John Barnes: A Kop hero

On the occasion of his 48th birthday, we salute John Charles Barnes - one of the greatest players to have blazed the wings at Anfield.

Football News: John Barnes

By Daniel Teo

The sight of the 'Digger' (his nickname during his playing days due to the initials JCB - also the name of an excavation company) bamboozling full backs, delivering precision crosses and scoring dazzling goals continue to live in the memories of those who had the privilege of watching him in action.

In 1987, Kenny Dalglish signed Barnes from Watford as part of a radical overhaul at Anfield. He joined Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge, and Ray Houghton to become part of the most lethal strike force in history.

It seems unthinkable now, but Barnes' move was a controversial one - simply because of the fact that he was black. It was a sign of the era - but in time Barnes did more than any other black footballer in the country (including the likes of Luther Blissett, Viv Anderson, Brendon Batson and Lawrie Cunningham) to break down racial tensions and make the Premier League the pot-pourri of nationalities and races that it is today.

Barnes was blessed with an almost supernatural touch and a ridiculous ability to glide past defenders.

John Aldrige, another Liverpool great who played with Barnes for three seasons, said in his autobiography that Bobby Robson once claimed that Barnes was as good as George Best at his peak.

The Jamaica-born Englishman wasted no time in endearing himself to his new family at Anfield, scoring on his debut - a glittering free kick against Oxford United. This was followed a few weeks later by a stunning solo goal against Queens Park Rangers.

A traditional and old-school winger, Barnes loved to terrorize defences with his searing pace, raging-bull strength and most importantly pin-point crosses that Ian Rush was indebted to for many of his goals - one of the most memorable being his cross for Rush's second goal in the 1989 FA cup final against bitter rivals Everton.

Scoring goals - spectacular ones - was also a huge part of his game. Dazzling solo runs, deft chips, free-kicks, you name it. He could do it all and he did do it all in the 1990 season - scoring a staggering 22 goals in just 34 league games to help Liverpool win the title.

Many understandably wax lyrical over the Dalglish-Rush and Kevin Keegan-John Toshack combinations, but the Barnes-Aldridge/Rush/Beardsley combinations deserve as many, if not more, accolades.

Besides being a footballing star on the pitch, he was a hero and a role model for many - which is perhaps his greatest legacy. He had to deal with racist abuse from opposing supporters and far-right groups. He even had a banana thrown towards him during the derby match with Everton at Goodison Park.

A lesser man would have blown his top and left the pitch. But not Barnes. He simply back-heeled the banana off the pitch.

There is no doubt he is one of the best, if not the best player who has ever played for Liverpool.

A young Jamie Carragher, who was breaking into the team towards the end of Barnes's career said: "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 Fernando Torres, Robbie Fowler and Michael 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."

It's a shame he never got the worldwide acclaim he deserved as his peak years coincided with the tragedies of Heysel, which kept Liverpool from European competition.

If not, it is likely he would have been spoken in the same breath as other luminaries of that era such as Diego Maradona, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten.                                                                         

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