England will embark on their first World Cup game on Monday night against Tunisia, and while a heavy shroud of disappointment and pessimism often surrounds the team, Gareth Southgate leads a young, talented group to Russia in 2018.
Led by the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli, the Three Lions aren’t necessarily expected to light the world on fire. But without the usual snark from fans and media, England have the breathing room to play with freedom and the opportunity to surprise many.
On Monday, Football FanCast had the pleasure of speaking with John Barnes, a member of the English Football Hall of Fame who made a name for himself as one of Liverpool’s greats and accomplished 79 caps with the national team.
Speaking to us on behalf of JustEat, Barnes shared his thoughts on his latest endorsement, this young England young team, what it will take for them to make a run in Russia and more…
FootballFanCast.com: You’ve partnered with Just Eat for a summer of football. Can you tell us a bit about what you’re doing for them?
John Barnes: “Well, there’s a plate with my face on it. Anybody who orders off the Just Eat app from their favourite restaurant may randomly receive a plate with my face on it. There’s also a plate that Gianfranco Zola designed with a pizza on it. There’s Putin on a bear, interestingly. That’s one of the plates. And Maradona’s Hand of God, the 1986 handball he made against England in the quarter-final.
“So it’s just a fun way to engage with the fans. A keepsake for the summer’s festivities in Russia. Just a nice, fun thing to do. And, of course, for the advert, I had people licking my face to support the tag line, ‘You can lick John Barnes’ face on a plate.’ Because obviously, when you’re finished with whatever you have, you can lick the plate.
“The advert had two people licking my face, which was strange.”
FFC: Yeah, how did you find doing that advert? It’s a bit different to what you’re used to…
JB: “Well you know, it’s a bit of fun. The commercial looks okay but having to go through that for 45 minutes wasn’t the most pleasant experience. But it was a bit of fun.”
FFC: How did you feel about the watercolour portrait of your face? Is it an accurate depiction?
“It’s supposed to be a bit of a caricature. Obviously, I would have preferred if they made me look like Denzel Washington. But of course, it’s not supposed to be like that. It’s supposed to be a bit of a fun thing.
“People will look at it and think it’s a bit strange. It’s supposed to look strange. It’s not supposed to be a direct representative.”
FFC: Anyway, England finally plays tonight against Tunisia. Can you give us your overall impressions of England this World Cup and your expectations for this go around?
JB: “Well, England are a young, inexperienced side. And with youth and inexperience comes inconsistency.
“Sometimes they’re brilliant. Sometimes they’re not. And that is why, at this World Cup, I won’t be putting them under any pressure or saying we have to get the quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals or it’s a failure.
“At the next World Cup, after this group have been together for a while, then I can make more demands of them. Because you can see, even against Nigeria, for example, in the first half they were good. But the second half they weren’t.
“This young team, I think, has got great potential. But we have to support them and stick with them even if they don’t do well because we haven’t got a choice. There’s not an elite player in England to take over for these players.
“I suppose with England teams in the past — when they haven’t been successful — we could criticise them, because you have other players who could come in and possibly do better. Whereas now, there’s no veteran to come in and play for this England team. We haven’t got a choice, even if they don’t do well.”
FFC: With how young this team is, do you feel there is less pressure from fans to go out and make a run to the semi-finals compared to World Cup’s past?
JB: “I’m hoping so, and the reality is that we are not one of the best six or seven teams in the world.
“Unfortunately, there is always pressure when playing for England. We always feel that we should be making the semi-finals when, really, we shouldn’t. That is why I’m hoping for the fans — even if they don’t do well — to still remain positive and still support them. Because rather than being critical if they don’t beat Tunisia, which could affect their mentality going into the next game in terms of putting them under pressure, let’s stick with them.
“If we stick with them, they can show their true ability.”
FFC: There will be a few England players making their first World Cup appearance. Can you talk about what that experience was like for you and how they should go about handling that pressure?
JB: “It was okay for me because I was with a very experienced England team. So really, the pressure of playing international football is on the shoulders of the senior players, and then young players can go out there without any pressure.
“Look at Michael Owen in 1998, who also played for an experienced England team. The pressure wasn’t on Michael Owen, so therefore as a young player, he went out there and played without any fear and without any pressure.
“Unfortunately for these players, they haven’t got many senior players to take that burden off them. So therefore, they will be the ones who are under pressure. That’s why I’m saying to the fans and to the press and to everyone: leave them alone. Just allow them to go out there and express themselves without any fear of failure.
“These young players are the ones we’re putting the burden on to succeed and carry us far into the World Cup, which in the past, that never happens. I’m hoping the people who put the pressure on them will just allow them to grow.”
FFC: What does Gareth Southgate need to do to manage this pressure that’s on these players?
“Gareth is also a pretty inexperienced manager, so he’s kind of in this position as well. That might be difficult for him, too. My message to the England players, always, is don’t believe the hype. Because we are built up to believe we are the best and we should win because we are England. And all of a sudden, when they play against a so-called lesser team — like when we lost to Iceland, for example, and we felt we were better than Iceland — that’s us believing the hype.
“We have a mentality point of being strong minded, strong willed and humble in that we’re playing against a team equally as good as us rather than thinking we’re better than them. That comes with experience, but it also comes with not believing the hype surrounding the England team because we are England.
“Yes, we’re a good team, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want them to not go in there with confidence, thinking that they’re not good.
“We can’t be overconfident.”
FFC: Which players of this young batch of talent do you see shining in this World Cup and becoming staples of England for years to come?
JB: “They’re all staples, because there’s no one coming to take their place. So the Kanes, the Dele Allis, the Sterlings are going to be England’s guys for years to come. I’d much rather see them perform as a team.
I don’t think there is going to be any real star who separates himself as one of the best players in the World Cup. It’ll be nice if it happens. But I think the way we play as a team is the most important thing.
“As much as we’re looking to Dele Alli, to Kane, to Sterling, I think defensively is where we have to be strong if we’re going to progress because we’ve got a very young goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford. John Stones, Harry Maguire,they’re very inexperienced. I think that they have to defend well.
“Yes, we have to score goals. But generally speaking, we have to defend well to progress.”
Just Eat is offering hungry football fans who order on the Just Eat app between the 14th June and 15th July the chance to get their hands on limited edition 2018 Football Plates. There are four plates to collect and hundreds will be given away to celebrate the summer of football.
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