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By Matthew Handley
As John Barnes picks up the ball at the touchline, he notices a space between the Brazilian right back Leandro and his defensive partner Gomes. Barnes runs past them both, taking out the other centre-back, Carlos Mozer. With 100,000 in the stands of the Maracana stadium, Barnes finds himself in the box in a position to comfortably slot the ball home.
Rather than shooting, he knocks the ball past a defender before dragging it out of reach of Roberto Costa’s grasping hands and passing it into the net.
It was a dazzling move in the home of Brazilian football, where the ghosts of Garrincha and Pele are ever-present. It was also typical of a player who pleased the crowds with his flair, but always found himself in the margins of international squads.
Even today, speaking at the Oxford Union, he is a crowd-pleaser, chatting to fans and signing their merchandise. Liverpool shirts abound, but the yellow of Watford also appears, a club who have fallen more than the Reds in recent years. With the Elite Players Performance Plan threatening the youth system that developed him, I ask John whether Watford will be affected. “The talent of the first team squad won’t be,” he says, “the likes of Tottenham will be able to poach the best talent, but many of these players will drop out and end up lower down the pyramid”. It is the financial side that worries him – when asked if a side like Watford could rise through the divisions again, he admits it won’t happen “without big investment”, and with the lower revenues from player sales, “EPPP could have a major effect on the financial side of the clubs”.
The academy system has certainly changed since Barnes came through. “Even 15/16 years ago an average and hard-working player like Jamie Carragher could make it at Liverpool, now they have the money to buy the best players in the world,” Barnes argues. Perhaps this is forgetting Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing’s performances this season, I suggest. “But these players aren’t given time,” he counters. “By the time I joined Liverpool I had scored 65 goals in six seasons; John Aldridge scored 72 for Oxford United in three seasons. Andy Carroll had one and a half seasons with Newcastle before the transfer.”
He certainly seems willing to give Liverpool time. Dalglish’s side look set for their lowest league finish since relegation in 1954, and trophies will only “soften the blow”. That’s not to say Dalglish should be sacked: “If he goes, another manager will come in and spend another £200 million, and then he’ll be sacked so someone else comes in and spends another £200million. Someone has to be given time at some point.”
Of course, the club he most admires are Barcelona, “a team with a philosophy” like no other since Ajax in the 1970s. “They have an identity with fans and with players, not just in terms of style but in their ethics.” This team identity is vital to football, especially now that players have so much control. “Why should Roy Hodgson have to win over the players?” Barnes asks. “They should have to win over him.” He certainly makes a good point on a sport that now seems run by the players.
The new England manager certainly has Barnes’ support, but he is filled with the same pessimism as the rest of the country when it comes to the team’s prospects this summer – “it will be an achievement to qualify from the groups” he says, although “the lack of expectation will help the side as they won’t have the same pressure from the media.”
Barnes also tells the audience at the Union about his affection for the Jamaican national team, but not in the disparaging tones of the “reggae boyz” nickname which, “reduces the team to a figure of fun”. This idea of attitudes underpins much of his argument about racism in football.
As a former Liverpool player, the Suarez and Evra case inevitably rears its head, and Barnes doesn’t back away from it. “The problem is not on the football pitch, but in the mind of the average man on the street” he argues. The “unconscious” racism of the policymakers is more of an issue than individual words he argues. “How many black people are in senior positions at the FA?” he asks, an uncomfortable question for many. The focus on words rather than actions particularly irks Barnes – he talks about Ron Atkinson as “a fan of black music and culture” and defends Alan Hansen’s use of the term ‘coloured’ as “the language he has grown up with”.
This attitude towards racism is one of the most refined in the games, and certainly the FA could learn from a man like Barnes. Oh, and his prediction for the FA Cup: two-nil to Liverpool. You can’t be right about everything.
This interview was provided courtesy of The Oxford Union