During his playing career, Barnes had successful periods at Watford and Liverpool in the 1980s and 1990s, winning the First Division twice, the FA Cup twice, and playing for England 79 times (at the time, a record for a black player). After a period at Newcastle United, he ended his playing career at Charlton Athletic in 1999.
After retiring as a player, Barnes had a brief stint as head coach of Celtic in 1999–2000, working alongside Kenny Dalglish. He took over as manager of the Jamaica national team in 2008, but resigned six months later to become manager at Tranmere Rovers. He was sacked by Tranmere in 2009, after a series of poor results.
Barnes was noticed by Watford whilst playing for Middlesex League club Sudbury Court. After a successful game in Watford's reserves, Barnes was signed on 14 July 1981 for the fee of a set of kit.
Barnes made his debut at 17 as a sub on 5 September 1981 in a 1–1 draw with Oldham Athletic in the Football League Second Division at Vicarage Road. The club's manager at the time was Graham Taylor, and Watford were eight months away from completing their six-year rise from the Fourth Division to the First.
Barnes and Watford gained promotion, as runners-up to fierce rivals Luton Town, to the top flight of English football at the end of the 1981–82 season and went on to finish as runners-up for the League title, coincidentally, to Liverpool the following season. Watford then made the 1984 FA Cup Final, where, as under-dogs, they were beaten 2–0 by Everton. Watford would go on to reach the FA Cup semi-final again in 1987 only to lose to Tottenham Hotspur. Barnes was by this point becoming restless and speculation was mounting in the newspapers as to which big club would sign him.
BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY - LiverpoolBarnes left Watford on 9 June 1987 in a £900,000 deal to join Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool, after appearing 233 times for the Hornets and scoring 65 goals. He joined at the same time as England team-mate Peter Beardsley and linked up with John Aldridge, Ray Houghton and then Ian Rush to form one of the most formidable attacking lines of Liverpool's history.
Just before Barnes left Watford, manager Graham Taylor had departed to Aston Villa to be succeeded by Dave Bassett, who had resigned himself to losing Barnes to a bigger club. He offered Alex Ferguson the chance to sign Barnes for Manchester United, but Ferguson rejected the opportunity to sign Barnes as he still had faith in United's left winger Jesper Olsen. This was revealed in Ferguson's autobiography Managing My Life in 1999. Ferguson has since expressed regret at not signing Barnes.
Barnes made his debut for the Reds, along with Beardsley, on 15 August 1987 in the 2–1 league win over Arsenal at Highbury. In 9 minutes Barnes and Beardsley combined to set up Aldridge for a goal. Barnes' first strike for the club came a month later on 12 September as the Reds beat Oxford United 2–0 at Anfield.
In his first season at Anfield, Liverpool coasted to the League title, remaining undefeated for the first 29 games of the season and ending up with just two defeats. Wimbledon beat the champions 1–0 in the FA Cup final. Barnes had performed a rap on the club's traditional Cup final song Anfield Rap, which got to Number 3 in the UK charts.
During that season, Barnes was racially abused by a section of Everton supporters in the Merseyside derby at Anfield, which led to Everton chairman Philip Carter disowning the offending supporters.
Barnes scored 15 league goals in his first season at Anfield, second only to John Aldridge at the club. He was voted overwhelmingly PFA Player of the Year. In particular Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton and Aldridge were instrumental in Liverpool's 5–0 win over Nottingham Forest on 13 April 1988, a game which Tom Finney described as “the finest exhibition I’ve seen the whole time I’ve played and watched the game. You couldn’t see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil.” Team mate Aldridge said in his autobiography that Bobby Robson had at the time claimed Barnes was as good as George Best at his peak.
A year later, Liverpool won the FA Cup with a 3–2 victory over Merseyside rivals Everton, with Barnes creating goals from the left wing for Ian Rush, and instrumental during the extra time period. They lost the title to Arsenal with seconds remaining. Barnes played the whole of the title decider at Anfield, with the move resulting in Michael Thomas' goal occurring immediately after Barnes had lost possession of the ball attempting to dribble past Kevin Richardson in the last moments of the game.
