Liverpool Legend: Why John Barnes Is My Favourite Liverpool Player of All Time
Late into the 1988-89 season, an impressionable youngster turned up at Anfield to take a walk around the famous old football stadium in Liverpool with his father, anxious to take in his first sight of a proper ground before watching his first live game the following day.
The boy touched the "This Is Anfield" sign, sat in the dugout and took his first glimpse of the green grass of the playing surface.
It was a special day already, but upon exiting into the car park, it took a turn for the better.
There walking toward him was none other than a first team player for Liverpool, about who stories had been told and who would become the first great hero of this supporter.
The fan was, of course, myself. The player was John Barnes.
I don't remember much about what was said between he and my dad, but I remember that I knew who he was—only one of two players whose names I learned and remembered from that day on, the other being Bruce Grobbelaar—and that he stopped to have a photo taken with me.
Barnes was all I spoke about when I got home, and the bond which existed in my mind didn't get any duller when I went back to Anfield the next day. Liverpool beat Derby County 1-0, and Barnes scored the winning goal just one minute into the game.
Hero-worship became a part of my life from that moment, with anybody excelling in Red through my formative years being compared to the first two instances and impressions that Liverpool's No. 10 had left.
Barnes seemed to run teams ragged whenever I got the chance to see him—highlight shows and FA Cup specials, mainly, during the old Division 1 days—and each trip up to Anfield was a major treat.
Division 1 gave way to the rise of the Premier League, and suddenly Liverpool were on the telly a lot more often, and Barnes had a new role. No longer the pacey, attacking winger of old, he was suddenly a controlling central midfielder.
I'd never seen someone play so slowly, yet never lose the ball. "Digger" seemed to have an eternity on the ball every time it came to him—and it came to him a lot—and no player could ever seem to win it off him. The strength that Barnes showed, considering his grace on the ball, left yet another impression on a watching, and growing, young fan.
Even Jan Molby, not known for his pace or for conceding possession, didn't perform the role with as much quality in my young eyes.
Life outside of Liverpool started to take shape; the England national team and the media disenchantment of John Barnes which came with it. How could they not appreciate Barnes? I'd been shown a video of his goal against Brazil; what other player was capable of something like that?
Qualification for the World Cup in '94 essentially came and went with a draw and a defeat against Holland, and most of the chatter after the two games was about Ronald Koeman not being sent off for a professional foul and then going on to score an important goal afterwards.
Funny, all I remembered was Barnes curling a free kick into the top corner.
He'd done his job, I surmised. If the rest of the team couldn't keep England in the match, that was their fault.
Childish, sure, but hey, I was a child, and Barnes was my hero. I was defending him to my friends who had never been able to see how good a player he was.
The credits kept rolling on Barnes' career at Liverpool, and my memories of the first decade of support for Liverpool are punctuated my moments of brilliance which only he seemed capable of coming up with.
Those goals against QPR. A header after being told he had no right foot. Goals against teams with exotic names like Sion, MyPa47, Walsall. I thought they were a foreign team, at first. A hat-trick against Crewe Alexandra, and the commentator saying (when he only had two goals): "Any old player would have just blasted that shot in, but not John Barnes. If he's going to get a hat-trick, he's going to do it in style." He eventually did it with a back-heeled flick, a penalty and another goal which escapes my memory.
Goals, assists, dribbles, passes...performances.
Later, there came computer games, management simulations. The first thing I invariably did was offer Barnes a new contract with Liverpool, and get him back in the England squad. I played him without fail for the national team. Seventy-nine caps is a stupidly low number for one of the nation's best, I would reason. He deserves a century of caps.
Then came the team of McManaman, Redknapp, McAteer and Fowler. There were some amazing talents in that team and Fowler was, of course, God, but in the midst of them all was the elder statesman, the captain, the calming influence in a team of lightning-fast attackers.
Barnes was king of all before him, and his exit from Liverpool was the first one which hurt as a supporter. Shortly after he departed Anfield, I read an interview where Barnes was quoted as saying, "I was still good enough to play for you, Liverpool." I didn't doubt it in the slightest, but I didn't pick the team.
Injuries, age and the emergence of a new group had taken their toll on Digger's time in the team, though he still played 47 times in his final full season.
As you spend time watching your favourite team, your favourite players, you understand little by little that they never stay. Eventually, through age, injury, money or retirement, they all move on.
Someone else comes in, shines brightly and makes you think the good times are headed back to Anfield once more.
Every one of them, though, are measured on a scale of "One" to "John Barnes." And all of them come up short.
The Kop, Anfield, European nights, Liverpool—all of them create a thousand and one memories which you cherish, dredge up, remember, regale over, tell tales of. Standing in the crowd, cheering and singing, alongside a parent, a grandparent, an uncle. Later, alongside friends, flat-mates, new faces you meet online.
But there are few things which can compare to the magic of meeting your first hero, introduced and explained by your father who began your love affair with the club in the first place.
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