During his playing career, Liverpool & England legend John Barnes was the embodiment of fair play, having racked up 201 Premier League games without a single booking. As the fair online casino, PlayOJO spoke exclusively with one of the most decorated strikers in English football, to get his thoughts on the current state of play in the game, and predictions for the season.
FAIRNESS IN FOOTBALL
As a player who embodied ‘fair play’, playing 201 Premier League games without a single booking – how important is it that players today exemplify this, for the next generation to aspire to?
I do believe in fair play, obviously. But I don’t think the fact that I only got booked once has anything to do with that. I must admit, I did dive once for a penalty and I did feel guilty. I remember Robbie Fowler saying to the referee “He didn’t dive, he didn’t dive!” But I did. It was a crucial game against United, so I couldn’t bring myself to say I didn’t dive.
In modern football, there’s much more correct practice in place, in terms of fair play, compared to the 70s and 80s, when people were trying to break each other’s legs. Ultimately, if you can win by being as fair as possible, that for me is the ideal situation. To say you have to be complete 100% fair and win, is not realistic.
Do you think it was a fair decision for Jordan Pickford to go unpunished for the challenge that looks to have ended Virgil van Dijk’s season?
I think it’s fair he didn’t receive any retrospective punishment, but he should have been sent off. Regardless of whether it was an accident or not, he still should have been sent off at the time. Had he actually meant to cause harm, then retrospectively you can go back and you can say, let’s ban him. Any footballer who’s played will look at that and say, yes, it was a badly mistimed tackle and it should have been a red card at the time. But did he have the intent to hurt him? No, he didn’t.
With Liverpool on the dubious end of some recent VAR decisions, how do you think the technology should be implemented to reach fair decisions?
VAR is being implemented fairly, but I think it’s too ambiguous for people to understand exactly how to implement it. It comes down to interpretation and because one or even two VAR situations could be perceived differently, I don’t believe we can look at it and say, it’s not fair. Therefore, it’s not VARs fault, it’s just the way human beings are.
Do you think it’s fair that young players like Marcus Rashford should feel they need to get involved to force political change?
Not only is it fair for him to do that it’s absolutely right and proper that he does that, because he has come from the inner cities, so he knows the situation, he understands. For him to use his platform to change the lives of thousands and thousands of kids is the correct thing to do. I wish more football to do things like that.
Do you think Liverpool need to splash the cash on a new centre back in January to replace van Dijk?
Well first of all, Virgil is a huge player and of course we’re going to miss him. If we focus on Virgil’s injury, not only is it disrespectful to the rest of the team, but it could affect the team’s performance. I think the best thing right now is that there are no fans (in the stadium), because If fans had been there, with Virgil not playing, that negativity could have translated on to the pitch.
If Liverpool go between now and January without conceding one goal, do we need a centre back? We can’t say now we need to splash the cash, because if we do well, we don’t need him. At this moment in time, in the back of your mind, yes, we’re thinking about a centre back. However, I still have faith in the ones we have so to say now that we definitely need one, I think is a little bit premature.
What do you make of the business Liverpool did in the transfer window?
Thiago and Jota were fantastic signings alongside Minamino, who was also a good signing. Those three are players are who you want to come into the squad should anyone get injured. For two, three weeks they can come in, and they can maintain that momentum and the consistency. I think in Jota and Thiago can play for six, seven months in the first team and they can continue to make Liverpool win games and play consistently well, which is what you want. Because I think of the past, not just Liverpool, but a lot of Premier League sides, spend 100 million pounds on five players, but they don’t improve.
Whereas with those two signings, if one of the front three gets injured, Jota can go in and do equally as well. Thiago can play in the midfield three and actually bring something in terms of flair and creativity as well. It gives us not just a balance, but it gives us alternatives and it gives us the same level of consistency. So those two signings have been fantastic.
Where do you think Liverpool will finish the season?
I think it will be first or second. Of course, I’m going to say first. I want it to be first but I think it’ll be between Liverpool and Manchester City because they are the two best teams. If everyone stays fit, I can say Liverpool will finish first but you know, it’ll be between them and Man City up at the top.
…and Champions League?
I’ve never really predicted the Champions League because you don’t know who you’re going to play. I know they’ll get far. They’ll get to the to the knockout stages, they’ll get to the quarterfinals, and of course if they play Munich they could lose. I always am loathed to give cup predictions because even at the start of the season when fans say or think we can have a good FA Cup, how do you know you don’t know who you’re playing? You could be playing Man United away, Chelsea away in the third, fourth, fifth round and the same could happen in the Champions League. What I do know is that because the team are the way they are, they will go through, they’ll get to the quarterfinals. And then depending on how the draws go, of course they can win it, but as to then say where they’re going to get to, you can never tell.
Is it fair to say Liverpool can’t do the treble this season?
Liverpool can achieve treble. They probably won’t. And I don’t think they will, but to say that they can’t, why can’t they? Because they can win football matches. Obviously, if you think about it and if keep everybody fit, everybody stays on form, Liverpool can win the treble.
Liverpool has won the fair play league for the last four years, whilst becoming what many consider to be one of the Premier League’s all-time greatest teams, proving you don’t need an enforcer in the team – do you think the perception that every teams need a ‘hard man’ is gone?
The perception of every team needing to have a hardman has changed radically since the 70s and 80s, because the laws have changed. You don’t want a hard man anymore because he’s going to get sent off. The laws have helped the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal because in the old days, teams like Wimbledon, Watford, my first team, could compete because we could be overly physical, taking it to the line and not getting sent off. The laws have changed to take that away. The advantage of having a hard man helping you is gone, because he’s going to get sent off.
