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Barnes still a touch of class

By JAMES BOYLAN | China Daily | Updated: 2023-05-09 09:18
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John Barnes interacts with kids during a coaching clinic in Beijing on April 30. The Liverpool legend joined coaches from the club's international academy at the event, which was organized by insurance giant AXA. CHINA DAILY

Liverpool legend lives up to reputation as one of the game's nice guys during recent Beijing charity trip

John Barnes was always a class act on the pitch — off it, he still has the golden touch. On a sunny Sunday morning in Beijing, the Liverpool legend fields questions with intelligence, eloquence and poise — all qualities that made him such a rare talent in the English top flight throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Paying a visit to the capital over the Labor Day holiday to represent Liverpool at a coaching clinic for underprivileged kids, it's clear that compassion is another of Barnes' traits. Despite having just jetted in the night before, the 59-year-old's enthusiasm and patience never seem to wane with the children and a steady stream of selfie-seeking fans.

"It's the same all over the world — kids love football," Barnes says with the same beaming smile that accompanied his goal celebrations. "They may never be — just like most kids in England — professional footballers, but they love it. So the most important thing is for them to enjoy it, and that's what they do."

A strong supporter of children's charities throughout his life, Barnes credits his relatively comfortable upbringing — first in Jamaica and then in England after moving there with his family aged 12 — for his philanthropic tendencies.

"I've been very fortunate in terms of what football has given me. And if you have an opportunity to use whatever profile you have to make people's lives better, you should, even if it means just giving them a little hope, a little joy," he says. "That's what we do, particularly with children, because I've got seven kids myself, and I see how fortunate my children are.

"I also know that in different circumstances, I could have been a disadvantaged kid. I was fortunate that my dad was a diplomat, so I had quite a privileged life in Jamaica before I came to England. But I look around Jamaica (nowadays) and I see kids who were just like me and just like my children. I know that could have been me. And, if that was me, I would like somebody to give me an opportunity to fulfill whatever ambition or potential I have."

A winger blessed with Brazilian-esque flair, Barnes certainly delivered on his own potential, and is widely recognized as one of the greatest players England has ever produced.

He initially rose to prominence with unfashionable Watford in the early 80s — an era when the English game was more about crunching tackles than craft. Barnes' wing wizardry was a dazzling antidote to the often uninspired fare on display at the time. Even the then ubiquitous racist abuse from the terraces couldn't trip him up — he famously once deftly, and disdainfully, flicked a banana off the pitch during a Merseyside derby in a perfect retort to the bigots.

Beijing memories

The Workers' Stadium in Beijing was lucky to witness the young Barnes in action when Watford played Team China in 1983.

"I remember there were 80,000 people in the stadium and 80,000 bikes outside, and I just wondered how could they figure out who owns which bike!" he fondly recalls of that trip.

When Barnes joined Liverpool in 1987 it was a perfect fit. The Reds' patient continental-style passing approach brought out his best and proved, with the right players, there was a viable alternative to the strong-arm, long-ball tactics of the time.

He went on to win two top-flight titles, two FA Cups and one League Cup with the Reds before leaving for Newcastle.

Barnes had plenty of memorable moments in an England shirt too — most notably a mesmerizing goal against Brazil in a 1984 friendly in Rio. However, he never quite hit the heights for the Three Lions that he did for Liverpool.

"Playing for England was different, because, back then, it was about aggression. Therefore, you had to be physical. It wasn't about the technical players," Barnes says.

"I'll use Glenn Hoddle as an example. He was probably the most technical player I've ever seen, even to this day, but he only had around 50 England caps, because football back then was about fighting and kicking, not about technique. Whereas with Liverpool, I played a very technical game."

He is glad to see Gareth Southgate's current England crop embracing the possession game — although he reckons the scales may have tipped a little too far in the other direction.

"If you look at Raheem Sterling, and now you have Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, they're all playing regularly for England. We have a lot of them (flair players), of course, that's where we have a problem, getting all of them into the team," Barnes says.

"Our problem is we need to defend at this level, our balance isn't necessarily right. We need more defensive midfielders who want to win the ball and track back like (West Ham's) Declan Rice. So I think we went from one extreme to the other, whereby we were very, very physical and now we're only creating technical players.

"But you also have to have the balance. Look at Argentina, they're a technical team, but they have tough defenders as well. And we don't really cultivate those types of players."

As for Liverpool's relatively underwhelming season so far, Barnes is "not too concerned" but hopes to see some midfield reinforcements arrive in the summer.

China's potential

And just like the youngsters at the coaching clinic, Barnes has words of encouragement for the long-suffering fans of the Chinese men's team.

"I know in this part of the world, we've got Japan and South Korea as the powerhouses here. And I suppose from a development point of view, from the 2000s, they had a program whereby their football was developed from a league perspective, which then helped the national team," he says.

"Maybe China is behind that at the moment, but China has the quality and the numbers. So, with a program in place, I do know China has the potential. And if you look at what South Korea and Japan have done, if you look at the last World Cup, I'm sure that with the right infrastructure and development, China has the potential to do that."

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