homogenous Premier League times we see today.
I look back at that period and witness football in a new and unexplored direction, there were foreigners entering the game, resulting in a change in the style of football. Whilst at the same time, the game seemed to contain the typically English steely personalities and ‘hard-man’ images that were seen in by-gone eras. Looking back on it, it was a very perplexing time in football, the direction of the new game was not clear as the Premiership changed the backdrop of the English game. It was in this era in that I found my favourite player.
The John Barnes of the mid 90’s was a strange player, for all I knew at the time, he was just a slightly porky central midfielder who looked uncomfortable in the middle of the park. There was something mesmerising about the way he passed and moved with the ball. It was intriguing watching such a naturally stylish player look so uneasy in that position. The problem was, I didn’t know about his past, I didn’t know that he was a winger that helped produce some of the most entertaining football England has ever witnessed.
It’s the process of the re-definition of John Barnes that makes him my favourite player – from a portly midfielder with a stomach like an oak barrel to the lean, balanced and harmonious winger of the late 80’s. It was the search for the old, true John Barnes that led me to watching, downloading, enquiring with my Dad about Liverpool during that period. John Barnes was the catalyst for my craving to understand football further.
On the pitch, “Digger” was the archetypal Liverpool player. He was hard working and a definite team player; it is these characteristics that are needed to be popular by Liverpool standards. Barnes however, twinned those fundamentals with the finesse that would nowadays still be remarkable. Added to this, he was as quick as a whippet whilst maintaining superb balance and poise when running with the ball.
To top it all off, he was not a ‘head down and run’ sort of winger, he was intelligent. Always keeping his head up, always looking for something different and always looking to create as well as score goals. His wing-play was extraordinary, but his movement in-field was striking – his fondness for one-twos with Peter Beardsley is a move sewn into the footballing tapestry of Liverpool Football Club.
His willingness to move inside and join up with Beardsley was a move that separated him from other wingers of the time. Instead of looking to shift the ball to one-foot and cross it, Barnes was more than comfortable looking to pass inside, then run between centre-backs and full-backs, looking to receive the ball and score for himself. In his first season at the club he scored seventeen goals, second only to John Aldridge. Two years later however, in the 1989/90 season, he managed to score 22 goals in the league, four more than Liverpool returnee Ian Rush. A frightening record for someone traditionally classed as a standard winger.
Sadly, Liverpool have never come close to replacing him after a series of injuries forced him to move into the centre of midfield. The upsetting thing is, people who remember him first-hand as a central midfield would have never felt the anticipation and buzz as fans who saw him on the wing felt as he received the ball, with the full-backs already backtracking to protect themselves from a skinning. It’s even more distressing to think that children getting into the game now may think the game exists currently is the way it has always been, ‘retro’ (I mean that term loosely) football evokes different emotions to the football we watch on the TV now.
From a personal point of view, John Barnes was the player who made me connect with the Liverpool teams of yesteryear, making me realise how football isn’t just about the here and now, it is about stories and players of the past – it is these characters that we will not get to read about when books are published about the ‘Premier League years’. John Barnes was the player who pulled me out of the modern Premier League ‘bubble’ – something that really adds value and worth to the game of football.