Exclusive: John Barnes on England, the World Cup and the greatest ever top-flight finish

Football FanCast recently held a series of interviews with former England and Liverpool winger John Barnes, who was speaking on behalf of bookmaker comparison platform BonusCodeBets.co.uk.

In part one, Barnes discussed Liverpool’s current title credentials and his own experiences of being part of title-winning sides. In part two, he gave his insight into the blight of racism on football and society, and what role the media plays in this regard.

In this third and final instalment of our conversations with Barnes, focus turned to England’s run in the 2018 Russia World Cup, his own international experiences, Italia 90, and his recollections of playing under the likes of Graham Taylor…

What did you make of England’s time in Russia?

“It was fantastic. All you can ask of any team is to maximise their potential. What that means is to win the games you should win. Of course, you can beat teams who are better than you, but generally speaking, to be consistent, you’ve got to win the games you should win. That’s what England did.

“I think that had they been on the other half of the draw they wouldn’t have gotten to the semi-final. The two times we played teams who were ranked higher than us we lost. Against Belgium we lost and then we lost to Croatia.

“We should beat Sweden and we should beat Colombia, so we did well to get to the semi-finals, but Gareth Southgate has said himself about not getting carried away thinking we’re one of the best four teams in the world. We got to the top four, but we’re not one of the best four teams in the world.” 

Can this England squad build on this success?

“Yes, we can build. We got to the semi-final, so we’re doing well. We still aren’t one of the best teams in the world, but we can challenge and we did that in the World Cup. I think we can be consistent and consistently challenge for qualifying and getting into the latter stages of competitions. That’s all you can ask of any team.”

Check out Neymar’s controversial new haircut for 2019 and Xherdan Shaqiri as you’ve never seen him before in the video below…

Do you think the Italia 90 team should have achieved more?

“No, I don’t think so. The best game we played was against Germany and we lost, but we were lucky against Belgium in the last 16. So, yeah, if we were lucky we could have gone on to win, but we were never the favourites. 

“I think you have teams that underachieve. Maybe the Brazilians of 2018, could they have done more? Yes, they could. They could have won the World Cup. 

“But in terms of getting to the semi-final, that was a good achievement. Yes, with a bit of luck against Germany we could have gone on to the final. So, we could have achieved more. But to ask, ‘should’ we have achieved more? I don’t think so.”

Why does Italia 90 still hold such a special place in the history and heart of English football?

“Because, of course, that’s when the Premier League was about to start, that and Gazzamania meant that the media attention on football really started back then.

“Don’t forget, in football when Liverpool were winning the European Cup in the 70s and 80s and were the best team, there wasn’t the media attention that there was coming into the 90s because of the cultural revolution football-wise. 

“The media attention, with footballers really becoming household names, not just in football households but all over, meant that 1990 was a time when even people who weren’t interested in football were interested in football. Of course, we had the No.1 song as well with New Order. 

“I suppose it was just a time when football was coming to the mainstream.”

That tournament must have been an incredible thing to be a part of…

“I was a footballer, so no more so than in the 86 World Cup, or when I played for Watford in the 80s. I was just concerned with football. The football wasn’t any different. The perceptions of footballers were, and the media attention and the superstardom that surrounded football at that time was, yes. But for me, there was no difference between 1990 to 1986 or 1985 or any other time, because I was just a footballer.”

Why didn’t it work out for Graham Taylor during in his time in charge of the national team?

“Because England weren’t as good as they had been. They didn’t have the same players as they had in the past.”

Do you not think that that squad should have qualified for USA 94?

“Not really, because look at the players who were getting towards the end of their careers – Gary Lineker and myself. I got injured too.

“It was a new England team that he took over, which had to be given time. There was also the fact that, I believe, there was a bit of a media agenda against him. Which didn’t help things.

“The thing that Southgate has now – over a lot of England managers of the past – is the fact that the press and the clubs are behind him. Back then, you had people who were against Taylor. So regardless of how we played you had people who wanted him to lose, and fans weren’t behind him. Whereas now, the England fans are 100% behind the team. Even if they don’t play well and lose, the fans are still behind them, which is the way it should be.

“He [Taylor] was a bit unfortunate, but it was just one of those things.”

Taylor was a huge influence on your career, and one of the many great managers you played under…

“Well, I played under Taylor for my first six years. He was the best manager for me at that time, and what he did with Watford was incredible. Watford finishing second to Liverpool in the league, with players coming in from the fourth division, shows what a great manager he was.

“Then, when I went to Liverpool, it was obviously Kenny Dalglish. Bobby Robson was also fantastic, as was Terry Venables. So, I worked under a lot of great managers and different managers. 

“Some were at bigger clubs and able to win more things; Dalglish has won the double and European Cup, whereas Taylor hasn’t. But he [Taylor] wasn’t at a club that was able to do that. Taking Watford to second place is equally as good as winning the European Cup with Liverpool.

“So, yeah, I worked with some great managers.”

Looking back at your playing career, what personal highlights do you recall most fondly?

“My whole career. That’s it. My ten years at Liverpool, six years at Watford, two years at Newcastle. They’ve been good, they’ve been bad, but to show the person you are you have to show a consistency over a period of time. So I look at my whole career – and I don’t want to be too greedy and just say about the goal in Brazil and when I won the Players’ Player of the Year and Player of the Year – because you have to take it in its entirety.

“In its entirety, I’m delighted with what I’ve done.”

Before I ask this final question I’ll admit that I’m an Arsenal fan.


What was the best ever finish to a top flight title race: Arsenal’s win over Liverpool in 1989 or Manchester City’s triumph in 2012?

“Arsenal’s in 89. It was the two teams who were involved in the championship. Manchester City scored against QPR – I mean, if Man City had beaten Man United to win the league, or vice versa, then that would have been [the best]. 

“Arsenal had to beat Liverpool 2-0, not even 1-0. There couldn’t have been a greater finish to the top flight championship.”