Barnes: 'There are lots of bad white managers – but they usually get second chances'

John Barnes suffered racist abuse as a player – now he's battling bigotry as a manager, writes Ian Herbert

Tuesday 18 August 2009 00:00 BST

John Barnes settles back to talk having just finished judging a football chant competition, an undertaking which is loaded with historical resonance given the anthems which greeted his arrival at Liverpool in the summer of 1987. "Everton are white" was one that Merseyside least wants to remember from those days. Others just don't bear repeating.

Barnes never chose to make much of the abuse which led Everton's then chairman, Sir Philip Carter ,to castigate the club's fans and which he also encountered at grounds from Old Trafford to Carrow Road from supporters who – in that unfathomable way of football racists – were applauding sides graced by Viv Anderson and Ruel Fox at the same time. In one of his rare discussions of the issue, Barnes was asked by the Liverpool magazine in 1988 whether he ever felt like storming out of a ground when opposing fans launched their abuse or when he had famously backheeled the banana thrown at him in the Goodison FA Cup tie of that year. "I never got like that," Barnes said. "I have to say I'm not a very emotional person."

The course of the past, frustrating decade has challenged that insouciance, though. Brushing off racial abuse from the terraces, when your actions can make a mockery of it, is one thing and Barnes still states that it never affected him. "Any black player of a certain age would have gone through that. You have to deal it in your own way." But the helplessness of sitting at home, waiting in vain for a response to any of a dozen applications for jobs from the top to the bottom of the professional football spectrum, is something else. Football may have accepted that black players can play in every position on the pitch, but black professionals with the mind and intellect to manage a side? Not so, it seems. "It's not a question of being given more time than anyone else, being given the same time would be nice," the 45-year-old says. "Or more importantly being given another opportunity. There are a lot of bad managers who are white but they get another shot at it. There are not a lot of black managers who go back into football. Paul Ince and I are very fortunate."

Celtic didn't consider him all that bad for a time. They won 12 of his first 13 games after Kenny Dalglish had presented him as manager on the Celtic Park steps 10 years ago this month. It was the 10 points by which they trailed Rangers six months later which most fans remember, and the Scottish Cup defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle which sent him on his way out of the club. "I've no arguments about going," he reflects now. "But should the fact I wasn't successful at Celtic mean I couldn't be successful in League Two?"

Graham Taylor, Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables didn't seem to think so. All put a word in for him here and there and it was the knowledge that some football chairmen would keep his advocates on the phone for fully 20 minutes but not even call Barnes to let him down which stung. A television career, the default option, was developing and there'd been the odd appearance on Strictly Come Dancing before he turned back to the country of his birth to restore his reputation in 2008. Barnes' seven-month spell in charge of the national side brought 11 games unbeaten and seven wins and when Ronnie Moore was relieved of his role at Tranmere in June, chairman Peter Johnson became the first chairman in a decade to follow up Barnes' request for a conversation.

Prenton Park, where Barnes' old team-mate Jason McAteer is his assistant coach and chauffeur of the battered old team minibus, is not a place for the faint-hearted. Four senior players left this summer because their contracts ran out and Rovers could not improve their terms. The £400,000 the club received from Sheffield United for Andy Taylor has been their only transfer income.

He is not sure what to expect this season, though Saturday's 4-2 win at home to Gillingham, taken with a 3-0 Carling Cup defeat of Grimsby last week, suggests something is working. The modest surrounds actually suit him quite well because it was in a similar kind of place – the Watford team of modest talents which Taylor steered to second in the First Division behind Liverpool in 1983 – that he discovered a side can succeed without superstars. "Graham brought in average players and made them realise they could compete at that level," Barnes says. And the secret? "Repetition. Repetition," he rejoins, beaming briefly at the memory. "It's like studying for exams. You repeat and repeat until it becomes second nature. And then you don't need to be the best players to become competitive."

He has not entirely left behind the professional life he occupied during his nine years away, having become actively involved in the Learning and Skills Council's "Get On" campaign to get adults to brush up on their English skills, of which the competition to compose a football chant was a part. The campaign has encouraged millions of people in England to deal with difficulties with literacy and numeracy skills, in part through free courses. "The chant competition is a bit of a laugh to get to people in, in a low-key way, but it's part of wider campaign to empower adults who want to improve their reading and writing," Barnes says.

This seems a fitting passion for a manager currently seeking to extract skills from a group of professionals that they never thought they had. Barnes' Blackberry bleeps with news that he'll probably have another individual to add to their number: Kithson Bain, a Grenada striker. A black centre-forward? That one wouldn't have gone down well in the Eighties. Prejudices dissolve in the end, it seems, though never nearly quickly enough.

History men: Britain's black managers

Tony Collins The first black manager in the Football League when he took over at Rochdale in 1960. He remained in charge for eight years, and led them to a League Cup final.

Keith Alexander Became the second black manager in the League when he was appointed at Lincoln in 1993. Since had spells Peterborough and Lincoln again, and is currently in charge at League Two Macclesfield.

Ruud Gullit The Dutchman was the first black Premier League manager, taking over at Chelsea in 1996 and also leading Newcastle for a season. Paved way for Jean Tigana, who helped Fulham gain promotion into the Premier League in 2001.

Paul Ince The former England captain became the first black Briton to manage in the Premier League last summer. However, he lasted only 177 days at Blackburn.

Keith Curle Started managerial career in 2002 as player-manager of Mansfield. Has also had spells at Chester and Torquay and is now a coach at Crystal Palace.

Leroy Rosenior Took over at Torquay after relegation from League One in 2007. Succeeded in taking them back up in his second year in charge but lost his job after being unable to sustain his good start.

Ricky Hill What should have been a dream return to his beloved Luton in 2000 turned sour when Hill won just two of 21 matches and was sacked three months into the season.

By Sam Cunningham

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