John Barnes of Watford in action during the Canon League Division One match against Tottenham Hotspur (Getty Images)John Barnes of Watford in action during the Canon League Division One match against Tottenham Hotspur (Getty Images) © Copyright

John Barnes talks life, being legal and taking one for the team

Football hero who defined a generation tells us about getting his lucky break from a cabbie, his magically appearing passport, the changing face of racism, and why he reckons the likes of Sterling and Stones should stick around before taking the plunge.

In the last issue of FS we ran a short interview on what John Barnes has learned from a life spent winning stuff. We love Barnesy. He was probably the coolest man in the world at one point in 1988. And when he starts talking, we listen. So here's the full unabridged interview:

Your father was a military man, is that right?

My father was a military attaché from Jamaica to England. He was a colonel in the Jamaican army and he got a posting as a diplomat just for four years to England. I came when I was just 13. We knew the family was going to go back when I was 17, so I was expected to go back to Jamaica. Six months before I was due to go back I was playing football for a team called Sudbury Court locally, and a taxi driver was driving by saw the game, knew a scout who then came to watch. I was very fortunate for the way it happened, but back in 1980 this was the way players were signed. You didn’t have academies, you just had to be lucky and be spotted.

There were so many players at that time who I played with who I thought were equally as good as me who just weren’t spotted, so they never made it.

Up until that point, were you of the mind that you would be going back?

My dad played football for Jamaica, so I grew up playing and knew I would always play. I was offered a scholarship to go to Washington University, so I knew I will have played football, maybe gone to university on a scholarship, or played in Jamaica. In terms of thinking about being a professional footballer, I never really thought about it.

Now I travel all over the world and kids who love football play football, maybe now they have a dream of playing in the Premier League because they see it on the television every day. Whereas when I played in Jamaica I didn’t know about teams in England. Coming to England I used to go to QPR and Arsenal, but the dream of being a professional – me, especially going back to Jamaica – I didn’t have.  

John Barnes and Luther Blisset with football (Getty Images)


So it was football that kept you in the country, and then fairly quickly you were thrown in to the England side. Was there ever choice about which country you would play for?

Back then it wasn’t even an issue. Jamaica didn’t even know about me. They didn’t know there was John Barnes and he could play for us instead. The biggest question really was whether to play for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales because I came a British citizen and could have played for any of the four. In fact my first 18 months of playing for England I still had a Jamaican passport.

I used to go to Russia with a Jamaican passport. I was kept at the airport for an hour because people wondered why I had a Jamaican passport and I was playing for England. So it was only after 18 months that I then got a British passport, and I really don’t know how I got it. I don’t remember filling any forms in, so maybe I’m still illegal I’m not sure! One just turned up on the doorstep.

Last season you were making noises that it would be best for Sterling to stay at Liverpool. You yourself stayed at Watford longer than you could have done. Was it a conscious decision to turn down offers?

It was the right decision [for me to stay at Watford for six years]. Peter Beardsley was the same, he was at Newcastle for five or six years before he went to Liverpool. In those days you had to show a level of consistency over a period of four or five years before you got a chance to go to a big club. Football has changed so much that you can have six good games and all of a sudden you’re talking about going to a big club. Are you able to handle that? Have you got the right mentality?

For young players, I’d always advise them, if they can, to stay at a club where they feel more comfortable, where the pressure isn’t on them. You see Raheem now, he’s on the bench, he’s been substituted. He’s had 18 whirlwind months, so to then judge him as a £50 million player is difficult.

After I scored that goal in Brazil in 1984 as a 20-year-old, I remember Luther Blissett going to AC Milan and I felt very jealous. All the top players were going to Italy, I wanted to go to Italy, loved Italian football. Graeme Taylor, who cares about his players not just his team, said ‘it’s not the right time for you to go, you’ve only been in the game two years, you have to show a level of consistency to show you’re able to handle this’.

Had I gone to Liverpool or Arsenal or a big club at 19, will I have been able to handle the pressure that comes with that? I don’t know, but I’m just glad that I made that move at 23. I’d been an England international for nearly four years, already had 40 England caps, and I was able to handle that pressure. 

John Barnes and Olaf Thon (Getty Images)


When you did slot into that Liverpool side and that incredible attacking line up, what qualities had you developed by being that little bit more mature? 

You mention the word there: maturity. I am showing that I can perform consistently under any circumstance. when things are going well, when things are going badly. But also I’m mature enough to understand to not believe the hype.

When people say how great you are, don’t believe them. If you’ve never had hard times how do you deal with bad times when they come? How do you handle that? How do you handle the good times? So maturity is very important. Only through experience can you get that maturity of knowing how to handle different situations in the glare of the public eye.