England faced the daunting prospect of Belgium this weekend. So how big of an ask is it going to be?
It’s going to be a huge ask of course, but England are very consistent, they beat who they should. But I think one thing that they’ve done now is maximise their potential to beat who they should beat. I think that it’s going to be a huge task to beat the number one team, but Belgium are a funny side, because even at the World Cup there was a lot expected of them and they came unstuck, as experience counts for a lot.
Belgium, on paper, were the best team at the World Cup, but then all of a sudden, they played against France, and they didn’t perform to their potential, with the great team they had with the likes of Lukaku and De Bruyne. They’ve got great players, player for player, but the lack experience. It’s going to be hard, but I think I think England can do okay.
Do you think Gareth Southgate is capable of getting more from the England team?
Nope, I don’t think Gareth Southgate is capable of getting more. He’s maximising their potential. The Premier League is the strongest league with the best players. However, the strength of the Premier League is in the foreign players. As the Premier League is the regarded as strongest league, there is an expectation that England should be winning trophies.
Who is England’s best current choice in goal?
What I don’t go for is current form because if you do that, you’ll be changing your team every month. For me, it’s about creating harmony, belief, understanding organisation, so Pickford is the number one goalkeeper, even though at the minute he may not be playing particularly well.
Who’s the best England player you played with?
Bryan Robson, Gazza was brilliant, but Robson in terms of a midfield attacking player and defensive minded – the all-round package.
Best player international you played against?
Diego Maradona – I think he was the greatest player in terms of what he did on the pitch.
The 1980s was a terrible decade for sport and culture. How was it for you as a 20-year-old coming through back then? And do you see any similarity with now. How much progress has really happened in the last thirty years?
The 80s was the worst decade in terms of the overt racism. That is undeniable because now, you don’t have bananas being thrown on the field. But if you look at what’s going on for black people generally, nothing has changed in the inner cities. So of course, for footballers, it may have got better in terms of the overt racism. The fact now that you’ve got so many black players playing all over the leagues, you don’t have to be better than a white player whereas in the 70s, and 80s, you did.
You wouldn’t have black players playing for the lesser teams, like Crawley but now you look at League One and League Two there is a much higher average of black players and there’s no stigma, there’s no perception of their ability based on their colour. Whereas back in the 70s, and 80s, there was. We also need to address the lack of diversity at management level, as we still have that problem and that’s based on the perception of black people.
It’s nothing to do with black football managers, this is a wider issue because how many black managers are there in the higher echelons of any industry? And why should football be any different? Until we tackle it in society, and we change our perceptions in society, it will exist in all walks of society, which football is one.
You can’t change structures and laws, you have to change perceptions. Because there are always ways around those structures. The Rooney Rule came in the NFL in 2003 because the league only had three black coaches, here we are 17 years later, how many black coaches do they have? Three. So you can put structures in place, but until you change your perception, nothing will change. I use Klopp as an example. How successful was he really in the first two years in terms of being 25 points off the top? But we believed that he was the right man.
Under different circumstances, he would have lost his job. If he was black, he would have lost his job in those first two years. If he was English, he would have lost his job. This is where the idea of discrimination is a little bit strange because there’s a group of people who are discriminated against in English football and the very highest level in the Premier League, I mean in the top six teams, and they are white English managers.
Do I detect scepticism when it comes to campaigns like No Room For Racism?
They can have no impact on racism in sport. Because just by putting up a banner that says No Room For Racism, how it’s going to change people’s perceptions? By Raheem Sterling saying, “No Room For Racism,” a Man City fan who likes him may listen to him, but they probably wouldn’t. But for 99% of fans who don’t support Man City, will they be influenced by Raheem Sterling when we say No Room For Racism?
These are individual thoughts that people have to change themselves and it has to be made by them. Football can bring the issue to the table but it can’t change the problem. Society has to change a problem. But what football can do, as Marcus Rushford has done, is highlight the problem, bring it to the table, let’s talk about it. Let’s debate, let’s put pressure on people to do something about it. That’s what he’s done. Even the whole idea of walking off the pitch, which is ridiculous believe because if that’s going to make a difference, do you think that a racist football fan is going to not be racist?
What we’ve learned for hundreds of years, we don’t see women as equal, we don’t see blacks as equal. Now there are degrees of it, not that you’re going to abuse anyone or necessarily feel that I’m superior to you. We have certain perceptions of different groups of people based on what we’ve been taught. That’s what we have to analyse within ourselves, but we don’t, we just wait for someone to get caught and say they’re wrong because I’m not like that at all. And until we look at it ourselves, nothing will change.
Do you support the Premier League’s feeling tacking the issue of racism in football?
Absolutely. I support them using their profile to keep the issue in the news agenda but now we have to go that step further. Because as I said, Say No To Racism been around since I played in the Champions League 20 years ago and what has changed? Nothing has changed. Imagine what footballers can do to use their platform and their profile to really make a difference in the inner cities for black people?
What impact do you think twitter has had on football?
First of all, if you can’t take abuse, don’t go on Twitter. Don’t turn around and say “Oh, I’m being abused, I’m being bullied and something should be done”. Don’t go on Twitter then. I’m a bit old school in that respect, but I have no sympathy for people who are crying foul on Twitter when they’re using Twitter for their own end. Twitter is a place to hide for idiots no one can say anything to me on Twitter that upsets me. I don’t consider people who are abusing people to be intelligent. Very much like when I was playing, racism never bother me at all because I consider those people to be ignorant.