Football: Barnes fit and ready to show off his talent: A man more reviled than revered in recent times is about to return to England colours. Glenn Moore reports

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HE WAS thinner, especially around the jowls, no doubt about that, but there was something else different about John Barnes' face at the England training camp yesterday. It was smiling and, in that expressive Jamaican-Scouse hybrid accent of his, he was joshing with the press so comfortably you would never believe he had spent the last few years being criticised by most writers.

John Barnes - a talent for sure, but is it a wasted and faded one? Or does he still have much to offer?

We will probably find out on Wednesday as the England coach, Terry Venables, seems certain to play him in the friendly against the United States at Wembley, reviving an international career that seemed over when even Graham Taylor, his mentor when Barnes was a teenager, lost patience and discarded him last year.

'He is a top quality player. He is one of those players who, when I was a club manager, would always concern you when they were in the opposition,' Venables said. 'They would get the ball and you'd think: 'Now what is he going to do?' The fact that he is here is a statement that I take him seriously.'

Barnes' path back towards the national side began last winter, at about the same time as Venables began plotting England's future. It was continued during the summer when long evenings watching the World Cup were broken up by seemingly interminable runs on the Heswall hills of The Wirral.

'Last February I made my mind up that I would attempt to lose weight and get fit during the summer,' he said. 'I had intended to do so the previous summer but had an operation and, once I recovered, had gone straight back into the team. They were struggling and I wanted to play, but two games a week did not leave any time to put in five or six weeks' hard running.

'The first time I did it this summer I stopped half-way. It was hard work but I gradually went further and further. I did about three or four miles each night and after a week or so, when I started to feel less and less tired, I knew it was having an effect.

'The first eight pounds came off quickly, the next four or five took its time. I was more concerned about not putting it back on - I've stayed out of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

'No one at Liverpool knew I was doing it and they were surprised when I came back, but I could not gauge my progress until the third week of pre-season when everyone had had the chance to catch up. Then I knew I had got somewhere. I am fitter than I have been for three years and I can get fitter. We have only played three games.'

Liverpool have won all three with Barnes, playing a deeper midfield role, holding the centre with Jan Molby, being a strong influence. It is a position he has played before, but as a promising youngster at Watford many years ago. Since then, he has gained 73 international caps, a stack of domestic honours - and a collection of surgical scars. He has gone from being England's most rated to most reviled player.

The glorious goal in the Maracana against Brazil in his 10th international a decade ago was first his hallmark, then his millstone as he consistently failed to either repeat it or even carry his Liverpool form into the international arena. Once, during a televised Liverpool / Arsenal game, Barnes curled a free-kick into the far corner. 'How can you stop him doing that?' proclaimed the commentator, Brian Moore. 'Put an England shirt on his back,' came the bar-room reply.

Two seasons ago, with back page predictions of a big-money move to Italy long forgotten, came the nadir when he was booed at Wembley as England toiled against San Marino. One tabloid greeted Barnes' return this week by paraphrasing Venables' backing of him with: 'Nobody likes him - I don't care.'

So is he nervous about playing at Wembley again? 'I am not apprehensive, I feel very positive about it. All I can do is my best and hope it comes off. I am still fairly young (he is 30) and I think I can still play at this level - I could have got a 'hamstring' injury if I did not.'

And then, in an echo of the West Indies cricketer Viv Richards' oft-asserted belief that 'form is temporary, class is permanent', Barnes added: 'You never lose the ability. The knowledge of how I played three years ago is what kept me going over those hills, that and seeing the great players of the World Cup.'

So the confidence is back - Barnes added that his only surprise about his recall is the speed of it - and so is the enjoyment. 'My frustrations (he has made 65 appearances in three years) are in the past. It is an exciting time to be in the Premier League and I want to be involved in it.'

Newcastle's Barry Venison, a former Liverpool team-mate and fresh recruit to the England squad, added: 'I don't think Barnesy's creativity has ever been in doubt. He does not push the ball past the full-back and go as often as he used to, but he has not lost his touch or vision. He is doing very well this season and has been a major part of Liverpool's success.

'Nobody likes criticism and he has handled the adverse publicity with dignity. He is a rare talent who has had a few problems - mainly injuries - but there has probably been a confidence factor. Now he is on top of his game, looking fit and enjoying it.'

That he clearly is and, as Venison said: 'It will be very nice if he can bring his Liverpool form into the national team.' We have heard that before, but we are unlikely to hear it again. This time Barnes either performs or it really will be the end, which would be a shame for the man and a loss for the team. England expects.

(Photograph omitted)