In a swanky pub in the heart of north London, I met TitanBet ambassador John Barnes for the second time in my short and largely unsuccessful blogging career. Pleasantries were briefly exchanged (no, he didn’t remember me despite my dashing looks and flowing locks) but with the European Championship just a matter of hours away, we were both keen to get down to business – specifically, the business of discussing how England will fare against the likes of Germany, Spain, Belgium and hosts France at Euro 2016. A former 79-cap international who was a part of the Three Lions squad that ultimately failed to deliver at Euro 1988 despite high expectations, the Liverpool legend had plenty to say on Roy’s boys – as well a few words on the Reds’ plans for the summer transfer window.
What’s your overall assessment of the squad Roy Hodgson’s picked – and is there anybody he left out you would have definitely taken?
No, because Roy Hodgson is probably one of the most unfortunate England managers in that he doesn’t have a huge squad of players to choose from, which isn’t his fault. That’s because the top teams have had a ten-year period of not bringing young English players through, which meant that Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand, Terry all have around 100 caps because they weren’t being challenged. And the only way England were going to improve was if top teams put young English players in their teams to get the necessary experience playing in the Champions League and then warrant a place in the England squad – which just didn’t happen.
It’s only in the last two years that the top teams have started to get English players. So what we have now is lots of young English players who are under 22 with not much experience. If you look at the average international team, the majority of players should be aged between 23 and 28 with good experience and some over 30 and some under 21. But we’ve got loads under 22 and a few over 30 and not that band of 26/27 year-olds.
So it is what it is, unfortunately for Roy, which is what probably worked against him in the last World Cup. And that is why at the World Cup in two years time, I would demand more from England when players like Dele Alli, John Stones and Eric Dier have two more years experience. What we’re asking them to do right now is carry our hopes of winning the Euros or do really well at the Euros when they’ve been playing first-team football – not international football, first-team football – for one year. Dele Alli’s played for Spurs for one year, probably less than a year, John Stones has played at Everton for around two years and we’re saying to them ‘go and win the Euros’, which is a bit unfair.
So we can’t do anything about it and that’s why Wayne Rooney says it’s potentially the best England team he’s played in – which means that in four or five years time if they achieve that potential it could be the best England team.
The friendly performances received very mixed reviews. As someone who has played in a lot of them yourself, are we attaching too much importance to them?
Not necessarily. You probably attach more importance to England’s friendlies because England aren’t allowed to under-perform because of the expectations we have. Whereas if you look at a lot of other teams – Germany lost to Slovakia, for example – they’re allowed to experiment . And I suppose the pressure is not necessarily on them in the same way because they peak at the tournaments and do well in tournaments, whereas in friendlies they sometimes loser or sometimes draw against weaker opposition.
But England aren’t allowed to do that because of the press. After qualifying in style and winning all our qualification games, we then draw 0-0 away to Ireland, who have qualified as well and are a good side, and then the press come down on them saying it was a bad performance.
But that will come with the inexperience that we have – inconsistency comes with inexperience. We beat Germany, the world champions, although two late goals when Germany took their foot off the gas whatever, but then we lose to Holland who haven’t qualified- and their performances against Australia, Turkey and Portugal weren’t great. But with inexperience comes that inconsistency, so therefore we can beat anybody but also we can lose to anybody. And when you’re talking about winning the Euros you’re talking about last 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals – four games in a row where you have to be consistently good. So this young, inexperienced team who are inconsistent, can you say we’re going to put together four solid performances?
Maybe it’s a bit too much to ask, so I’d probably read more into the friendlies now than we did in the past, because negativity and poor performances can affect young, inexperienced players; when they’re playing well they’re confident, but all of a sudden their confidence can take a knock. With experienced players, if things don’t go well in one or two games, that doesn’t knock their confidence because they know they can actually do it – that’s why they’re there. When I first went to Liverpool, I already had six years playing at the highest level, I already had four years of being an international footballer. I had that experience.
Now these young players, if they haven’t played well in their last three games, how do they come out of that? They can’t come out of it because they’ve never faced that before, so that is why, as much as we talk about them being friendly matches, I read more into England’s performances with this young, inexperienced team than normal.
So should we be concerned about the friendlies? The biggest worry is that Roy Hodgson doesn’t seem too sure on his system yet.
First of all, the biggest problem England have, and it’s a really English trait, is that what we don’t contemplate, nourish, value, defensive midfield players. If you haven’t got a strong back four, that doesn’t mean you can’t win matches and not concede goals. Barcelona don’t have strong back four but because they keep possession, they’re not over-exposed. Now England, although we don’t keep possession, if the midfield work hard to protect the back four then we will concede less goals.
