A tribute to John Barnes, Liverpool’s magician who put a spell on Brazil
English players just weren’t supposed to score goals like that. And certainly not in the Maracana against the mighty Brazil.
John Barnes’ finish, including a 35-yard run in which John Barnes beat five Brazil players with elegance, lightning footwork and no little pace, made the 20-year-old Watford winger a household name in England.
“I remember the reality of what happened but in terms of thinking about the goal, and how I scored the goal, I can’t remember it,” Barnes told The Guardian about England’s 2-0 victory in Rio.
“When you score a goal by dribbling you don’t remember it because it is instinctive. All the twists and turns, it was like having an out-of-body experience.”
Even then, he was no ordinary player. Under Graham Taylor’s management, Barnes was a thrillingly direct winger that was capable of turning opposing defenders inside out like a pair of jeans.
But that match in May 1984 was only his sixth appearance for England. And Barnes was certainly not expected to threaten a Brazilian side that had delighted everybody at the World Cup two years previously.
Having collected Mark Hateley’s lofted pass on his chest, Barnes, standing on the left-wing and about 30 yards from goal, cut inside Brazil’s right-back, Leandro.
Showing the deft footwork usually associated with ballerinas, he drove through the entire Brazil defence before finishing past goalkeeper Roberto Costa.
Deliciously, Barnes had also managed to floor Costa with the slightest of feints before tucking the ball home. No wonder the Maracana stood and applauded him. After all, Brazilian fans know ball.
38 years ago in Brazil:
John Barnes gets the ball at the Maracana and says:
“Fuck it. I fancy a run at these…”
— A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) June 10, 2022
But the former winger has since downplayed his moment of instant fame. “I didn’t know what I had done until I watched it back later and thought ‘That looks all right’,” Barnes said in 2013.
“It has become iconic because it was in the Maracana, against Brazil, but if I’m being honest the Brazilians never put a tackle in.
“They probably thought no Englishman could do that. It was also just a friendly; had it been a World Cup match somebody would have tackled me around the neck.
“After beating one player I just wanted to pass the ball, but they let me keep going. Then after beating three players, I thought, ‘That really is it now, please let me give the ball to someone else,’ until eventually, I found myself in front of the goalkeeper. The Brazilians looked shocked.”
He even once claimed to have scored a better goal for Watford against Rotherham. Surely this is a reaction to an international career that, Rio aside, always felt slightly underwhelming.
To put it bluntly, Barnes was expected to replicate that Brazil goal every time he pulled on an England shirt. But this was the 1980s, where 4-4-2 was taught on the curriculum and Barnes barely touched the ball while shackled to the left wing.
“It changed people’s perceptions of me,” Barnes said in 2009. “It also changed people’s expectations of me every time I played for England after that.”
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His other great moment at international level was his game-changing display as a substitute in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. With England 2-0 down, Barnes created one goal and dragged a terrorised Argentina defence out of position.
But his 15 minutes in the Azteca Stadium was Barnes’ only appearance of that World Cup. Reactive thinking and stifling tactics prevented him from repeating his Maracana special.
Luckily, Barnes had no such trouble at Liverpool. Signed by Kenny Dalglish in 1987, the Jamaican-born star was a sensation during his first four years at Anfield.
With Peter Beardsley’s positional intelligence allowing him and Barnes to double up on opponents, as well as John Aldridge’s unmatched ability to read Barnes’s deliveries into the box, he flourished in a trio that scored 64 goals in their first season together.
And the mazy dribbles that England fans craved from Barnes were now commonplace on Merseyside.
Unshackled by the constraints of England duty, Barnes flourished at a club that prided itself on pass-and-move football. His ability to glide past defenders and go through the gears at a millisecond’s notice made him one of the most captivating players in Europe.
His second goal in the 4-0 defeat of the league leaders QPR in October 1987 was a perfect example.
After pinching the ball on the halfway line, Barnes picked up pace as he approached the penalty area with England defenders Terry Fenwick and Paul Parker closing in.
But their defensive diligence was in vain. Barnes parted a gap between them as if crossing the Red Sea before slipping the ball past David Seaman’s outstretched left hand. The whole move contained the kind of wizardry not seen outside Hogwarts.
John Barnes vs QPR in 87/88 is pure poetry pic.twitter.com/kvMbl8SqNX
— When Football Was Better (@FootballInT80s) September 25, 2020
“Whenever would-be tacklers came sliding in, I tried to toe the ball past them, ride the challenge and regain balance and the ball on the other side,” explained Barnes in his autobiography, making his art sound easier than walking down the stairs.
“After I pushed the ball past Fenwick, I landed and brought the ball back with my left foot in one movement. It was difficult to see why I didn’t fall over.”
Left foot or right foot, the end product was invariably the same. Liverpool strolled to two league titles and an FA Cup with Barnes as the conductor drifting infield from a starting position on the left when other wingers were glued to the touchline.
The high-water mark for Barnes and Liverpool came in the 5-0 defeat of Brian Clough’s third-placed Nottingham Forest in April 1988 of which the legendary England winger Tom Finney said: “In all my time as a player and a spectator, that was the finest exhibition of football I’ve ever seen.”
And, at the heart of it all was Barnes, applying the flashes of genius to a Liverpool masterpiece that has gone down as one of their finest ever performances. No wonder he scooped the Players’ Player of the Year award and the Football Writers’ equivalent that season.
Sadly for Barnes, he was at his professional zenith when English football was in the gutter.
The European ban had taken its toll on the quality of English football with Liverpool’s style – a legacy of the Anfield bootroom and passed down like a family heirloom – the exception rather than the rule.
And Barnes, like the rest of Liverpool, was shattered by Hillsborough. He pulled out of an England game in the weeks following the disaster after attending a heartbreaking and soul-sapping number of funerals.
He played an unwitting role in Michael Thomas’ famous league-winning goal, choosing to attack after taking the ball into the corner and being robbed by Kevin Richardson to allow Arsenal to launch one final attack.
Barnes looked like a broken man at the final whistle. His career would never again match the peaks of the late 80s but, after a succession of injuries, he used his footballing intelligence to reinvent himself as a deep-lying midfielder.
But peak Liverpool Barnes was a one-off; a beautiful and brave footballer of frightening talent who probably arrived too early.
Forget that he could never possibly score Maracana goals every week; Barnes deserves to be remembered as one of the greats of English football.
By Michael Lee