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John Barnes

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 26 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss

England Caps: 79

Goals: 11

Player: 1983 – 1995

John Barnes was an electric left-sided midfielder and attacker who had a superb career with Liverpool but was often considered an under-achiever in an England shirt.

Watford Beginnings

Born in Jamaica Barnes came to England as a small boy and was spotted by Watford when a teenager. He made his debut in 1981 under Graham Taylor, who was then guiding the team from the Fourth Division to the First (then the top league). His pace and ball control down the left soon made him the Watford fans’ hero.

Much more than an out-and-out winger, Barnes was far better as a left-side midfielder, where his intelligent running on and off the ball could create openings for himself and others.

Debut Under Robson

England manager Bobby Robson handed Barnes an England debut in 1983 in a Home Championship Match against Northern Ireland. Coming on as a substitute for Watford club-mate Luther Blissett with the scores at nil-nil, he nearly broke the deadlock in the last minute, but veteran keeper Pat Jennings just managed to block the shot.

Robson then took Barnes on a tour of South America where his defining moment in an England shirt came in a friendly against Brazil. Granted this was not a strong Brazilian side but Barnes’ opening goal in a two-nil win set the standard for his England performances for the next ten years.

England’s Best Ever Goal?

Receiving the ball on the left wing, Barnes came inside and jinked his way past four defenders, moving across the penalty area before dummying the keeper and tapping the ball into the net. It was a goal that hushed the crowd in the giant Maracana Stadium, a goal that easily stands up against the one Maradona was to score against England six years later.


In some ways this brilliant goal then caused part of the problem for Barnes. He was expected to deliver that kind of goal in every game, and when he didn’t, the pressure caused him to lose form. At various times through the rest of the Eighties his position was under competition from Steve Hodge and Chris Waddle, but he had amassed nearly thirty caps by the time Robson took England to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

But Barnes wasn’t played at all until the last gasp, with England already 2-0 down in the quarter-final against Argentina, having been taken to the cleaners by Maradona’s sleight of hand and undoubted football brilliance just after half-time.

Barnes as Super-Sub

With twenty minutes to go, Robson sacrificed defender Trevor Steven, sent Barnes on and told him to run at the defence and get the ball into the box for Gary Lineker. He told the midfield trio of Glenn Hoddle, Peter Beardsley and Hodge to get the ball to Barnes, and for Waddle to come in from the left wing and play in the box as support for Lineker.

Great Goal But Too Late

It was the perfect plan, just ten minutes too late. Barnes ripped control of the match from Maradona and proceeded to tear the Argentine defence apart. In the eighty-first minute he took the ball on the wing and pulled four Argentine defenders out of position before delivering the perfect cross for Lineker to head home. Ten minutes later, he did it again, but Lineker missed the opportunity, his marker just getting enough on the ball to deflect it away from under the crossbar.

Lacklustre Euro ‘88

The next tournament, the European Championship of 1988, was a disappointment. England had qualified very strongly, dropping only one point, but at the tournament, put in dismal displays with Lineker, Beardsley and Barnes in particular looking weak. It turned out afterward that Lineker had hepatitis B, but Barnes could only point to tiredness after a long season with his new club, Liverpool.

It was a similar story for Barnes at Italia ’90, the next World Cup. In the lead up to the tournament he had been getting a fair crack of the whip and had scored another impressive goal in a friendly against Uruguay, chesting down a high cross from Stuart Pearce and volleying passed the keeper.

Italia ‘90

At the tournament itself, Barnes started all the matches, Robson having to change the formation again when Bryan Robson was injured in the second match, and playing Barnes and Waddle together. But this meant Barnes playing as an out-an-out winger and he was not delivering. He was substituted in the quarter-final against Cameroon having taken a knock, and didn’t play in the semi-final which West Germany won on penalties; agony for England.

Taylor Arrives

Bobby Robson had already announced that he would step down and the FA had groomed Barnes' former Watford mentor, Graham Taylor as his replacement. But Barnes then missed much of 1991 thorough injury and then mercifully missed England’s 1992 European Championship disaster with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Boo-Boys Silenced

Taylor continued to play Barnes, Waddle only getting another three caps under Taylor, but Barnes had started to attract boos from the crowd. It was particularly bad as England played Holland at Wembley in a qualifier for the 1994 World Cup, but Barnes silenced them in the best way, with a with superb curling free-kick in the second minute. But despite going two-nil up, England allowed Holland to pull it back to 2-2, and that result would come back to haunt England as they lost the return match and were unable to qualify.

El Tel Takes Over

Barnes featured sporadically as Taylor’s replacement, Terry Venables, took over and experimented to find his best squad and methodology. His seventy-ninth and last cap came in 1995, as it became clear that Venables ‘Christmas tree’ system, which relied on attacking full-backs, didn’t require Barnes.

He played on for Liverpool for another two years and then went to Newcastle United for a further two. He hung up his boots and took various coaching and management opportunities before settling for a media career.


Barnes is a player who frustrated England fans but this is for two reasons largely out of his control. Firstly he could not meet the expectations that were placed on him after the Brazil goal and secondly, he was constantly played out of position for his country, a fate he is not the only one to have suffered.

However it wasnt all bad, he did get a number one with the track "World in Motion" along with other members of the 1990 England squad, often mistitled "The John Barnes Rap"!

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