“I think we’ve gone too far the other way now,” said John Barnes, a 79-cap former England international and definitive source on our country’s half-decade in the wilderness.
Barnes is perhaps no more outspoken than the countless other former Three Lions stars who have criticised England’s inability to perform on the world stage and asked the resulting questions about our tactical perspective of the beautiful game, our method of developing young players and our footballing culture.
Nonetheless, his views are particularly poignant. Barnes’ favourite England player was Glenn Hoddle, the archetype of technically-gifted Englishmen overlooked in the national team in favour of more industrious alternatives, and Three Lions fans often questioned why the powerful, creative and skilful winger, indisputably one of the world’s best talents at his peak, could never quite replicate his Liverpool performances in an England jersey.
“We’re trying to develop individual technique, but you have to develop an identity of the way England play. Now, we’re dependent on great individual players to win us matches. Spain rely on their system. Germany relies on their system. If you look at Germany’s players, player-for-player, they’re not world superstars. Look at Thomas Muller, for example. You wouldn’t say he’s a Messi or a Ronaldo, but he’s won the World Cup.
“So what England have to do is develop a way of playing rather than say ‘let’s go and develop these Ross Barkleys and Raheem Sterlings who can beat ten players’ because it’s a team sport and we have to play well as a team. We still don’t play well as a team, we have better individual players technically but that doesn’t help us.
“If we had eleven footballs, it would help us because we’ve got great individual players. But we’ve gone so far from having players who were all just about having effort, commitment and desire, to players who have 50 touches on the ball. We have to have the right balance and for me the balance isn’t right. We’re developing these players who are very comfortable on the ball, but do they know how to play in a team, do they know how to play in their positions, do they know how to play without the ball? That is where Spain and Germany are way ahead of us.”
Do you feel like you were before your time, in some respects, not only in regards to England but also domestic football? Physically and technique-wise, you were almost like the kind of player we’d see in the Premier League today.
“Not at all. We could talk about players playing in different times. Look at Stanley Matthews, for example, when he played in the 50s. That’s the way it was in the 50s and in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s and the 90s. So no. You play when you play. Players now aren’t better than they were in the old days.
“They get paid more money than they did in the old days and that’s the biggest difference between football then and football now; they always had superstar players but the average players get paid a lot more now. Average players are earning £80k, £90k, £100k a week. That’s the biggest difference. But great players are great players no matter what era it is, so I don’t think I was ahead of my time – I was in the right time. Financially I’d rather be in the now, but playing-wise, I was in the right time.
So if that’s the biggest change off the pitch, what has been the biggest change on the pitch since you stopped playing?
“Well, I think that the laws of the game have changed too much. You look at the inconsistency now in refereeing, I don’t blame the referees – I blame the laws. In my day offside was offside. It was simple. Referees could make decisions based on their instinct, based on their common sense, whereas now they can’t.
“Therefore, you see players getting yellow cards and red cards for ridiculous things and as I said, I don’t blame the referees. Once you change the laws to protect skilful players, that’s wrong. The laws of the game should protect all eleven players. So you can see why players are diving and perceived to be cheating because they are bending the rules. In the old days, you wouldn’t have to do that.
“From a playing perspective, I think the players are fitter now. When I played there was still a drinking culture rather than a professional culture. The players now are much more professional and they look after themselves. The diet and all that has changed, but football in itself hasn’t changed. It’s more to do with the physical aspects, being fitter than they were in my day.”
Liverpool’s malaise since their dominance of the 1970s and 1980s is another subject where the 52-year-old’s views carry particular gravitas. After signing from Watford in 1987, Barnes lifted two league titles and two FA Cups during his first five seasons at Anfield, winning the PFA Player of the Year award and the FWA Footballer of the Year award (twice) in the process. During the remaining five years of his decade on Merseyside, however, Barnes saw just one more piece of silverware – the 1995 League Cup – and Liverpool haven’t won a league title since.
Now nine points off a Champions League spot, even a top four finish is probably beyond the Reds this season. But Barnes clearly feels the appointment of Jurgen Klopp – who took the managerial reigns from Brendan Rodgers in October – is a step in the right direction.
“He’s done as well as can be expected,” said the one-time Celtic and Tranmere boss, upon being asked to assess Klopp’s first four months in charge. “Liverpool need better players. What it has shown, is that it was not all Brendan Rodgers’ fault. Everybody expected ‘because Jurgen Klopp’s there, all of a sudden we’re going to go up the league and get to the top because Jurgen Klopp’s a fantastic manager’. He still is a fantastic manager, but it’s about players. They need better players.
“But I think, come the end of the season, he will be able to bring in his own players so Liverpool will improve. I also think he’s learnt a lot about the players he already has and he knows we have to improve the squad. I recognise he’s a fantastic manager but he needs better players.