Of course, I went through similar situations at Watford in terms of playing well playing badly, however, it was not in the glare of the world. People don’t stop you in the street everywhere you go and either say good or bad things about you. That’s the hardest thing about handling the situation – not playing well or playing badly, but being able to handle the situation of everything you do now is in the spotlight.

One thing that you always seemed to handle well was the issue of racism.

That’s an individual issue, that’s nothing to do with maturity. I handled it when I was 17 the same as I handled it now when I’m 51. It’s nothing to do with you as a person. It was more of a fact that people couldn’t get to me. Not to say that the way I deal with it is right, and the way Ian Wright or somebody else deals with it is wrong. It’s a very personal situation that’s got nothing to do with your maturity as a footballer, it’s just your beliefs in the way to handle a situation like that.

Do you think there are still things that need to be addressed with racism in the modern game?

Not in the modern game: in modern society. You can’t take football out of society. If there’s racism in society there’s racism in football. Racism hasn’t changed at all. The face of it has changed. Whereby what football has said is that you can’t racially abuse anybody any more, which is fine, so therefore they keep quiet. But does that mean they’re not racist because you can’t hear it? First of all, before you’re football fan, racist or otherwise, you’re a member of society. So you can’t lay racism on the doorstep of football. The fact that now you don’t hear racist chants in football stadiums doesn’t mean there isn’t racism; all it means is that racists keep their mouths shut.

How many black football managers are there? How many black football chairmen? How many black football administrators are there? Now because you’re not racially abusing them doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. And football can do nothing about getting rid of racism, all it can do is govern its own house, which means in and around the stadium you keep your mouth shut. Does that mean we’re getting rid of racism? Not at all.

So it is too simplistic to say that because you don’t hear it any more it doesn’t exist. Overt racism is much better; because you cant have any racist chants or slogans around any more. But the reality of racism being changed because of that? Not at all. That hasn’t changed.

Ronnie Rosenthal, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen and John Barnes of Liverpool celebrate (Getty images)


In the early 90s you injured your Achilles and changed your game from an attacking role to a deep lying midfielder. Do you see yourself as an early example of that repositioning that someone like Ryan Giggs did so successfully in his last few seasons at Manchester United? 

Ryan’s wasn’t forced on him at a young age. I was only 29, supposed to be coming into my prime and it happened to me. Ryan had to do it because he got old. If I’d got to 35/36 and got injured I would have to have done that anyway. Fortunately, with that maturity of understanding how to play different positions, meant that I was able to do that. Whereas with mine, it was really forced on me at a time when ideally I wouldn’t have liked it to have happened.

So I think when you talk about intelligent footballers who understand how to play different positions, although they are probably not as good in other positions as they were in their favoured position, there are players like that – the difference with mine is that it was forced on me at a time when I really should have been coming into the prime of my career.

And yet, perhaps it gave the next generation of attacking players at Liverpool space to develop. I’m thinking Steve McManaman, Robbie…

… Fowler. And also that’s because of my experience as well. We had a very young side and I probably felt that I had to be more responsible in the way that I played; played more for the team than I did for myself. But that has to do, once again, with the experience and maturity aligned to playing in a very young Watford side. Had the Ronnie Whelans, the Jan Molbys and Steve McMahon been around, maybe I could have still decided that I could still do a little bit more for myself rather than the team, but I really felt that with a lot of the young players coming in, and I became the captain, I had to be responsible.

So there were times when I could have done a little bit more. But what was demanded of me for the team was for McManaman to do what I used to do, so I’m not even gonna try and do it. Even though I maybe felt that I could still do it at times. So I became much more of a team player then.

John Aldrige, John Barnes and Steve McMahon of Liverpool hold the League Champions trophy aloft (Getty Images)


When it comes to England, you’re probably best known for that goal in the Maracana, but what would your fondest memory as an international be?

Playing in the world cup, obviously. The first World Cup in ‘86 when I was on the bench, for all intents and purposes we were going out to the world cup and I hadn’t even been on the pitch, because I’d been on the bench but not come on. We were losing 2-0 to Argentina, then to come on in that first world cup game and be able to say that I’ve played in a world cup. If you go to a World Cup and you’re on the bench and you don’t play, how do you feel that you’ve played or been in the team when you’ve not even been on the pitch?

And to be on the pitch with, who in my opinion was the greatest player, Diego Maradona, was a great honour. That for me, coming on against Argentina.

I went on to play in 1990 but I wasn’t to know that, obviously. This was the world cup in 86 and it could be my last. A game like that, to be involved in, when Maradona did what he did, it was an honour.

John Barnes was speaking to FS on behalf of


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