On Football: Taylor must call on inspiration of Barnes

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The Independent Online
ELBOWS were flying, tackles were coming in with thunderous inaccuracy and there was a gale blowing. In the middle of it all, John Barnes chested the ball under control and at the same time turned. The Wimbledon player at his back was dismissed and bemused. Another was evaded with supreme ease. Finally, he cut a pass through the defence. In a Liverpool team of the past, that would probably have made the winning goal. In the event it created another missed opportunity and Liverpool lost again. But what of Barnes? Can a skill that shines through his club's tarnished reputation still do something for England in their World Cup campaign?

Little cameos of Barnes's former brilliance have been seen in most of his performances since he came back last November. The serious Achilles tendon injury has taken the edge off his pace and the inactivity has added some more pounds to that substantial figure, but speed in itself was never his trump card. When he returned after six months of debilitating enforced rest he did to the Queen's Park Rangers defence just what he performed last Saturday against Wimbledon. Gerry Francis, the Rangers manager, felt that Barnes's comeback would lift Liverpool and perhaps allow them to have a say in the destination of the first Premier League title. Souness was more grudging, complaining that since he arrived at Anfield most of his dealings with Barnes had had to do with rumours of transfers.

Barnes's return alone was not enough to turn the tide, but in Liverpool's significant 2-1 defeat by Aston Villa at Anfield their only redeeming feature was the goal he scored when he swivelled and shot in spite of being hemmed in by defenders. Gary Lineker said that probably only Barnes among British footballers could do that - and he should know. So with so many goalscorers injured, there is a case for playing Barnes at centre-forward against San Marino next month, but that position is likely to go to Ian Wright. However, in England's small pool of talent there must be room for one of the biggest and most exciting fish of the last decade.

The fact that an uncharacteristically spineless Liverpool are struggling so badly is tending to obscure the debate over whether Barnes can really regain an England place. In a confident, winning team, his comeback would have been recognised as something remarkable. After all, his injury was of the type that had ended the careers of others. Yet there have been occasions recently when he was the only one representing the confident strut of the Liverpool team before they were disjointed by Souness. Indeed, Barnes has had to forgo much of his freedom to express himself in order to graft on behalf of a group of players seriously lacking in that commodity. On other occasions he has taken over as an orthodox centre-forward when Ian Rush has been absent.

Graham Taylor insists that a fully fit Barnes must be considered for the match against San Marino, but the real question has less to do with degrees of fitness than potential. For the moment, an England without the goalscoring of Lineker and the drive of a younger Bryan Robson is clearly and ominously dependent on Gascoigne. Undoubtedly, Paul Ince is beginning to look like a capable Robson replacement both at Manchester United and at international level, but he is unlikely to develop the sort of originality that is in the genes of Gascoigne and Barnes. The reason why Taylor continually makes it clear that Barnes is still in his thinking is that he knows that amongst the established squad he is the only player who can hold a candle to Gascoigne when it comes to inspiration.

The years-old debate over whether Barnes has ever performed consistently enough at international level is no longer the main issue. If Gascoigne is not available, who else could control a game in the way that he did against Turkey? Probably against San Marino, a workaday team will be all that is required, but for more difficult games it will be important that Taylor knows that Barnes can take over from Gascoigne. As for playing them together, perhaps not. It would force Barnes into a wide role, which he can still play with considerable poise, but these days his greatest value is as a creative inside forward who can also plunder the penalty area.

When a team is successful, football managers and especially coaches feel it necessary to defend their own positions by making out that everything always depends on teamwork. Self-preserving tosh. The outstanding individual is worth any amount of honest sweat. Take rare individuals away and how many successful teams of any era would have achieved what they did? Barnes remains one of the world's rarest talents and Graham Taylor is not going to be daft enough to ignore him because Liverpool's problems are dragging him into a scramble against relegation.