Liverpool's Suárez-Sturridge attack rivals class of '88, says John Barnes
Anfield great believes Luis Suárez's ban 'empowered' team and it may be 'most pleasing-on-the-eye' Liverpool side for 25 years
It is a little over 25 years since Sir Tom Finney left Anfield after watching Liverpool beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 and declared that he had just been in attendance "at the finest exhibition I have seen". It is an assessment that continues to resonate, not just because of who it came from but also because it aptly encapsulates the swaggering brilliance of that Liverpool team, one which having crushed Forest went on to clinch the club's 17th league championship at a canter.
The class of '88 are recognised by most supporters and neutrals as being Liverpool's finest attacking unit, so it is notable when John Barnes, its undoubted star, suggests the current crop have what it takes to be considered their rightful heirs.
"Liverpool are only a few games into the new season so nobody should be getting carried away, but the potential is definitely there," he says. "Under the likes of Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benítez the team was consistent, strong and well-organised, but not particularly exciting. Now, from an attacking point of view, I think we have the best strike force in the league and when [Philippe] Coutinho comes back we'll have the best attacking three in the country. So yes, this is perhaps the most pleasing-on-the-eye Liverpool side since '88.
"What's worked in their favour was having [Luis] Suárez banned for the first six games. That empowered the team to recognise that they are good enough to win and good enough to play well without him. It helped Daniel Sturridge in particular – he became the focus of our attack and his confidence has grown as a result.
"Had Suárez been there from the start he would have been the focus of the attack and Sturridge would have played second fiddle, which may have affected his performances. But because of how well Sturridge has done he is now equal to Suárez in terms of stature, and that has benefited the team's attacking play. Coutinho coming back will be the icing on the cake."
Barnes is speaking over breakfast at the Grosvenor House hotel in London's Park Lane, where only hours earlier a rather eclectic collection of guests, including Mick Hucknall, Alan Curbishley, Pelé and Barnes himself, had been in attendance for a dinner aimed at raising money for the Nordoff Robbins charity. It is a brisk morning and soon Suárez, Sturridge and their Liverpool team-mates would be in the capital to take on Arsenal in a match which, even at this early stage, feels like a key test for two teams that have begun the campaign impressively.
Had Fernando Torres not scored Chelsea's late winner against Manchester City last week, Saturday's encounter at the Emirates would have been a tussle between the Premier League's top two. Nevertheless, this remains a clash between sides high on points and panache and brings back memories of the period in the late 1980s-early 1990s when Liverpool and Arsenal were the dominant forces in English football.
The clubs won every championship between 1988-1991, with the fight for the '89 crown unparalleled in its drama and climax. Nobody who were transfixed by the events at Anfield on 26 May, 1989, will forget the moment when Michael Thomas charged through the midfield to seal Arsenal's first title in 18 years.
It was an incredible finish to a tumultuous season for Liverpool, one in which Kenny Dalglish's team, having stormed to the '88 title before suffering the shock of losing to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final, did not go top until a 2-1 win at Millwall in the 32nd game of the season, and then just four days later were part of English football's worst tragedy. Events at Hillsborough on 15 April ,1989, preceded Liverpool's title shootout with Arsenal, who had led the First Division for most of the second half of the campaign. It took place six days after an emotional all-Merseyside cup final and many observers felt that what transpired – George Graham's side securing the 2-0 win they needed to be crowned champions – were a consequence of Liverpool's players going into the game emotionally as well as physically drained.
"You can say after the event that it was because of Hillsborough but at the time we believed we'd do what we needed to that night," reflects Barnes. "The problem was that we were such an attacking side and if we had to win the game we would've done. But the fact we could've drawn, or even lost 1-0, and still been champions meant we didn't play in our normal style. Even the fans were subdued, there was a strange atmosphere, and in the end it was just one of those things."
Barnes's second full season at Anfield had been another in which he consistently displayed his beguiling mix of stealth, speed and strength. Yet it was the winger who, from a Liverpool point of view, played a devastating role in their failure to retain the title, losing possession to Kevin Richardson deep in second-half stoppage time, which led to an Arsenal counterattack and Thomas, having got past Steve Nicol, lifting the ball over the despairing Bruce Grobbelaar.
"I'd much rather Michael Thomas had fallen over, especially as he now lives right beside me," Barnes says with a laugh. "But I can watch that goal back without feeling any regrets or remorse because that's how we were taught to think at Liverpool; to treat success and disaster exactly the same as that is the only way you can maintain the focus needed to be successful on a consistent basis.
"I remember after I won my first title there, Ronnie Moran [then first-team coach] came into the dressing room and all he said was 'pre-season training starts on July 7th'. The next year, after we'd lost the league in the last minute, the same thing – 'pre-season training starts on July 7th'. He didn't make a big song or dance about it and look what happened – we won the league the following season."
Liverpool clinched the 1990 title with nine points to spare over the second-placed Aston Villa while Arsenal finished fourth. Yet in the following campaign the rivalry resumed and it was the Londoners who triumphed. Again there was also a sense that Liverpool had blown it, with the shock departure of Dalglish in February 1991 seen by many as the beginning of the end for an almighty force.
"Subconsciously we probably did switch off," Barnes hesitantly admits. "As a team we felt the script was written and that if we didn't perform the players wouldn't get the blame; everyone would say it was because Kenny had left. The same thing is happening at Manchester United now – it's obvious the players have taken their foot of the pedal because subconsciously they are not as focused and as driven as they were when Sir Alex Ferguson was there. What's happening at United has nothing to do with David Moyes, it's all down to the players."
Hearing Barnes speak with such authority and assurance it is hard to believe the 49-year-old is not currently involved in football. There were calls for him to be part of the Football Association's newly established commission , but the former England international would not have taken part anyway given his scepticism over its remit and potential for change.
Many Liverpool fans would also love to see the former No10 given a leading role there yet that too is not the case, with Barnes taking on nothing more than ambassadorial duties with the club he continues to support and live near 16 years after his departure from Anfield.
Instead, Barnes's desire remains to be a manager. Unsuccessful stints at Celtic and Tranmere, either side of a more prosperous time with Jamaica's national team, having not damaged his enthusiasm for a life in the dugout. "Overall I've only been a manager for a little while so I've certainly not had enough of it," he says. "I'd have to be the No1, though, even if that meant going in at a lower level, I'm prepared to do that. As yet, though, I've not been offered a job."
So it is back to a life of travelling to South Africa and the Middle East to work as a pundit on Premier League and Champions League fixtures, and on Saturday evening willing Liverpool to triumph in a fixture that, in its current guise, brings back memories of a time when the Merseyside club played with a swagger and regularly faced Arsenal as the team to beat.
"I've always said that if Liverpool can keep their best 11 players fit and playing consistently well, we have a chance of staying near the top of the table," says Barnes. "Over the course of a season that is unlikely to happen and if you look at the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City, they all have stronger squads than Liverpool.
"But all those sides are dropping points – City have already lost three times this season – so it's definitely going to be a lot tighter. Liverpool just have to believe they can keep winning and keep playing well."
Copyright - The Guardian