In April 1989, after the Hillsborough disaster claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans, Barnes attended several funerals and visited the injured in hospital. He pulled out of an England international friendly in order to fulfil these public duties.
Barnes, in his early years at Liverpool, had to deal with racist abuse from opposing supporters and far-right groups – a photograph was once taken of Barnes, in full Liverpool kit and mid-match, casually backheeling away a banana which had been hurled at him during a derby match with Everton at Goodison Park. He also claimed Liverpool supporters had written to him not to join the club, as well as being abused by opposition players. On occasion he overheard a team mate make a racist remark towards other black players in opposition teams. On one of his first times at Anfield, Barnes claimed that the tea lady had, intentionally or unintentionally served all the players in the lounge tea except from him and he made a joke about it by asking light heartedly "Is it because I'm black?
Barnes played in the 1990 title winning side at Liverpool and scored 22 league goals from the left wing – his personal best for the club. Ian Rush scored four fewer league goals than Barnes. Barnes was voted Football Writer's Player of the Year, and expectations from England manager Bobby Robson were also high, seeing Barnes as a key component in the build up to Italia 90. Team mate Peter Beardsley has since said Barnes at the end of the 1980s was "The best player I ever played with, bar none. For three or four years at the end of the ’80s, John was possibly the best player in the world."
Barnes continued to play for Liverpool and England. In 1990–91 he scored 16 league goals, though the title slipped from Liverpool's grasp to that of Arsenal following the sudden resignation of Kenny Dalglish and the appointment of Graeme Souness as manager.
In 1992 Liverpool won the FA Cup again but Barnes missed the final with an Achilles tendon injury, which he later cited in his autobiography as dulling his acceleration, affecting his ability to push off from a still position, whilst not affecting his pace at full. He played 12 league games in the 1991–92, scoring once, as Liverpool finished sixth in the league – their lowest finish in two decades and the first time since 1981 that they had failed to finish champions or runners-up. Barnes and several other senior players had frosty relationships with Souness during this period as the manager tried to impose new methods quickly, and many senior pros resented his hard discipline approach as well as the increased pressure in training. Barnes also once had to make a public apology to Souness after he gave an interview criticising the tactics employed by the manager before an important match.Young team mate Robbie Fowler also said in his autobiography that Souness felt at the time Barnes was past his best, but in Fowler's (and others') opinion he still had a lot to offer and was still one of the most talented players at the club.
Souness later stated in his autobiography that Barnes due to his injuries was now taking a "less demanding" central midfield playmaker's role as opposed to a winger with a goalscoring touch. Despite the effects of the injuries, Barnes was still regarded as one of club and country's best players and Souness noted that Barnes "Retained his quality on the ball, using it well and rarely losing possession". Mark Walters who had been highly effective for Souness at Glasgow Rangers had been purchased as cover/competition for Barnes but failed to displace him.
By the mid-1990s, Barnes knew he was reaching the veteran stage of his playing career and looked to make up for the underachievement at international level with his club side, who had begun to bear the fruits of Souness's youth policy. He publicly stated that he would stay at Liverpool and help bring through young talent that needed his leadership instead of leaving the club as it went through turbulent years under Graeme Souness, before Roy Evans took over at the helm in 1994. His improved form in the 1994–95 season saw him earn a recall to the England team and he scored 7 league goals (9 in all competitions) despite being now principally a central midfielder.
Under Evans, Barnes and his proteges like Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler began playing attractive, attacking football. They won the League Cup in 1995, began challenging for the FA Premier League title, and lost the 1996 FA Cup Final to Manchester United. Barnes had now been converted into a holding midfielder where he, Redknapp and McManaman would pass their way through teams and set up goals. He often captained the side in 1995–96 when regular captain Ian Rush lost his place to new signing Stan Collymore, and when Rush departed to Leeds United at the end of the season he became full-time captain. Barnes played a pivotal role in the midfield, and created the final goal after a dribble and passing movement for Stan Collymoore during Liverpool's 4–3 win at Anfield against Newcastle. A young Jamie Carragher was breaking through into the team towards the end of Barnes's career at Liverpool and said that despite Barnes supposedly being past his peak by then, in his 34th year, he was still the best player at the club. "Technically, he’s the best player I've ever trained or played with, he was great with both feet, they were both exactly the same. I'd say he's the best finisher I've ever played with (including Torres, Fowler, Owen). Barnes never used to blast his shots – they’d just get placed right in the corner. You speak with the players from those great Liverpool sides and ask them who the best player they played with was and they all say John Barnes".
