It was John Barnes who pretty much summed 2020 up with one social media tweet. Whilst trying to forward on a political image sent to him by a friend at the weekend referring to the failings of Donald Trump he accidentally copied in his camera roll and attached a number of porn videos across the footer of his screenshot. It got me thinking about the blind leading the blind perhaps and the fact that none of us are perfect… But in truth… Nobody cared about the slip up. Everyone saw the funny side, even John himself made a joke out of it, his Twitter followers simply grew even more, joining in with the gag… Because EVERYBODY loves John Barnes.
It wasn’t always like that. An ‘original member’ of those racially targeted footballers of the 1980’s down to nothing more than the colour of his skin, Barnes was often booed whilst playing for England in the 1990’s too… But that was more to do with him not performing for country as he did so brilliantly often for his club. He the one that famously kicked away the banana pitchside in a Crown Paints Adidas logoed Liverpool kit, eventually won over the masses thanks largely to his colourful character.
The Maracana, the Anfield Rap, New Order in 1990 and Strictly Come Dancing all valid reasons for why we all love John Barnes… But my own love affair with the Jamaican was more simple than these, because as a nine year old watching football and the great Liverpool side he played for, I saw John as the best footballer in that team.
It was the summer of 1987 when John Barnes signed for Liverpool from Watford. I remember it as my first ‘full’ season of being a football fan. I watched most of the year previous and got into football midway through the 86/87 campaign. I don’t really remember the Mexico 86 World Cup, but I remember one of my earliest games in watching Forest beating ‘champions elect’ Everton 1-0 thanks to Neil Webb’s goal live on ITV on a Sunday afternoon. I remember ‘champagne’ Charlie Nicholas winning the Littlewoods Cup for Arsenal with two goals and I remember that Keith Houchen header for Coventry in the FA Cup Final v Spurs. I had the panini sticker book and still to this day remember random facts including where the likes of David Rocastle & Ian Butterworth were born (Lewisham & Nantwich for any doubters)… So by the summer of 87… I was as excited as perhaps I ever would be about the new football league campaign kicking off.
In that summer, Liverpool, who had finished a considerable second behind city rivals Everton the season previous, under Kenny Dalglish went for the jugular to regain the championship from their arch-rivals from across Stanley Park. In doing so they signed Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton all for big money, and although they lost Ian Rush to Juventus they had already lined up his replacement in John Aldridge. The team was in my opinion the best Liverpool team ever. They only lost to three teams across all competition that year. Everton, Nottingham Forest and Wimbledon (in a famous FA Cup Final that they were supposedly assured to win). The star of that show for Liverpool was John Barnes. A mercurial talent, left footed with guile, he glided on the pitch past right backs often sliding in to advertising hoardings in their dismal attempts to stop him in his tracks. Barnes struck the ball with beauty often from distance and nestling home free kicks at will, curled appropriately as the banana he famously and iconically kicked away. At that age myself, a nine-year-old watching football, the game I love, as now at forty-something too, I never saw colour… I simply saw John Barnes, a magician as a footballer with a wand of a left foot, one of the best in his position, tearing up defences and putting a smile on my face from things he could do with a football. That year Barnes won PFA and Football Writers Player of the Year. That year Barnes was unplayable for any opponent in the country to face.
The following summer (1988), I had so much young hope that John Barnes would lead England to European Championships glory but that attempt didn’t take long to fizzle out… Instead, attention of the eye drew to the world’s most expensive footballer, a certain Ruud Gullit, captain of the Dutch National Football Team.
Gullit looked cool, had an aura that no other player seemed to have, his tall frame, his flowing dreadlocks, his cheeky grin, he moved the ball quickly, powerfully, could head it, kick it, defend, attack, he wore that famous orange Adidas kit better than anyone else. He looked and played better than anyone else. That was until Marco van Basten trumped him in the final verses USSR.
Gullit for me (along with van Basten) symbolises the Netherlands and the 1988 team that iconically became Europe’s best. He was the reason I loved the Milan team of the late eighties and early nineties, he was for some time the player I thought truly rivalled the ageing, more problematic years of Diego Maradona and his throne. I never watched the best years of Maradona, but I got to see the best years of Gullit in comparison. He was the proverbial ‘play him anywhere’ kind of guy.
By 1990 I was hooked, nuts about football, football was life, nothing more important than racing home at 3:15pm from junior school to get home in time for the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup at the San Siro where champions Argentina were about to kick off against Cameroon.
I saw a photo only yesterday on Twitter which I suppose is the whole reason I wrote this article… Roger Milla, must be a hundred and something by now? Sitting in a Cameroon shirt with the message ‘Happy Sunday to you all’… One of the most influential black footballers of any generation. You tell me a white boy at the time who didn’t do his dance and jiggle around an imaginary corner flag after scoring in the playground or park? Roger Milla created the word celebration for me. The best ever, the most iconic of all and the instigator to the many that have since followed. In fact during the famous Quarter Final I seem to remember wanting England to win against Cameroon, but wanting Roger Milla to score too, just so I could see him dance. I think everybody who watched Cameroon wanted Roger Milla to score.
So my reason for this contribution, on the day after Roger Milla posted something so simple, but yet so beautiful and perfectly effective, midst all the racial tension, negative political messages and those ‘safe distancing’ grumbles of the black lives matter protests that have controversially split our nations opinions into bits… Is to thank Roger, to thank Ruud, and thank John… And to highlight positively those black lives that have mattered to me, that have inspired me, that have made 150% sure that I see black lives not only as equal to any other race but as highly regarded as they possibly can be when having a positive effect on my life through such a simple enjoyment as football.
Because when it comes to inspiring a next generation… Football will always show its true colours and whether it be Pele or Eusebio, John Barnes or Ruud Gullit, Ronaldinho or Neymar, Roger Palmer or Roger Milla, the game will always produce heroes to those like myself, who are inspired not through race, but instead inspired through the way football is played.