Do you see that as Klopp’s biggest challenge as Liverpool manager, attracting a superior quality of player?
“It’s been a challenge for Liverpool and all the other clubs apart from Chelsea and Manchester City because they can afford it, because they have owners who have deep, deep pockets. Once upon a time you could say players want to come to Liverpool because they’re a bigger club than Manchester City; now they’re going to Manchester City because they’ll get paid more. So that has been the challenge for Liverpool for the last ten years, and that has been Arsenal’s challenge as well, because they’re not paying the salaries that Manchester City or Chelsea will pay. That is not something new, it’s just a feature of modern football.”
Is he the kind of manager you’d enjoy playing under?
“I think I would because he’s a very infectious manager. He loves his players, he puts his arm around them and he’s a humble guy. I think he’s suited to Liverpool in terms of his character because he’s a bit of a socialist. That’s what Bill Shankly liked; the idea that you like the fans, you like the city, you like the region and you buy into the identity of the club. I enjoyed playing under most of my managers so I wouldn’t say I’d enjoy playing under Jurgen Klopp more than Graham Taylor or Kenny Dalglish, for example, but I’m sure I’d enjoy it. It’d be colourful, that’s for sure!”
Did you ever get the chance to move to Europe whilst you were playing for Liverpool and if so, do you regret not taking it?
“In the 1980s, a bit like the Premier League now where all the players are coming here, everybody wanted to play in Italy. And I could have gone to Italy, I could have gone to play in Rome. In fact, I could have gone to Verona before that when Sven was the manager – Sven Goran Eriksen – but there were only two foreign players allowed. But I didn’t go and it didn’t bother me at all because I always believe everything that happens to you happens for a reason. And of course, being at Liverpool, which was one of the greatest clubs in Europe at that particular time, there was no need for me to go abroad.”
Last week, Liverpool fans found themselves at the epicentre of an ongoing power struggle with corporate influence in English football, conducting the first-ever orchestrated walkout in Anfield history over the issue of ticket prices. The Reds have since reviewed their plans to implement a £77 ticket in their new-look Main Stand next season, but Liverpool aren’t Barnes’ only former club divided between fan and boardroom.
Charlton Athletic, who Barnes represented twelve times before retiring in 1997, find themselves amid a civil war, the fans and their arbitrary Belgian owner, Ronald Duchatelet, representing polarised factions. Since he bought the club in January 2014, the Addicks have gone through six different managers and are now fighting for their lives at the foot of the Championship. But most fans would accept League One football if it forced Duchatelet to sell – right now, poor performances on the pitch are the least of their concerns.
Much like Liverpool, the use of the word ‘customer’ by owners and executives epitomises how most Charlton fans feel about their club at the moment – a club that was essentially kept in existence by the supporters during seven years exiled from The Valley.
“It’s not just at Charlton where corporate power needs to be readdressed because fans are being priced out of football matches at all clubs. It’ll cost you £150 if you want to take a couple of kids to the game. Because of the money in the Premier League, I think that a concession can be made for fans. They’re making so much money from television and sponsorship, so I don’t necessarily feel they need the gate receipts to pay the wages – once upon a time maybe they did.
“Ultimately, that’s what football is about – the fans. The only reason corporations are interested, the only reason sponsors are interested – Pepsi is an example, they sponsor the Champions League – is because fans buy the products. Fans still have the power. They don’t understand the power they actually have. I think we should have more respect for the fans in terms of treating them better and the balance for me has gone too far the other way now.”
Time for our internationally revered segment, Fantasy Five-A-Side! We ask players to compose a superstar five-man team, but every player comes with a stipulation. The first player, John, is the best you’ve ever played with.
“I played with Diego Maradona in a testimonial so I’ll put him in. He’s the best player I’ve played with and against.”
Well, the second player is the best you’ve played against.
“OK, I’ll have Diego against and Beardsley with. Peter Beardsley.”
The third, your footballing role model growing up?
“Franz Beckenbauer. I loved West Germany. When I grew up in Jamaica they were my favourite team. And he’s a defender so we have to have a defender in this fantasy team as well.”
The fourth player is somebody playing in the Premier League today you wish you could’ve played alongside.
“Well, he’s just left but I’ll say Steven Gerrard. I’ll still count him because he’s still current. And he’s in the five-a-side team just in front of Beckenbauer, with Beardsley and Maradona a bit further up on either side.”
And finally, any goalkeeper, past or present (or future if you know something we don’t).
“Bruce Grobbelaar. If you play five-a-side, the goalkeeper has to be good with his feet, being able to come out and pass the ball, so we’ll have Bruce in goal.”
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