But unfortunately, we separate the team. We say ‘the back four are no good, but we’re great going forward’. And if these players, the attacking midfield players and the strikers, believe that then they’re going to think ‘it’s not our fault we’re conceding goals, we just need a better back four’, rather than thinking ‘work harder when we haven’t got the ball to protect them’.
So I think that is the biggest danger that England have – the attitude of the players. Because if the players believe ‘why are we conceding goals? It’s not because the midfield players aren’t defending, but because the back four aren’t good enough’, then we’ll concede even more goals.
What would your starting Xi be for the first game against Russia?
I would choose Joe Hart in goal and Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill and Danny Rose at the back. In midfield I would have Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere. Up front I would have Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane and then I would look for an extra midfield player, be it James Milner or Adam Lallana. I think we need more strength in midfield and while Eric Dier may be the only defensive midfield player, I think that you’ll get great energy from Milner and Henderson in tracking back and protect the back four, rather than Dele Alli.
You’re asking a young man, a 19-year-old boy who’s been playing football one year to protect the back four in an unnatural position for him. He’s had a good season playing for Tottenham but that’s not where he plays, and he may score goals but we could also concede too many goals because of him. The first game is a game you don’t want to lose and I think we could win with that team against Russia.
Are you not keen on the idea of Wayne Rooney playing in midfield?
I think if you had a partnership that could work up front, yes. And I think if Daniel Sturridge was fit then possibly – but he’s not. I wouldn’t want to put Marcus Rashford in at that young age and I don’t think Kane and Jamie Vardy work as a front two because they’re too similar in terms of being both No.9s. You always want one playing off and one up front. Rooney by the very nature of the fact he’s playing off means he’ll drop back into midfield to help anyway. If we had a different combination up front which I think would work, I would put Wayne Rooney in midfield – absolutely – but I don’t think that we have. I don’t think that Kane and Vardy would work because you would want one of them to either go wide or drop behind as a No.10 and neither of them will, so I’d always play Rooney off the striker.
So the ultimate question – how far do you think England will go?
I’ve had this conversation with so many people. People say ‘I think we’re going to have a good cup run this year’, Everton fans, for example, and in the third round they draw Man City away, and if they win that they get Arsenal away and if they win that they get Chelsea away. When you don’t know who you’re going to play, how do you know how well you’re going to do?
All we know is that we’re playing these three games and then we go through the group. So if we go through the group and then we play Spain in the next round, I think Spain will beat England – so we’ll go out in the last 16. So what I’ll say is that we’ll get through the group and depending on who we’re playing in the last 16, you can ask me again where we’ll finish!
Because it’s ridiculous when people say ‘I think we’re going to win it’ – you don’t even know who we’re going to play! If you play Spain, then France, then Germany, are England going to beat all three of them? Probably not. But all I know is looking at that group, and of course the third-place team can qualify from the group as well, England will go through.
Let’s talk about Liverpool’s summer. The phrase ‘marquee signing’ has circled around the club for a few years, but it appears the Mario Gotze deal has fallen through. Do you agree with the idea that Liverpool need to make a ‘marquee signing’ this summer?
I don’t think so, because I think that there is enough faith in Jurgen Klopp. Even if it’s the wrong perception, there is a perception that every player he signs, he knows that he can get the best out of them. So he may sign someone for £5million that we’ve never heard of but who we’re all supporting, because we all think he knows what he’s doing – until the player turns out to be a donkey and we lose every game.
But on the outset we have enough faith in him, rather than other managers in the past like Brendan Rodgers who made a signing that nobody’s heard of. Then Liverpool fans are really disappointed and can be negative going into the season. So I don’t think we necessarily need a marquee signing. It would be good if we could get one but we have enough faith in Jurgen to believe that whoever he signs he can get the best out of, knowing that we’re not going to get the best signings because we’re not going to give them £200k per week. So this is the first time Liverpool fans probably don’t feel the necessity to get those kind of players.
But is there a player you’d like to see Liverpool target as an alternative to Gotze, with that same kind of profile?
Well first of all, we don’t need a Mario Gotze because we can talk about people like Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. But if we can get a world-class signing then go for it. I think we need more defensive signings – more defenders and more defensive midfield players. But when a chance comes a marquee player, you get him.
I don’t think Gotze was a necessity but because of the relationship with Klopp, we can talk about that happening. But that’s not going to happen with a world-class player who doesn’t have a relationship with him – if Ronaldo becomes available, he’s not going to come to Liverpool because of Jurgen Klopp. So I think that was just a complete one-off in terms of the relationship they have. Maybe Marco Reus or another German player from Dortmund that he may know, maybe. But overall, I don’t think a straight alternative to Gotze is necessary. We should spend the money elsewhere.
John Barnes is a Brand Ambassador for Titanbet.co.uk and was talking at a Titan Bet EURO 2016 preview. New customer sign up here and Get £20 free bet when you deposit and bet £10. 18+, terms apply. Gambleaware.co.uk