Football: Barnes has to fight one last battle

The former Liverpool legend is happy to help Charlton strive against the drop but has one eye on his future

CUP FINALS, rather than relegation dog-fights, is what a pedigree performer like John Barnes has been about all his career. It is tempting to suggest that that would still have been the case had the Newcastle United player not chosen to go on loan to struggling Charlton Athletic until the end of the season, but the truth is it is unlikely he would have got much of a look-in in Ruud Gullit's FA Cup final squad, and at 35 he still wants to play.

The Addicks gave him the opportunity to do so, and besides he had the pleasure - if that's the right word - of one more day out at Wembley last season when Newcastle lost to Arsenal. Instead he has opted for end-of- season hassle by becoming the biggest name to pull on a Charlton shirt since Allan Simonsen 17 years ago. Barnes' stay is likely to be about as brief as the Dane's but, one hopes, relatively speaking, less costly.

Indeed, it might prove to be extremely rewarding for Charlton. Since his arrival, Barnes has found it as difficult to get into Alan Curbishley's starting line-up as Gullit's but, when he has done so, as at Upton Park recently, he has brought a steadying hand and a sense of order to Charlton's midfield maelstrom. This wise old bird could be particularly useful to Charlton at Goodison Park today, where there are likely to be more than a few headless chickens running around. If nothing else, he ought to feel at home on Merseyside, where he enjoyed so much success as a player.

"We're into a cup final situation of our own now - four of them, to be exact," said Barnes. "We have to try to win this one on Saturday and then the next one, against Blackburn, and so on. The pressure of going for a championship and the pressure of trying to avoid relegation is exactly the same - you have to handle it if you want to succeed."

He has been impressed particularly with how the Charlton manager has handled it, although he does not believe that the experience he has had in his short time at The Valley has added anything in terms of how he believes he will eventually manage, which he hopes to be doing next season. "I wouldn't like to manage a team struggling against relegation," he said. "But the manager here is excellent. He doesn't convey any of the pressure that he obviously must be feeling. Everyone's relaxed in training."

For a man who has played with the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen, Barnes is genuinely appreciative of the qualities of his fellow professionals at the club. "The spirit is fantastic," he said. "They're a good, honest bunch of lads who work hard for each other and they're very fit, one of the fittest group of players I've played with. Keith Jones' work-rate and fitness for a 34-year-old is amazing, but that's something all the Charlton players have."

Barnes knows, however, that effort alone may not be enough if Charlton are to get that first toehold that is so crucial to a prolonged stay in the Premiership. Curbishley has been promised pounds 10m in the summer to spend on new players, but that, of course, is dependent upon them still being in the Premiership. As Barnes remarked, the future looks strong with a healthy youth system ("Scott Parker, an England Under-20 player, looks an excellent prospect") and the reserves top of the Combination.

"The first year is always the hardest in the Premier League," Barnes said. "Wimbledon have found it easier as the years have gone by. If Charlton can hang in there the players will gain from an extra year's experience, they will be able to handle the situation better when they go away to big stadiums like Anfield and Old Trafford. If they can do so, the future looks good for them."

The home defeat to Tottenham on Tuesday, when they scored first, was a bitter blow, particularly as it came hard on the heels of Saturday's draw at home to Leeds, a game they should have won and probably would have done had Paul Mortimer not slipped as he took a second-half penalty, hitting the post with his shot. But then it wouldn't be Charlton if they didn't do things the hard way.

By rights, they ought to be dead and buried by now after eight consecutive League defeats in mid-season, yet here they are going into the closing stages of the season still clinging to the slender hope of survival. It was ever thus with Charlton.

And, of course, everyone, well everyone not associated with the relegation struggle, wants them to succeed, like the former Chief Constable of Warwickshire, who wrote in to commend the club on the behaviour of their youth players at a Manchester hotel in which he was staying recently. But then he was a West Ham supporter, which is tantamount to being family. A hooligan once remarked that there was no pleasure in setting upon Watford fans because it was like beating up your grandmother. Charlton are similarly inoffensive and no one wants to see them hurt by relegation.

Barnes expects a last-day-of-the-season denouement - though not if they defend like they did in the closing stages on Tuesday when the final goal in the 4-1 defeat was responsible for them dropping into the relegation zone. "The important thing for us at Goodison will be to try to silence the crowd in the first 20 minutes, frustrate both the team and the crowd by not allowing them too much of the ball," he said. "Against Spurs we sat back after we scored and I don't think you can play like that. You're hoping that for 90 minutes they are going to miss chances, you're going to head clearances off the line, get block tackles in and end up winning 1-0. It happens, but you're more likely to concede goals."

By the sounds of it, while he may have picked up a little from each of the managers he has played under, he clearly does not appear to have picked up too much from Dalglish during their time at Newcastle when the latter's introverted tactics were in stark contrast to their days together at Liverpool in the late 1980s. "I've had very strong ideas for the last couple of years about how I want to play the game," he said. "I will look at what options I have at the end of the season. The ideal scenario would be to be player-manager of Manchester United, Barcelona or Liverpool but it's not going to happen. I would like to play for as long as I can but, if the choice was to carry on playing or just manage at a club, I would choose to manage."

This could be his last club as purely a player and appropriately it reminds him of his first club, Watford, in its friendliness and attachment to the local community. Watching Manchester United reach the European Cup final in midweek was a reminder to him of the one peak he was never given the chance to conquer during his 10 seasons at Liverpool, due to the ban on English clubs.

"It serves no purpose to wonder whether we could have won the Champions' League in 1990 when I was at Liverpool because we weren't in it," he said. "Just as it serves no purpose to compare the Liverpool team of '87 with the United team of today. For me to be where I am now, not just professionally but personally, everything that happened in the past had to have happened and I'm happy where I am today."

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