From wide boy to reluctant middleman

John Barnes fires words like bullets. They spill from his lips in volley after volley and he pauses only to assess their effect. It is not verbiage, either. Every word counts; every one finds its mark. Fifteen minutes in conversation with him is of more worth than an afternoon with many of his fellow professionals.

While some of his team-mates seem to delight in displays of cussedness, Barnes prides himself on his skills of communication. People want to listen again, too. He has been at the centre of the Liverpool revival under Roy Evans, and Terry Venables has resuscitated his England career, giving him the chance to increase his tally of caps to 76. Ironically, he is not able to add to them this week in Dublin. While England play Ireland tomorrow, Barnes will be hoping to advance Liverpool's Coca- Cola Cup cause in the first leg of the semi-final against Crystal Palace at Anfield.

After the FA Cup fourth round tie at Turf Moor, the Burnley players singled out Barnes as the man who had prevented an upset, the one who had held Liverpool together and given them shape when they were in danger of being overrun. Steve McManaman was given the freedom to roam forward, leaving Barnes to excel in the midfield holding position allotted to him.

His play there mirrors his speech. Every pass is precise and measured; the timing is perfect; delivery is neat and quick, and rarely flustered, with little wasted. His detractors, the ones who said he was finished when he was laid low by injury and disagreements with Graeme Souness, the previous manager, have begun to change their tune, but Barnes, 31, still yearns for a change.

"We have got a lot of attacking players in the team," he said, "and the manager assumes that I am the one who is a bit more disciplined, has been around a bit longer and is a bit more aware, so I am asked to play the holding role. But it does not compare with the thrill of actually attacking, getting forward, getting goals, going past players. All things being equal, I would like a more attacking role."

"But all things are not equal. You have got to look at the structure of the team, the make-up of the team, the players in the team, and realise that it is not possible. I play a more basic game now, getting the ball off the back four and playing it to the front men."

Barnes is keen to emphasise that he is not complaining. He is thankful to be fully fit for the first time since he ruptured his Achilles tendon while playing for England against Finland in 1992, happy to be part of a new beginning at Anfield after the trauma of the Souness reign, when, together with other senior players, he was made the scapegoat for the club's failings.

"I do not feel I was misused as a player by Souness," he said. "Because of my fitness level, I was not able to do what I am capable of doing. I was able to do it for five or ten minutes, and after that I was playing on memory."

"His frustration was : `Why are you not doing it?', and my frustration with him was : `Can't you understand how long I've been out?.' If you miss pre-season, you will not be able to perform consistently at the highest level, but, as soon as I was injury free, I was playing in the first team. I was not match fit, but I had to play."

Now, like Ian Rush, Barnes is playing for a new contract. He wants a three-year deal when his present one expires, at the end of the season, and is waiting for the club to open negotiations. He is at the crossroads; the memories of his goal against Brazil in 1984 tinged with sepia; his part in the great Liverpool teams of the past a cherished relic of another era. But as the new breed - Fowler, Babb, Redknapp, McManaman and Jones - come into their own, the chance to bridge two dynasties beckons.

"This is a new beginning for all of us," Barnes said. "We were in the doldrums for three years and everyone said that that was the end of Liverpool. The team and I had a barren spell, but now we are enjoying a resurgence. It is a new lease of life for all of us."

"It is a happier squad now, but, when Souness was in charge, we had a lot of senior players who were injured. A lot of the kids were thrown in and a lot was asked of them. With the best will in the world, we were never going to maintain what we had achieved in the late Eighties. Now, they aren't kids anymore. Roy Evans has had the benefit of three years Graeme Souness didn't have."

"They are still young, they have still got a long way to go, but the future is good for Liverpool. The potential is there for us to become one of the great Liverpool sides. Past glories, past failures, count for nothing now."

Copyright - The Times

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