Football: Barnes' buoyancy lifts England's flagging spirits: Liverpool's wing wizard commits himself to club and country as the England manager finds plenty to concern him in the treatment room

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The Independent Online
FATIGUE may be a banned word for England's World Cup squad, but it is more than coincidence that the freshest player of the 26 is John Barnes, who started the season three months late, and now finds himself gathering strength when others are flagging.

Barnes announced yesterday that he was sufficiently pleased with the results of a personal fitness programme to make himself available not only for the World Cup ties against Poland next Saturday and Norway (2 June), but also for the three US Cup matches to follow.

Impressed with the improvement in his old protege's condition, Graham Taylor immediately included him in the party to travel to the United States on 5 June.

The indications are that the manager is going to need all the forwards he can muster. Les Ferdinand, who led the attack against the Netherlands last month, and Ian Wright, his principal rival, are both unable to train at present, and rated doubtful for the Poland game, in Katowice.

Ferdinand is likely to continue as David Platt's striking partner, if fit, but his chances are said to be no better than 'touch and go' after a recurrence of a long-standing back injury. The problem is spinal rather than muscular, and Taylor said: 'It is an ongoing thing which is causing us some concern.'

Ditto Wright, who had to be carried away from Wembley after the Cup final replay, having picked up a ricked ankle to go with his broken toe. He, too, was 'a bit of a doubt' for Poland, the manager said.

They are not alone in the treatment room, where the queue stretches longer than a David Seaman clearance. Paul Gascoigne, Carlton Palmer, Lee Dixon and Martin Keown were also unable to train yesterday, and with Tony Adams and Seaman nursing hernias, Taylor was grateful for any morsel of good news.

When it came to crumbs, Barnes took the biscuit. Less than four weeks after it was decided that he should miss the US Cup to work on his fitness, here he was, gambolling around like a four-year-old.

When Taylor reacted to this friskiness by asking him to stay on after the Norway game, and fill the vacancy when Adams returns for his stomach operation, Barnes was delighted to accept. So delighted, in fact, that he agreed to talk about it.

Stung by criticism, tabloid and terrace, he has been a reclusive figure this season, refusing all requests for interviews before and after each of England's last three games.

Fitness restored, so were public relations. His intention had been not to go to the United States, but to work throughout the summer with a private fitness coach, Alan Watson. He had changed his mind because a detailed fitness assessment had showed him to be 'not as unfit as I thought I was'.

He had still to regain the 'explosiveness' which used to take him past defenders, and would continue to follow Watson's personal programme while he was with the England squad, but he was now satisfied that his general condition was 'as good as anybody's'. The results of the assessment he had undergone in London, 10 days ago, had come as a pleasant surprise, but he had felt the old sharpness flooding back as the league season drew to a close, and was particularly pleased with his eye-catching contribution to Liverpool's 6-2 victory over Tottenham in their final game.

There was a lot of sprint work to do to recapture his pace, and he accepted that his short-term future lay in the subsidiary midfield role Taylor gave him in the last two internationals, but he was confident that the rigours of pre-season training would restore him 'to what I was two years ago'.

Encouraging stuff - for club, as well as country. Liverpool have offered Barnes a new contract to replace the one which expires in July and, despite his well-publicised differences with Graeme Souness, the indications are that he will stay.

He and Souness had 'not seen eye to eye' in the past, but relations had improved over the last two months, and, he said, 'whether you get on with the manager or not, first and foremost you are playing for the club, and I like Liverpool Football Club'.

Rising 30, he was looking for one last, long-term contract. 'If they were to offer me two years, it wouldn't be on. I want something to get me to the end of my career.'

Taylor welcomed Barnes's resurgence as 'a bonus', but had the suspect fitness of others uppermost in his mind. They are not allowed to be tired, but half his squad are showing disturbing signs of wear and tear.

McGrath mystery, page 29

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