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Sports Life Stories

  • Episode: 

    6 of 8

  • Title: 

    John Barnes
  • Transmission (TX): 

    Tue 31 Mar 2015
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    10.10pm - 11.10pm
  • Week: 

    Week 14 2015 : Sat 28 Mar - Fri 03 Apr
  • Channel: 

The information contained herein is strictly embargoed from all press, online and social media use, non-commercial publication, or syndication until Tuesday 24 March 2015.
Episode 5 - John Barnes
“If they had a problem with John Barnes’s race, it wasn’t half the problem they had when they tried to play football against him.” - Kenny Dalglish
In the sixth episode of this new series, former Liverpool and England football legend John Barnes talks to Gabriel Clarke about his journey from being spotted by a taxi driver as a youngster, to becoming a pioneering black player and winning league titles with Liverpool.
With contributions from fellow footballers Steve McManaman and Ian Wright as well as his former managers Kenny Dalglish and Graham Taylor, Sports Life Stories follows the left winger’s career from growing up as a young boy in Jamaica to signing for Watford for the price of some new kits, and on to glory in the famous Liverpool team of the late 1980s.
It also traces the story of a pioneering footballer who faced racist taunts from the terraces and overcame them to become one of the game’s top players.
John explains that as the son of a colonel in the Jamaican army, he was excited about his family’s move to England when his father was sent there for work - mainly because he would get the opportunity to play football with other players. He says: “My mum and dad will tell you they put a football in the crib when I was about three years old. I used to play football by myself a lot in Jamaica growing up, just playing by myself with the ball every day.”
After moving to England, his talent was spotted by a passing taxi driver when John was playing a game in North West London - and the message reached Watford manager Graham Taylor. He says: “He was recommended to us by a taxi driver, who spoke to one of our scouts, who said we ought to go and see this young boy who was playing for Sudbury Court. His name as Barnes.”
As John progressed through the ranks at Watford, his star began to rise after a televised game against Norwich in 1981 in which the tricky winger completely outplayed his opposite number, Scottish international Willie Donachie. Ian Wright explains that Taylor’s long-ball tactics worked to John’s advantage. He says: “They had such a direct team but he was the creativity and the class. That bit of magic.”
John made his England debut aged 19, in 1983. A year later, he scored probably his most well-known goal, dancing through the Brazilian defence at the Maracana to give England a famous 1-0 victory. He explains his thought process after he picked the ball up on the left, facing goal: “I remember chesting the ball down when Mark Hateley passes it to me. Then of course, I’ve gone on a run. I remember wanting to shoot when I got to the edge of the box with my left foot, but Tony Woodcock was in the way. I dragged the ball inside, and then looked up and I’ve just seen the goalkeeper. And I thought, ‘How did I get here?’”
In 1987, John was sold to Liverpool, joining a team which also featured John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton that season as part of a formidable forward line. Taylor says: “We had him for six years for goodness’ sake, we couldn’t keep him any more. He was too good for us.”
Ian Wright explains how from his point of view, John’s move opened the door for black players to move to the biggest clubs. He says: “If John Barnes goes and fails at somewhere like Liverpool that puts us back. I don’t know how much longer it would have taken for us to get through to that level.”
But the settled life John had in London came under threat at Liverpool because people were racist to him, though he says he didn’t let it affect him. He says: “I got a few letters, yes. Saying, ‘You black “this”, you shouldn’t be playing for Liverpool, blah blah blah.”
Yet the team he walked into was, according to Steve McManaman, amongst the finest Anfield had seen - with John the main attacking force. He says: “The best for me. That was the team I would have loved to have played in. And Barnesy was the instigator, really. He was the man at the front, he was the man who did everything.”
Despite winning two league championships with the team, John still blames himself for Michael Thomas’s late goal in 1989 which gave Arsenal the title at Anfield. He lost the ball to Kevin Richardson at the other end of the pitch, the ball was punted upfield, eventually landing at the feet of Thomas. The rest is history - but Kenny Dalglish maintains it wasn’t his fault. He says: “John shouldn’t be blaming himself. Yeah, we were disappointed but you can’t have everything in life and for us although we would have loved to win the league, the FA Cup was a big one for us that year because of what it meant to the families of the people who had lost somebody at Hillsborough.”
That match came just a month after the tragic events at the FA Cup semi-final, and John attended funerals and met the families of victims like other players following the disaster. He says: “I felt this guilt that they were coming to watch me. I know that they were coming to watch everybody else, and it’s Liverpool Football Club. It’s an irrational thought. So I felt this guilt. And I wasn’t sure how they would react because had that been my loved one, I wouldn’t want to go and meet footballers or the football team, or ever watch football again.”
While his club career hit its peak at Anfield, John’s England career never reached the heights he hoped it might have done - despite his rapping contribution to the 1990 World Cup song, World In Motion. Despite then-manager Sir Bobby Robson saying he didn’t play as well for England as for Liverpool, John puts it down to the fact the team’s style never suited him - and Ian Wright agrees. He says: “How can the great Bobby Robson say something like that and not think to himself, ‘Well, what more can I do with respect to this team and that kind of player?’ What, you couldn’t build a team around someone like John Barnes?”
John ruptured his achilles tendon just before Euro ‘92 and was never the same player again, because he had to adapt his style of play. In the meantime, Liverpool’s two-decade long legacy of trophy-winning success had dried up. John says: “Every time coming into April we had a chance of winning the league and I knew because of our indiscipline, and our lack of drive, determination, professionalism, we would fade away at the end. And we did.”
After leaving Liverpool in 1997 and retiring from playing, John had an unsuccessful spell as manager of Celtic, before short periods in charge of the Jamaican national side and Tranmere Rovers. Now he says he is struggling to get another job as a manager, and dismisses the idea that the Celtic was too much, too soon. He says: ”Well if it comes now at 51, I don’t think it will be any different. It’s more to do with the perception of my ability to do the job, because there’s a certain perception of who can make a good manager.”
Steve McManaman says John should be remembered for his exceptional playing skills: “He set the goals very high, did Barnesy, and I hope he goes down as one of the great figures in British football, because he certainly should be.”
Yet John is philosophical about his legacy as a top footballer of the 1980s and 1990s. He says: “I never saw myself as one of the best players in the world. I look at other players and think they are fantastic, but if you ask me about the way I see myself, I see myself as a good player but I suppose I can’t see myself as the superstar.”
Series overview
Featuring top names from Olympic gold medalists to Champions League winners, the award-winning Sports Life Stories series focuses on the lives of iconic sporting figures.
Each of the eight episodes in this returning series tells the tale of a sporting legend, allowing each individual to open up about their careers and personal lives, and giving a vivid insight into how the impact of their achievements can reach into people's lives.
This series features:
Footballer Peter Shilton
Cyclist Chris Froome
Athlete Paula Radcliffe
Footballer Andy Cole
Athlete Linford Christie
Footballer John Barnes
Rugby player Jason Robinson
Boxer Carl Froch
Contributions from well-known friends and admirers illuminate the lives and work of the subjects and provide a close view into what drives them to succeed in their careers.