After all that time, after nine years of rejection, what does it mean? It means cycling to work last Thursday morning and being stopped outside a filling station by an elderly man. "Good result," he says of the 4-0 League Cup win over Grimsby two nights before. "I enjoyed it, I'm a Tranmere fan."
You are late for training, and already sitting on your bike, but you linger anyway, because normally here in the Wirral, the people who stop you are Reds or Blues, Liverpool or Everton. "Can I have a word?" the elderly man asks.
You nod, OK, and he looks into your eyes. "Do you not think we should put two men on the posts at corners?" And you smile, because he loves the game as much as you do, it means as much to him as it does to you, and you finish the chat before cycling off.
After all that time, after nine years of being ignored, what does it mean? It means reducing the wage bill by one third with the departure of five members of the team that almost reached the play-offs last season. It means agents stopping phoning after your first week in the job because you have no money to spend, relying instead on free signings and loan deals. It means intensively coaching the players every day, trying to instil in them the conviction that you so passionately trust in, even now, after nine long years, that if you work hard, that if you keep believing in yourself, and others, it will come good.
After all that time, after nine years of refusing to give up hope, what does it mean? It means a sports writer coming to interview you one day and asking about those nine years, about what kind of manager you are, about what you want to achieve.
He was John Barnes, England international, Liverpool player, once, but not now. As he sits in his office at Prenton Park, he is John Barnes, father of six, with an ex-wife, a current wife and a mortgage. He was the first player in England to earn £10,000 a week, he once owned an Aston Martin, but not now. As he sits in his office at Prenton Park, wearing his training gear, having kicked his boots off, he talks of needing to work to pay the bills, and he now shops in Primark rather than Bond Street.
He was John Barnes, Celtic manager, for seven months, but lost his best two players to injury, lost control over unruly elements of his dressing room, lost a Scottish Cup match to Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Celtic Park, and lost his job. Nine years later, and after a successful six-month spell in charge of Jamaica, he is finally back in club management. He thinks he applied for eight, or nine, maybe 10 jobs in that time, most of them with lower-league clubs, and was never once interviewed. You ask why, and he leans back, sighing in exasperation.
"Well, we can talk about this," Barnes says sharply, with the dismissive air of a rebuke. "I've spoken about it for the past 10 years. How many black managers are there? There you go. I'm saying it again, and you can speak to Paul Ince, Luther Blissett. What's important is that I'm here now. But you don't see too many black managers."
There is still a quickness to Barnes, a sleight of movement, at 45 and with a frame that he admits carries too many extra pounds from his weakness for junk food. This alertness is expressed in his words now, his intellect. When he talks about different approaches to playing this game – long ball or passing and movement – he qualifies his opinion by saying that no way is right or wrong, it just has to be right for you.
"Unfortunately, in Britain when teams want to get the ball down and play it, a lot of people want to see them fail, because a lot of people put limitations on them-selves and therefore start putting limitations on each other," he says. "If it can be done, it shows up their deficiencies, so they would rather not see it being done, which reinforces their own inadequacies."
He is still so earnest, still so eager to open himself to others. At Celtic, he keenly talked of 4-2-2-2, of playing the Brazilian way, and came to be ridiculed by a cynical, disbelieving press. He still unpicks himself for you now, but with a kind of wry knowingness. His father, Ken, was a colonel in the Jamaican Defence Force, but it was perhaps his mother, Jeanne, who proved the lasting influence. When he was born, she placed a small football in the
corner of his cot and, a believer in a religious philosophy called Science of Mind, she used to wake him at 6am when he was older, so that they could meditate.
"You have to be accepting of whatever happens," he says of his unceasingly positive and accepting outlook. "I'm a big believer in fate. The Celtic experience, being out of football for nine years, that was meant to happen. And I had to believe that I would get back in.
"Unfortunately, I do it with Lottery tickets as well, every Saturday I buy one and think, 'I'm going to win'. But I never gave up hope, waiting nine years, even when it looked bleak."
The back five of his Tranmere team are all under 20, so although they know he was a player, they have no memories of the gloriously refined, stylishly impulsive player he was, the almost insouciant way he used his talent to overcome opponents, racists, dissenters. Barnes, in the fluid articulation of his uplifting ability, broke down barriers for fellow black players, but also reset the parameters of what skilfulness might achieve in a game grimly adhering to the stereotypes of solid centre-backs and tall centre-forwards.
His assistant, and former Anfield team-mate, Jason McAteer, takes part in training, but Barnes believes a coach's place is on the touchline, observing, influencing. Graham Taylor, his manager at Watford, and Kenny Dalglish, at Liverpool, are the two abiding inspirations of his career, but he is too self-aware to seek to emulate them, or impose on himself the style of any other successful manager. If he is to, finally, succeed or fail in this job, it will be doing it his way.
"I can say I want to be like those managers, but if that's not your character, you can't do it, and players will soon see it," he says. "Some managers used to take players round the back and give them a good hiding. I may say, 'that's a good thing', and go round the back, then all of a sudden I might have to fight and I can't fight. Because of the way Bobby [Robson] was with people, they wanted to run through a brick wall for him. You run through a brick wall for Sir Alex, but because he tells you to. You have to create your own identity as a manager and make it work for you. I'm not a ranter or a raver."
For a time, he was John Barnes, host of Channel Five's football coverage and also a Strictly Come Dancing contestant. But it always seemed to be with a reluctant gaze in those deep, thoughtful brown eyes. As he waited nine years, he did charity work and he maintained his public profile on television, but always because he wanted to remind people: I'm here, I want back in. So you wonder why he has come to a League One club that is for sale and which has had eight previous managers in eight years, but you don't need to ask the question.
He sits in his office at Prenton Park, a poignant solemnity to his round face, and you can glimpse the fundamental, essential hopefulness of his spirit in the way the tone and haste of his speech rises when he talks about subjects that thrill him. After all that time, what does it mean? It means being true to his sense of self.
"I don't have to manage a big club," Barnes insists. "That won't fulfil me. I will get more satisfaction from the work that I put in than where I am. [My ambition] is to be successful, where I am."
John Barnes: football manager, that is enough.
Six stages of 'digger'
Made Watford debut at 17, but his goal against Brazil in the Maracana Stadium in 1984 revealed the lustre of his talent: a soulful, gliding run past startled defenders and a composed finish. Spent 10 years at Liverpool, where he lifted all the domestic trophies and won 79 England caps.
National Front supporters abused Barnes on the flight home from Brazil, and in the 1988 Merseyside derby he was a victim of monkey chants and banana missiles. Stoic and proud, he went on to become the first black footballer to win the PFA player of the year award.
First there was the "Anfield Rap", Liverpool's 1988 FA Cup final song, which made No 3 in the charts. "World In Motion", New Order's 1990 World Cup song for England, hit No 1, with Barnes's rap including: "You can be slow or fast, but you must get to the line."
Perhaps it was because he was born in Jamaica, or because there was often a soothing grace to his play, but his commitment was questioned by sections of the England fans, and he was often jeered, particularly against San Marino at Wembley in 1993.
Joined Celtic in July 1999, with former team-mate Kenny Dalglish as director of football. Espousing a Brazilian philosophy of
4-2-2-2, he was often mocked, while Henrik Larsson's leg-break and a rising feeling of instability undermined his team. Barnes was sacked after First Division side Inverness Caley Thistle knocked Celtic out of the Scottish Cup.
There was something cruel about watching Barnes host Five's football coverage. For all his sleek football ability, his words were punctuated by hesitancy. It was unfortunate, because his knowledge and understanding were lost in tentative delivery.Reuse content