On 13 August 1997, after 407 appearances and 108 goals, Barnes left on a free transfer. He had missed just three Premier League games in his final season at Anfield, scoring four goals as they had led the table for much of the first half of the season before being overhauled by eventual champions Manchester United and having to settle for a fourth place finish. Paul Ince, a central midfielder with a completely contrasting combative style was signed to replace him in the middle of the park and Barnes felt signing a player like Ince may not solve all of Liverpool's problems.
On 10 June 1984 Barnes scored a goal against Brazil, when he outpaced and out-thought several Brazilian defenders before rounding Roberto Costa and slotting the ball into an empty net during a friendly match at the Estádio do Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The goal brought him worldwide fame but also a sense of heavy expectation.
In his early England days, he and fellow black player Mark Chamberlain were subjected to threats from racist groups. Notably, Barnes was abused by supporters of the National Front on the plane back from South America in June 1984; the racists claimed that England had only won 1–0 against Brazil because Barnes' goal "didn't count".
Bobby Robson did not use Barnes at the 1986 World Cup until the quarter final against Argentina when England were trailing 2–0 with 15 minutes to go. (BBC commentator Barry Davies famously shouted: "Go on! Run at them!" when Barnes was given the ball), setting up one goal for Gary Lineker and laying on another chance which Lineker missed. England went out of the competition, but Barnes had been recognised for his contribution in the game and many questioned why Barnes had not been playing at the start or in previous matches. He then went on to be a regular starter for his country at both the 1988 European Championships and the 1990 World Cup.
Barnes was later described by Bobby Robson as being part of "The best front four in Europe" – The others being Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley, and Chris Waddle. Despite high expectations, like many others he flopped at 1988 European Championships; he received the ball irregularly stuck wide on the left, and England suffered some shock defeats.
He pulled out of England's first international game after the Hillsborough disaster due to the grief he felt at the time. In his absence, England won the World Cup qualifying game against Albania 5–0 at Wembley on 26 April 1989.
In the lead up to the World Cup Barnes was played several times as a striker by Bobby Robson and in a warm up match against Uruguay played well and scored an excellent half volley from a Stuart Pearce cross. Great things were expected of Barnes.
At the World Cup he sustained a groin injury against Belgium shortly after having a magnificent volleyed goal wrongly disallowed for offside. England went out to Germany on penalties in the semi-final. Barnes had again supplied a rap for a tie-in song, "World in Motion" by New Order, which was a UK Number 1 and is still regarded by many as the best football song ever made.
Under Graham Taylor, many speculated his old mentor and manager at Watford would be able to get the best out of him, but his form was to become even less consistent; although this may have partly been down to the decline of English football as a whole during this period. In Graham Taylor's first match as England Manager (against Hungary), Barnes had appeared to be attacking positively and beating players and using the ball well. This was a false dawn however and throughout a difficult time for the England squad, Barnes had few other highlights with the exception of scoring a stunning free kick against Holland in a crucial 1993 World Cup qualifying match.
In a 1994 World Cup qualifying game against San Marino, Barnes was booed by an entire section of England supporters at Wembley after a poor performance by the whole team. Barnes later believed an article attributed to Jimmy Greaves which had appeared in the Daily Mirror in which his loyalty to England was questioned- citing his supposed support for the West Indies Cricket team, had helped influence the booing in the crowd.
Barnes continued his international career into the mid-1990s. He earned a surprise recall in 1994 after improved form for Liverpool under Terry Venables, and was in the squad in the run up to Euro 96 although failed to make the final squad for the tournament despite England not having an established left sided alternative.
