Football: The statesman of swagger

The original flash dancer rolls up his sleeves for a relegation slog, still driven by desire to perform
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The Independent Online
THE APPEARANCE of a familiar figure in the red-and-white of their team caused a few Charlton loyalists to rub their eyes. It certainly looks like John Barnes. No, can't be. Barnesy's a bit flash for this neck of the woods, all those trim pin-stripes and lapel-less jackets. Good player once, good pundit too. Knows the game. But Charlton? The original Spice Boy in a student band. No chance.

"Take away his footballing ability, his touch and vision and the way he plays football, and he still has brought something else to the club with him, a little bit of swagger. People look up to him, people are looking at us in a different light." Alan Curbishley, the Charlton manager, is talking now. He was rung by Barnes's agent, asked if he wanted a new player. With a little help from Newcastle and at the insistence of Barnes, who has taken a pounds 5,000 cut in his weekly wage for the chance of some Premiership football, the deal was quickly done. The first day he walked in, there was a lull in the conversation, a dip in the banter. That little swagger. Just what Charlton needed. The club won their next two games and Barnes spent his time playing for the reserves at Welling United.

"He's only trained with us a couple of weeks, but I think he's quite impressed with what he's seen," Curbishley adds. "He's come with something to prove not just to us but to everyone. He was given no chance of playing at Newcastle, the only difference here is that he's got a chance. That's all he wanted. I've not guaranteed him anything."

Barnes denies he has anything to prove: two championship medals and 79 England caps are proof enough, he believes, though plenty will tell you whole reservoirs of his talent were left untapped. His international career peaked in the Maracana Stadium in Brazil in 1984 and remained obstinately stuck in the foothills thereafter, for all the encouragement of successive England managers. On a terrible night against San Marino, his every touch was jeered by the Wembley crowd. The irony was shaming. Taunted in those early days for being black, he was vilified at the end for being teacher's pet.

Barnes maintained an impressive dignity throughout and has emerged as a highly respected figure in a game which did not always accord him reciprocal respect. And, at the age of 35, with a handsome contract in his pocket at Newcastle, he opts for a three-month relegation battle on half the money at the Valley. Doctors have diagnosed advanced senility on less evidence than that.

"No, I haven't ever been in a relegation struggle before," he says. "But relegation or going for the championship, you're still under pressure to perform. I played in pressure matches for Liverpool when we lost, and it was just like relegation, the pressure got to us. How you handle it is the key for winning championships and avoiding relegation."

Barnes admits that there are two sides to his nature. "Personally, I'm relaxed, slapdash and scatty; football-wise I'm very intense and methodical." It is said he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of players overseas and domestic as well as an FA coaching badge, ready for the day not too far distant now when he crosses the dressing-room divide into management. The last 15 years, he says, have been a working apprenticeship. Maybe a chance to experience the raw-knuckle ride of relegation influenced his thinking. "No, not at all. Now I'm here I'll be looking to see how Curbs handles things, but I came here for the opportunity to play Premiership football. A lot of players might have stayed at Newcastle, nice and comfortable, but I want to be a footballer, I want to play and if I want to do that I have to be seen to be motivated enough to come down here, roll my sleeves up and get involved."

One or two who questioned his commitment might have wished such sentiments had struck a chord a little earlier. Barnes admits he is working harder at training now than he did in the middle of his career. "Then, you've forgotten the enthusiasm of the first part of your footballing life and you can't see the end, so you take it all a bit for granted." A few months with Ruud Gullit at St James' Park soon dispelled any cosy notions of caressing the ball around Newcastle's midfield. On the bench for the first match of the season, against Charlton, Barnes vanished from view and never started a match under the Dutchman. A lot of paintballing, not much football.

He is not interested in discussing the whys and wherefores of his Newcastle exile, only in considering what he can do for Charlton. Presumably he will be in pearl one, plain one mode, the knitting style he adopted so effectively in Liverpool's midfield once his scarf-flying winger days were over. A serious Achilles tendon injury took a toll on his pace, but it was a measure of Barnes's tenacity that he found a way to prosper in a game fast disappearing over the horizon. Like his old England regulars, Chris Waddle, late of Torquay, and Peter Beardsley, now of Hartlepool, the habit is hard to kick. The danger for all of them is that a new generation will remember them for how they are, not what they were. It is a chance Barnes is prepared to take.

"People will always say: 'Oh, I remember when he was 18, he could do this and now he can't do that.' As long as I'm impressing the people who count, the manager and my team-mates, regardless of whether I'm playing in the Premiership or the reserves, that's all that matters. It's not a question of playing for fun. Peter Beardsley is not playing for Hartlepool for fun, he'd be doing the club a disservice if he was. You have to enjoy it, but that's different."

It is partly the buzz, partly that Newcastle reserves is not the most fashionable job centre. Barnes's name was mentioned in dispatches for the Blackburn job and there are persistent rumours of a return to Vicarage Road once Graham Taylor, his old mentor, has moved permanently upstairs. Kevin Keegan is looking for help at Fulham, as it happens.

A place for Barnes in the future England structure would not be out of the question, except that Barnes would prefer the daily chores of club management. "I want to have the players 24 hours a day, seven days a week, not just for a week every three months," he says. Until then, a hotel in Bexleyheath will be home, 400 miles from his family in Northumberland, and a scrap for survival his daily companion. And always the memory of that golden goal in Brazil. Better than Michael Owen's, Barnes says, though the Premiership generation will take some persuading. "But his was in the World Cup." With luck, a drop of that magic has been reserved for Charlton.