Football FanCast recently spoke to former England and Liverpool winger John Barnes.
In a wide-ranging interview – split over three parts – we were able to get a fascinating insight into his life and career at the very top of the game.
In this first instalment of our conversation with the Premier League icon, Liverpool’s current title challenge is put under the microscope.
Barnes was part of the last Liverpool side to win a league title, in the 1989-90 season. Barnes was in fine form throughout that campaign, and was instrumental to the Reds’ success as he racked up 22 goals in 34 league outings. At the end of the season he was named the FWA Player of the Year for the second time in his career.
Barnes, who was speaking on behalf of bookmaker comparison platform BonusCodeBets.co.uk, gave us his views on what it takes to win the league title, and whether Liverpool can keep up their challenge for the remainder of this campaign…
When you look at their squad and then Manchester City’s, do you think that Liverpool have what it takes to hold the reigning champions off?
“Well, Manchester City have a much stronger squad and I think we’ve seen that in the last few games – in the FA Cup – when they’ve made wholesale changes and still won 7-0 and 9-0. When we made changes against Wolves we were unable to go through in the FA Cup. So, they’ve got a stronger squad, but in terms of the squad we have we definitely have a squad strong enough to win matches and go all the way to the end and be very competitive.
“So, Manchester City, yes, have a stronger squad, but we definitely have a squad that can go on to win the title. That’s not to say that we will, but we have a squad that can take us through the season, definitely.”
What’s been lost since Liverpool’s era of utter dominance that has seen them go without a Premier League title for so long?
“I don’t know what’s been missing for so long. We’ve spoken about it for 25 years, there’s no point asking ‘what’s been missing?’
“We have what there is now, and what there is now is a consistency of performance and a team good enough to challenge to win the title, and I suppose we haven’t had that in the past.
“I don’t want to look back and say why we haven’t won the title, because it’s not important. What’s important is that we’ve got a team now that’s capable of challenging at the very, very highest level.”
In the late 80s you were part of a very successful Liverpool side. What made that group so special?
“Well, Liverpool were the best team then. Liverpool were the best team from the 70s as well, not necessarily just the late 80s. If you look throughout the late 70s and mid-80s, Liverpool had the best players and they were the best team – as Manchester United were in the 2000s.
“They had better players than anybody else and they were a better team than everybody else. It’s as simple as that. If you’ve got a good manager and a good team then you can win matches. Of course, Manchester United then took over, then Arsenal I suppose with Arsene Wenger for a period of time did, because they had better players and a good manager.
“Of course, Liverpool were then playing catch-up, so they weren’t able to get the best players, which meant that they were then just challenging for third and fourth place. But now we’ve got players who can challenge for first place.”
A lot of the current Liverpool squad have never been part of a title challenge like this before. What’s it like dealing with that pressure and knowing that you can’t afford to slip up?
“Well, it depends. First of all, the manager will keep them calm.
“It’s all about just keeping calm and knowing that you can win football matches. The pressure is what you make it. If you have players that believe in what they’re doing and they understand what they’re doing, and they play with the right intensity, determination, organisation, and the right humility, without getting carried away with themselves, then they’ve got a chance.
“So, it’s not a question of them, necessarily, not being able to handle the pressure.
“They just have to keep calm, do what they do, and win the games they should. That’s where Liverpool have been better this year; in their consistency against so-called lesser teams. We saw them against Brighton – last year we were losing and drawing games like that, whereas this year we are much more consistent and that’s what you have to be.
“Don’t get carried away when you’re unbeaten and then all of a sudden you get beaten by Manchester City and people say the wheels have come off because of one game against the champions. It’s about keeping calm and knowing you’re a good side.”
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How important, for you personally, was getting that mental side of the game right?
“You’re in an environment that gives it to you – the mentality. I got it with Graham Taylor and with Liverpool, and I suppose Alex Ferguson had that at Manchester United.
“You’re in an environment where the mentality is the most important thing. The mentality is about not getting carried away when things are going well. The mentality is about knowing you’re a good team and can compete against anybody.
“The problem you have is when all of a sudden you think you’ve got it made, or you’ve won the league, or you’re better than everybody else. That’s when you come unstuck. So, you have to play with humility, you have to play with determination, and the mentality is the most important thing because we know they all have ability. There’s no players playing in the top division, particularly for the top teams, who haven’t got the ability, but that’s where the mentality is the most important thing.””
In his decade at Anfield, Barnes made over 400 appearances, scored over 100 goals, and claimed seven trophies, including two league titles and an FA Cup triumph. In 1997, he left Liverpool as a club legend.
In part two of our interview with Barnes, he discusses the issues still faced by black men and women on and off the pitch.