England's former most capped black player won 79 caps and scored 11 goals, but compared to his club form, he was never seen as a player who peaked when wearing an England shirt. Bobby Robson famously described him as the "Greatest enigma" of his career; whilst including him for his all time dream team England squad of all the players he had picked as manager in his 1990 book "Against All Odds" (placing him on the bench), he was baffled at Barnes's inconsistency. He described Barnes as being a player of "the highest calibre" but sometimes being unable to reach for that bit extra when he or Captain Bryan Robson shouted at him to take more players on. Barnes himself has since said that he felt the systems played during his time as an England player were "rigid" and more focus was on speed, aggression, and attacking through the centre rather than a patient passing style of play. He also claimed that he could receive the ball as few as six or seven times throughout a match whereas at Liverpool he may receive it more than twenty times, and he had more freedom under Kenny Dalglish who did not ask him to stay on the left wing all the time. England also had a very different system to Liverpool at the time who were much more free-flowing, and later claimed that to have got the best out of him, they would have needed a similar system to the one used by Kenny Dalglish, which was never likely to happen. He also cited the case of Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle who he felt England were unable to get the best out of during this time.
Newspapers at the time of his England career even queried whether his disciplinarian upbringing in Jamaica to a military family and rumoured beatings as a child from his parents had contributed to his underperformance as an England footballer.
Tony Adams has also subsequently picked Barnes to be in his England dream team in his 1999 book Addicted", citing that Barnes "Could pass, move, dribble, had Brazilian style movement... what more could you want?" He also backed claims of Barnes's that England at times used rigid systems.
Nevertheless, he remained in the top ten most capped players list for eleven years until David Beckham and then Gary Neville edged him out from ninth to 11th.
After 12 years of international recognition Barnes won the last of his 79 caps on 6 September 1995 in the 0–0 friendly draw with Colombia at Wembley. The goalless friendly will always be remembered because of the eccentric Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita's 'Scorpion Kick.'
In a "dream ticket" style move, Barnes was appointed head coach of Celtic for the 1999–2000 season, working under Kenny Dalglish as director of football. After his appointment he later re-registered himself as a player but never played a competitive game for Celtic. This much-hyped appointment was unsuccessful, however, and included a shock Scottish Cup defeat at the hands of Inverness Caledonian Thistle in February (which gave birth to the famous headline from The Sun: "Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious"). Barnes was sacked shortly afterwards, with Dalglish taking over first-team duties until the end of the season. Although Dalglish won the League Cup in the process, his contract was not renewed and the board decided to replace him with Martin O'Neill.
In February 2009, Barnes told Sky Sports that he wanted to return to club management if the opportunity arose. It was reported in May 2009 that Barnes contacted English League Two side Port Vale to see whether he could replace out-going manager Dean Glover. Ultimately, though, the potential move to Port Vale did not happen. Instead, on 14 June 2009 he confirmed that he was to be appointed manager of League One side Tranmere Rovers.
Twice in his career, Barnes was voted Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year. He has also won the PFA Players' Player of the Year and is widely regarded as among the most talented players to wear an England shirt. Barnes was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2005 in recognition of his contribution to the English game.
The Liverpool fans adoration for "Digger" (he was nicknamed after the character Digger Barnes in the American soap opera Dallas) was emphasised when he finished in the top 5 of the poll 100 Players Who Shook The Kop which was conducted by the official Liverpool Football Club web site in the summer of 2006. More than 110,000 supporters worldwide voted for their 10 favourite players of all time, Barnes finished 5th behind Robbie Fowler (4th), Ian Rush (3rd), Steven Gerrard (2nd) and the man that signed him three times (for Liverpool, Newcastle and Celtic) Kenny Dalglish (1st).
He also appears frequently as a selection in Four Four Two magazine's Perfect XI, a choice in which current and former professional footballers select the best 11 players they have ever seen, played with or against, including selections by Michael Owen, Steve Mcmannaman, Peter Beardsley, Ian Wright and Jamie Carragher.
He received rave reviews from other legends in the game such as George Best who once said: "John Barnes can be the greatest. He was described by the England boss Bobby Robson as the black Best, and I reckon he is right. Barnes has the ability to become the best, the most exciting winger in British Soccer since me. His transfer to Liverpool was the perfect move for a man who was born with stunning talent. The Anfield academy will take that natural ability, harness it with consistency, and produce a truly world-class performer." Legend Tom Finney was also mesmerised by Barnes' talents: "Players like John Barnes come along just once in a lifetime."