Barnes revels in the red renaissance

Liverpool are quickly becoming the most exciting team in the country. Ian Ridley speaks to their stylish crusader
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EVERY top football club acquires an image that may not be entirely accurate but takes some changing: Arsenal, boring; Leeds, tough and dour; Manchester United, glamorous and expansive. For 30 years, Liverpool have been seen as relentless, the mean red machine.

Their grinding out of results and accumulation of trophies always earned them the respect of the professionals and some admiration from the neutrals. Rarely affection, however. When the slip from the summit came under Graeme Souness to coincide with the ascent of United, efficiency being replaced with excitement, there seemed to be a wry enjoyment.

Now Liverpool under Roy Evans are once more nearing peaks, their championship hopes reinforced by United's win at Newcastle last Monday. And remarkably, the Double even offers itself as a teasing possibility with today's quarter- final at Leeds the next hurdle for a team unbeaten in their last 15 matches (won 12, drawn three).

More surprising than Liverpool aloft with the sides of March has been the style of the achievement. Last Sunday's blistering beginning, three goals up in eight minutes, against Aston Villa invited the neutral to enthuse about the former paragons of the percentage game.

"People like to see exuberance and flamboyance in their play and Liverpool never had that," admitted John Barnes, nine seasons with the club as dashing dribbler and crosser and, after a serious Achilles injury, thoughtful passer. "People didn't like Liverpool because they couldn't understand how they kept winning all these trophies without players who could do tricks.

"It probably changed a bit when Kenny Dalglish bought me and Peter Beardsley. The '87/88 championship team was exciting. But Manchester United were still the more skilful in everyone's eyes, not as good a team as Liverpool but with better individuals. I think now that's changed even more and Liverpool are probably a more individualistic, attack-minded team than they have ever been."

The sight of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore roving, rotating and dribbling past defenders may alarm some old Liverpool lags but it would take a grudging spectator not to applaud such vitality. Barnes, quietly crucial as the man who empowers the youth around him, is revelling in it, his 13-to-the-dozen speech belying the laid-back stereotype. But he remains realistic.

"On our day we have been far and away the best team in the country," he said, and convincing wins over United, Tottenham and Arsenal bear him out. "At other times we have played some of the worst football in the country," he conceded, referring to a November of one draw and five defeats. "We don't defend as well, every team member, as past Liverpool teams but on no occasion then would you have had five players flooding forward. We can be hit on the break. Three at the back has helped shore up the defence but we still need to work harder as a team."

Barnes believes that Souness's role in the present Liverpool has been underestimated. Once the decision to rebuild Dalglish's ageing team was made, he explained, a few lean years while McManaman, Fowler and Jamie Redknapp emerged was only to be expected. "We had to go through that then to see the benefits now."

The one factor that has always underpinned Anfield, no matter the development of individualism, is the emphasis on the accuracy of passing. Indeed there have been criticisms of Liverpool this season for overplaying. "Maybe we over-elaborated with the final ball around the box sometimes," Barnes said of the November struggles. "But the 20 passes we were making to get there were right. Teams tend to get everyone behind the ball against Liverpool and not give any space behind them, so we have to try to pull them out of position with passing.

"What we are trying to do is get Steve McManaman between their midfield players and back four to run at their defence. All it needs is one simple pass slipped between two players to commit someone and Steve then has the run of the park."

Over the years, the 32-year-old Barnes said, he has grown more appreciative of the team dynamic, of how the Liverpool of the Seventies meshed, and why Ajax are now the darlings, for their simplicity of passing and movement and economy of effort. "In fact, looking back,"Barnes said, "Liverpool have probably come closest of all English clubs to the Ajax system, in terms of playing, if not using young players." Perhaps even in that, too. A 3-2 win in the FA Youth Cup over Manchester United in midweek augurs well.

In turn, does this figure oft-criticised for his apparent inability to transfer club form to the international stage himself feel more appreciated? "I feel more understood now," he said. "At first after my injury, I think people asked 'Why isn't he running forward, taking people on, getting crosses in?' But with so many doing that, you need someone to sit back and I had lost some pace after the injury. I can still be man of the match without having to beat players.

"Because I am naturally an attacking player there are times when I think 'I should be able to do that', but I have to be more responsible. Do I envy the younger players? I envy their age." He is not ready yet, he added smiling, to go back to Watford, though he has called Luther Blissett to wish him and his old manager Graham Taylor well.

Barnes, whose 79 caps put him eighth in the all-time list, is still optimistic of making the England squad for the European Championship finals. After an appearance as a substitute against Colombia last September, he was omitted from the squad for the Switzerland and Portugal matches but on each occasion Terry Venables, in a rare move, rang to explain that he wanted to look at other players.

Barnes's theory about the old club-country chestnut says something about the English game. "I think we are getting there," he said. "Newcastle, Manchester United, ourselves, are playing an attractive passing game but it needs a majority of the top clubs doing it. Players would then switch more easily to the international scene. We have so many ways of playing and we pick the best individuals and try to get them to play an alien way in three days. It may be why Steve McManaman hasn't yet bridged the gap and why Alan Shearer is not scoring goals. I have no doubt that if the Liverpool team of '87 had been England, I would have played the same way."

What of the championship? "Newcastle are still favourites. They have high quality and all things being equal they should win. All things are not equal in football, though. United are the most consistent team and I feel we will be close." And the FA Cup? "Leeds are a physical side and it can be difficult to impose your way of playing on them. But we have to keep our nerve."

Courage is the key. "The way we play is quite dicey at times. If the ball gets lost it can be dangerous. But you have to be brave in our system and if you are, the rewards can be great." You hope that, against the tough and the dour, today at least, fortune favours the brave new image.