John Barnes: England’s First Black Superstar

Here’s My First Piece in A Series Looking at Some of Football’s Greatest Talents in the Past. Enjoy.

Credit: EMPICS Sports Agency

Credit: EMPICS Sports Agency

“He Scored! And England, amazingly, are into the lead…right on half-time.” Those were the words of the commentator just a few minutes after a piece of magic by an Englishman. A priceless reaction to what was a very surprising moment.

John Barnes had mesmerized the crowd, and his opponents, with a slalom dribble that left three Brazilian defenders in his wake, and a goalkeeper grasping at thin air, before slotting into an empty net. Looking back, Barnes says in an interview, ‘When you’re dribbling, it’s instinctive. It’s not like when you score a free-kick and you know what you wanted to do. I didn’t know what I’d done until I saw it. I thought, “That looks all right”. It was like an out-of-body experience. I scored a better goal for Watford against Rotherham. This was iconic because it was in the Maracana against Brazil, but it was a friendly.”

As for the goal itself Barnes recalls, “I remember beating Leandro and I remember seeing the goalkeeper in front of me. That’s all. Tony Woodcock was the only one who was miserable because I didn’t pass to him. He’s never forgiven me. The goal changed perceptions of me.”

Throughout his entire career he was capable of producing such moments, something many of his contemporaries in the top levels of English football can attest to.

Sir Alex Ferguson is one manager who regretted not signing the Liverpool legend, and the likes of Sir Tom Finney and George Best had nothing but praise for the left winger. Liverpool teammates in different generations all remember the brilliance that Barnes regularly produced, with one teammate in particular, Peter Beardsley, calling him “The best player I ever played with, bar none. For three or four years at the end of the ’80s, John was possibly the best player in the world.” The fans affections for Barnes was clear as the winger was twice voted in the top ten for best Liverpool players when polled by Liverpool FC TV.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Barnes moved with his family to England at the age of 12. Barnes’ father always urged his children into sports and Barnes made sure to continue his football in his new home, even turning out as a central defender for Stowes Boys Club. He was eventually spotted by Watford and signed for the London club at the age of 17. Under the management of Graham Taylor, the young Barnes blossomed and became an attacking force on the left-wing for the Hornets.

Watford were in the midst of a rise to what was then known as Division 1, and the 17-year-old Barnes had little trouble making an impact.

Despite his age, his mixture of pace, power and technique made him a handful for opponents and he scored 13 goals in his first professional season. Those goals, and his assists, played a major role in Watford finishing their rise and entering the top division. The step up to Division 1 didn’t faze the youngster and he helped Watford to a second place finish in their first season in the top league. An FA Cup final was to follow a year after against Everton but the Hornets were 2-0 losers in that game. On a personal level, Barnes continued to impress and that understandably prompted interest from top clubs in Europe and abroad.

Interestingly, Liverpool was the only club to make a bid. With the resulting move, Barnes ended a six-year relationship with Watford to join the Reds under Kenny Dalglish. It was with the Reds that he became star, and showed his mental strength.

Credit: Liverpool FC

Credit: Liverpool FC

Barnes continued to dominate opponents with his skills and was integral in Liverpool’s Division 1 victory in the 1987/88 season. His performances led to recognition from his peers in the form of the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award to go along with his Football Writers’ Association Footballer of Year award. He had risen to every challenge on the field throughout his career but was soon to meet some off it.

The Liverpool winger was one of those on the pitch on the day of the tragic Hillsborough incident, when Liverpool met Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final. Barnes was deeply affected by this tragedy and he withdrew from the England squad’s upcoming match to attend funerals of some of the victims. He also met with survivors in the hospital and mentions conversing with fans who implored him to play on for the club .

His star status on the field also led to personal attacks as Barnes was subject to constant racial abuse from the stands.

From his days at Watford Barnes recalls “I remember as far back as 1981 playing at places like Millwall and West Ham when you’d get the usual monkey noises and bananas being thrown onto the pitch.” Initially, even Liverpool fans were wary of their new signing. His first season did a lot to sway opinions but Barnes’ temperament also played a big part. The simple fact is that none of it seemed to matter to him as Barnes stated, “I considered them to be ignorant, so I never responded to it because I thought they would have won if it had affected my game.” One memorable incident occurred against rivals, Everton, where he casually back-heeled a banana that was tossed next to him while he was on the pitch. Barnes lack of reaction to the ignorance, his wonderful skill and his professional demeanor made him a legend to another demographic entirely and brought respect from those not of his own skin color.

Barnes may not have been the first black English player, as the likes of Arthur Wharton, Andrew Watson and Walter Tull all came before him and played significant parts in breaking down barriers, but he was the most successful, and the best. His successes also surpass South African-born Albert Johanneson, who was probably the most famous of them all before Barnes. Barnes was a role model who handled his criticism and racism with grace and was disciplined and hardworking in his profession.

It helped that he continued to produce at one of England’s greatest clubs.

Barnes continued to link with the likes of John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley, Ian Rush and Ray Houghton to terrorize Liverpool opponents. Another league title came in the 1989/90 season and two FA cups and a league cup were added as well. Barnes remains one of the few players to win multiple FWA Footballer of the Year awards when he won it again in 1990. His ten years at Liverpool were an undoubted success. Barnes did suffer a loss of pace after a difficult injury to his Achilles tendon but a switch to central midfield allowed him to further showcase his vision and passing abilities. The only thing missing at club level was participation in Europe and that wasn’t possible thanks to the ban on English clubs in Europe due to Liverpool’s part in the Heysel disaster. Things didn’t come together on the international stage either.

Barnes was among another core group of talented attackers for the national side but, like the recently defunct Golden Generation, he failed to reproduce his club performances and achievements. There were moments, the Maracanã goal most obvious of all, but if there was one real slight on his career it would be his ineffectiveness in an England shirt.

Part of that was down to tactics, as the player himself hinted at the difference between Liverpool’s style of play and England’s. Stuck out on the left-wing in a rigid system, Barnes was unable to replicate the movement and passing he did with his club mates. Big tournaments like the 1988 European tournament and Italia 90’ ended in disappointment on a personal level, though the national team did regain respect in latter tournament. Still, 79 caps is the tally for a player who was once was the most capped black player in the English squad and a trailblazer for those who followed.

As time began to wind down on his career, Barnes took on a veteran role at the club in his new midfield position. He helped the likes of Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman progress before eventually moving to new pastures. Short stints at Newcastle, where Kenny Dalglish signed him again, and Charlton eventually led to Barnes retiring after 20 years as a professional.

The Maracanã goal may live on as one of Barnes’ greatest achievements as it so brilliantly highlights the player at his best. He defied belief for many of those watching and made a mark on this game in how he handled himself in tough times and never faltered off the field of play. Barnes did something few other black players before him had done and carved out a place as a legend in one of England’s biggest clubs.

*Any quotes from Barnes taken from this documentary, this documentary and this interview.



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