During his stellar career as a professional soccer, or football, player in England, John Barnes played for England 79 times, scoring 12 goals. He was a member of the Liverpool Special One Football Club that won the league title in 1988 and 1990, the Football Association (FA) Cup in 1989 and 1992, and the League Cup in 1995. He was the first black player to win the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award in 1988; he also won the prestigious Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Footballer of the Year award that same year. His professional career lasted 18 years, all but one season of it as a member of teams in the highest league division. Two images of John Barnes are remembered most clearly by English soccer fans; the first being his stunning individual goal for England against Brazil in 1984, and the second his dismissive back-heeling of a banana thrown onto the pitch by racists.
John Barnes was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on November 11, 1963, and moved to England as a child. He was spotted by a talent scout from Watford FC while playing soccer in a park and made his professional debut for the team in 1981. By the following season Watford had been promoted to the English first division (now the Premiership). Watford flourished under manager Graham Taylor and so did Barnes. He was a member of the team’s impressive 1983 European Cup campaign and in the following year enjoyed second place to Liverpool in the league as well as collecting an FA Cup finalist’s medal.
By then he had come to the attention of England coach Bobby Robson, making his international debut in 1983. But it was in 1984 that Barnes became an England regular when he scored a remarkable individual goal against Brazil on June 10, 1984, at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Barnes collected the ball at the halfway line and beat five Brazilian defenders to score one of the most memorable goals ever achieved by an England player. He went on to play 79 times for England, scoring 12 goals, but despite some notable contributions his best performances always seemed to come at club level.
Even so, Barnes’s England career was long and at times dramatic. As a player he could turn games around with his power and pace and had the ability to energize a whole team. For example he was brought on with 15 minutes to go against Argentina in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals when England was 2-0 down and Barnes single-handedly dismantled the Argentine defense, setting up a goal and a missed chance for teammate Gary Lineker. But by the early 1990s England was a team of underachievers and Barnes became the focus for the fans’ discontent.
When Graham Taylor moved away from Watford in 1987 Barnes also left and joined Liverpool, one of the most successful English clubs of the decade, for a fee of £900,000. His time at Liverpool brought him many awards and accolades, including two league titles (1988, 1990), two FA Cup winner’s medals (1989, 1992), two runner’s up medals (1988, 1996), and a League Cup winner’s medal (1995). In his most successful season, 1989-90, he made 34 appearances and scored 22 goals, an outstanding tally for a midfield player. He was rewarded for this performance in 1990 when he was named Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year for the second time. Two years earlier in 1988 he had been the first black player to receive award and also picked up the Professional Footballers’ Association Footballer of the Year award.
‘We won’t admit it, because we are afraid of being called racist’@officialbarnesy says people need to have open and honest conversations about unconscious discrimination and racism. #bbcqt pic.twitter.com/g7NXueMJ41
— BBC Question Time (@bbcquestiontime) February 21, 2019
In all Barnes scored 70 goals for Liverpool in the 10 years he spent at the club. He also performed an ill-advised rap on the team’s traditional FA Cup final single in 1989, a skill he demonstrated again with greater success on the England World Cup 1990 record, “World in Motion” with the band New Order. “World in Motion” made the number one spot in the British charts. But Barnes was not always happy at Liverpool; when he first arrived he was the target of some vicious racist abuse. Like most black players, Barnes was accustomed to racism among football fans—his remarkable individual goal against Brazil in 1984 took place in front of abusive far-right National Front activists who were outraged that he had been picked for the England team. But the issue became big news when Liverpool played local rivals Everton in 1988 and Barnes was abused with “monkey” noises and had bananas thrown at him. One well-known image was captured by a press photographer who spotted Barnes dismissively back-heeling a banana off the pitch. Barnes told BBC Sport: “Because Liverpool v. Everton was a very high-profile game a lot was made of it, but that sort of thing had been going on for years and years.” Barnes has since been outspoken about the problem of racism in the soccer world, saying that British society has to change, not just soccer.
— False 9 (@False9) February 22, 2019
Another dark period in Barnes’s career at Liverpool came in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, which took place during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Barnes was on the pitch when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death during a crowd surge and he was heavily involved with comforting survivors and relatives in the hospital, and attending funerals of the victims. He explained in his autobiography: “Before Hillsborough, I had always tried to keep things in perspective but what happened on the Leppings Lane terraces made me question so much in my life. When I struggled to get in the team at Liverpool and then Newcastle United, I said to myself, ‘Does it really matter?'”
For the part he took in helping fans recover from Hillsborough, and for his long service to the club, Barnes became one of Liverpool’s biggest heroes. But in 1997, at age 34, he moved to Newcastle United, where he was reunited with Kenny Dalglish, a former Liverpool manager and playing star. Barnes featured in over 40 games for Newcastle, boosting their European Champions’ League squad and appearing in yet another FA Cup final, losing to Arsenal in 1998. But by then he was struggling to win a place in the team and moved to London-based Charlton, where he ended his playing career in 1999.
After leaving Charlton Barnes took the common step of entering soccer management. But rather than beginning with a small club where he could learn away from the glare of the media, he joined one of Scotland’s top teams, Celtic, alongside his mentor Kenny Dalglish, who was by then director of soccer. Despite some success early in the season, Barnes was criticized for his team selections and tactics and left within a few months. He then became a sports broadcaster on the British television channel ITV and later on Channel 5. Besides working in television, he is also involved in education projects to promote the anti-racist message and is an ambassador for the charity Save the Children. Credits.