Liverpool's vital cog

The midfield general of Anfield is putting the emphasis on teamwork in the collective battle for the Premiership; Simon O'Hagan meets John Barnes, who has matured into the perfect provider
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The Independent Online
When Liverpool were last champions of England, in 1990, John Barnes was at the height of his attacking powers, scoring 22 goals in only 34 League appearances and being voted the Professional Footballers' Association player of the year for the second time. Seven seasons on, his contribution to the team may be very different in character, but it remains no less significant in scale, and that is one of the reasons why the feeling is growing that the title could finally be heading back to Anfield.

With the departure of Ian Rush, Barnes is now the only member of the Liverpool first team who was also part of the last great era at the club. A couple of weeks short of his 33rd birthday, he cuts an eminent figure these days, doing everything at his own pace, distributing the ball like largesse, and, after training on Friday morning, standing out in his white track-suit, signing autographs, joshing with reporters, and being photographed holding someone's baby. Meanwhile, Steve McManaman tried to make good his escape by pulling his baseball cap down over his eyes, and other team-mates sought the refuge of their expensive cars with equal furtiveness.

Yet while Barnes is still happy to be the focus of attention off the field, he is perhaps even happier that in later life he has found a role on it, in which nobody expects him to go on dazzling runs any more and he doesn't have to listen to people talking about his unfulfilled potential all the time.

There always was something rather perverse about Barnes, so maybe we should not be surprised that it's his deployment as an unassuming midfield presence binding Liverpool's defence and attack that has been the making of a player who in one brief shining moment in the Maracana stadium in 1984 seemed to define the very essence of individual brilliance.

"It's a completely different role I've got now," he said after retreating to the training ground gym. "I may get forward now and again, but mainly I'm there to hold the ball up and link with people like Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler so that they can do wonderful things, just like Ronnie Whelan used to do for me. It may not be as pleasing to the eye as what I did before, but I realise that any player has to be a cog in a wheel. No one player is any more important than any other. It's the team perspective that concerns me. If you have a good system you don't need individuals to set the world alight."

In this respect Barnes is glad to find himself much more in temper with the times. "I think we're beginning to appreciate team play in this country now. I think in the past we've attached too much imortance to individuals. We shouldn't be talking about what Gascoigne or Le Tissier or Shearer can do. We should be thinking about how can we get the best out of the team as a whole."

For Barnes, Ajax are the supreme example of his ideal team because the system comes first and the players second. "What's interesting about them is that when their players have gone to other clubs they haven't been so successful. It shows that if you can develop a way of playing you don't have to spend millions. If you can get a technically adequate player and fit him into a system, that's got to be the way."

The system, Barnes believes, was what lay at the heart of Liverpool's 1990 championship team, but while he thinks that the present side have better individuals, they are still getting there in terms of collective understanding.

"I think this team has the potential to be as great as that team. But we are much less experienced. This is the first year since then that I feel we're really equipped to win. The team are playing more consistenctly than we did last year. I think a lot of the naivete has gone out of players. The blend is coming together nicely." But what about losing to Manchester United? "That didn't really concern me - because of the way we played and because it's equally important how you do against other teams."

A change in opposition attitude is one of the reasons, Barnes thinks, why Liverpool have struggled to recapture their former invincibility. "There was an arrogance, a steeliness about the Liverpool of old, but that was partly because when teams came to Anfield it was almost as if they expected to lose. With the money that's come into the Premiership, everyone's expectations are higher. There are stars everywhere. You find that a team like Middlesbrough are turning up with Ravanelli. They're coming to us and saying: 'Right, we're going to beat you.'"

Not that, at Barnes's age, he needs to be reminded of what's at stake. There were times, particularly when he was playing for England, when his languid style was mistaken for lack of motivation, and his overweight appearance a couple of years ago - in part the legacy of a serious Achilles tendon injury - suggested he might be in terminal decline. Yet as Liverpool take on Derby today and prepare for their European Cup-Winners' Cup second round second leg tie against Sion on Thursday, Barnes is as eager and involved as ever.

"I've always said that when you see the end of your career that's when you become more hungry. In your mid-20s there's the feeling, well there's always next year. You perhaps go through the motions slightly. With the experience you become more dedicated." Barnes says he actually trains harder now than he did when he was younger. He starts earlier than the other players pre-season, and comes in on days off.

Barnes still believes he could play international football again, even though it is a year since he won the last of his 79 caps, and no player, surely, has had as many last chances as him. Yet when England kept giving the ball away against Poland earlier this month, the value of a player like Barnes, who can be relied upon to pass to a member of his own team, certainly went up.

If, as it turns out, Barnes has played for England for the last time, how would he assess his career? "I would say it could have been much better than it was. I could have played better, scored more goals. But then you look at 79 caps, two World Cups and a European Championship and you think, that's not bad." Another title with Liverpool would be pretty good too.