A striker with a healthy, though relatively unnoticed, scoring record was suddenly propelled into the nation's awareness with one glorious and surprising flourish.
No one expected lowly York City to provide anything much more than doughty victims when they went to Old Trafford in the Coca-Cola Cup last season. True, Manchester United did not have their best team out, but there were seven internationals in the 11 who should have been more than enough to cope with a team struggling in the Second Division.
Instead, in Alex Ferguson's words, United were given a football lesson. York won 3-0, Barnes scored two of the goals and but for a hairline offside decision would have finished with a hat-trick to take back to Bootham Crescent along with his man of the match award. It is still, by some way, the best night of the 29-year-old's career.
Nobody expects this to be his only brush with fame. He harbours ambitions to play in the Premiership, but more immediate is the prospect of playing Liverpool tomorrow.
Burnley, Barnes' new club, go to Anfield in the third round of the FA Cup and, as he says: "If the match against United proved anything, it's that anything's possible if you believe in yourselves."
Barnes has always had a belief in his ability even though his salad days were spent largely in the reserves at Notts County and Stoke City. Kenny Dalglish was his role model, but it took a pounds 50,000 move to York, at the age of 24, to allow his natural scoring skills to come to the fore with 76 goals in 148 League appearances.
The man who bought him, John Ward, who is now Burnley's assistant manager, described Barnes as the "final piece in the jigsaw" and Alan Little, who succeeded Ward as the York manager, agrees. "It was a lot of money for the club in those days, but he repaid it many times over with his goals," Little said. "He has pace and ability which worries defenders and if he misses he goes straight back for another go. He has no fear."
A brief pounds 350,000 transfer to Birmingham City followed - where he also averaged a goal every other game - before he moved to Burnley in September. "I had five months at St Andrew's under Barry Fry," he said, "but, when Trevor Francis became manager, he brought in Paul Furlong and Mike Newell for pounds 2.5m so it was clear that my opportunities would be limited. I went to see him and told him I wanted first-team football and he was superb. He told me he didn't want me to go, but if I got set up somewhere he wouldn't stand in my way.
"I don't regard Burnley as a step down. You only have to go to Turf Moor to realise that this is a big club, the proverbial sleeping giant. It is a Second Division club that's geared to the First Division. I also knew the manager, Adrian Heath, from when we played together at Stoke and, of course, there was John Ward. I didn't need much persuasion."
Barnes has 13 goals this season, including one against Walsall in the second-round replay last week, and he is playing well enough for Burnley to be able to transfer-list their main striker, Kurt Nogan. "We're going well in the League," Barnes said, "and the team is beginning to play well. There's no reason why we shouldn't do ourselves justice against Liverpool."
Which was just about where York were when they met Manchester United. "We went to Old Trafford determined not to let ourselves down, but once the game started the lads suddenly realised maybe we could do something here. The confidence grew when we took the lead, but to come away with a 3-0 win was unbelievable.
"Alex Ferguson said afterwards that York had done a good job on United and my chief memory was of 80 per cent of the fans staying behind to clap us off the pitch, which was a marvellous feeling. I also won the man of the match award, which is rare for an away player. The whole evening was wonderful."
What about Anfield? "I've played a few reserve matches there and even when it is practically empty it is a magnificent ground. We visited the museum on one trip and to see the exhibits and experience the sense of history gives you an idea just how big Liverpool are.
"I haven't given up hope that I will reach the Premiership one day. Playing against the likes of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce gave me a taste of what it is like with the best defenders and it is something I would like to do on a regular basis."
An encounter with Liverpool's back five will simply provide him with a temporary brush against the country's elite. If he does well then, Burnley will probably do so too.Reuse content