John Barnes: Liverpool on the verge of starting another great era of domination

WION Web Team
New Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Digvijay Singh DeoUpdated: Jun 08, 2020, 01:15 PM IST
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Former Liverpool captain and England international John Barnes, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke on a variety of things ranging from COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, resumption of Premier League, Project Restart, home ground vs neutral venues, Liverpool's stunning campaign, transfer marker post-pandemic, and much more.

Former Liverpool captain and England international John Barnes, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke on a variety of things ranging from COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, resumption of Premier League, Project Restart, home ground vs neutral venues, Liverpool's stunning campaign, transfer marker post-pandemic, and much more.

Digvijay Singh Deo: Thank you for your time John, really appreciate you joining us from England. How has this lockdown life been for you?

John Barnes: The lockdown has been great for me personally because I like a quiet life. Obviously the global circumstances are extremely unfortunate because the virus is causing so much damage. I am a homebody, I sometimes take long walks around my house and this lockdown suits me perfectly. Most people are bored because they aren't able to go out and lead a social life, but it has been absolutely no problem for me.

DSD: The numbers coming out of the UK have been pretty scary. How has this pandemic and the high number of cases affected the daily lives of people...

John Barnes: If you look at the two biggest hit countries, the UK and USA, citizens of both nations have a very strong sense of individual freedom and human rights. People there don't like governments telling them exactly what to do. However, in a global health crisis, there is a need for people to be extremely vigilant and curb their freedom to some degree for their health and safety. It is also a time when people must adhere to strict health protocols. Those countries which have initiated strict lockdown measures and been stronger with their citizens have dealt with the crisis better than the US & UK. So, it doesn't surprise me that the US & UK have been the worst hit coronavirus countries because of the citizens' perception of their human rights.

DSD: Five-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand told me last month that the world was moving too fast and the virus took advantage. What for you should be the learning we take on board from this pandemic?  

John Barnes: Well this is not the first time in history that such a devastating crisis has taken place. Worse disasters have happened. In those times as well, people must have hoped that the world would learn to live in peace while spreading the message of love and unity. But what lessons did humanity learn? Nothing. In the past, people have vowed to learn certain lessons from various crises but have failed to act on them. People always end up becoming their normal selfish selves after a period of time. We should not need a pandemic to teach us lessons of love, unity and respect. We should show these traits all the time when the world isn't in such a crisis. So, I am hopeful that people will learn from this experience, but there aren't many reasons to be optimistic about that if you look at our history. Unfortunately, I think once we get back to our normal lives, even if it is a 'new normal', we are still going to see people being greedy and selfish.

DSD: Football and footballers have had close shaves too. Your former teammate and manager Sir Kenny Dalglish too had the coronavirus and that would have been an early wake-up call for all you senior footballers.

John Barnes: No one is safe, it doesn't matter how much money you make or what race you belong to, everyone is susceptible to the virus. There are certain people in the west who think they are 'untouchable' and they have been so in the past in terms of the impact that other people or things can have on their lives, but that is not the case now. There are some 'superior people', who are always immune to problems because of the socio-economic structure of the world. But when a health crisis like this happens, everyone becomes 'touchable'. I have sympathy for everyone who has been affected by the disease, not just Kenny Dalglish. I have two children who are doctors and working tirelessly for the national health service, fortunately, they are safe. It is a time for people to come together and show empathy with everyone, not just a particular group of people because they are famous or part of an elite group.

John Barnes

DSD: More than 2 months now since the premier league was suspended. It has been tough for a lot of people associated with the sport with the layoffs and pay cuts. Is it time now for the season to resume?

John Barnes: Only if it is safe to do so. Thousands of people, who are not footballers and don't work in the football industry, have lost their jobs, so why are we separating football from the rest of society. Why are we feeling more sorry for footballers as opposed to factory workers? It's not just important for footballers to get back to action, it is important for all of us to get back to our lives. Players in the lower divisions are struggling,  but premier league footballers can probably financially sustain themselves for the next year without getting back to work. Whereas most people in the world, who do not have such high-paying jobs cannot afford to do that. The most important thing for us is to be relatively safe from the coronavirus. If we wait for the virus to completely disappear, then we might not return to competitive football in the next few years. At the moment, it is impossible for anyone to guarantee 100% safety of players, coaches and fans from the coronavirus. Eventually, we will have to get back to some sort of normality and that will be when the health risks involved in playing football are mitigated to a certain extent. Once we get used to the new normal, then we will adapt to the circumstances, that is how human beings have survived for hundreds and thousands of years. We aren't the strongest or biggest creatures, but we have dominated the planet because we have adapted better than any other species and that is what we will continue to do.

DSD: Project Restart is on in full earnest, full training will begin soon. But players remain apprehensive and rightfully so, as we have seen with the likes of Troy Deeney and N’golo Kante, do you think they have put their family ahead of the commercial interest of the sport.?

John Barnes: I believe that it's not a question about commercial interests, it is about whether an individual feels it is safe enough for him to go back to work. I support Troy Deeney and N'golo Kante with the decision they have taken, but I also support those players who have started training. There are no right or wrong decisions in this situation. It will be impossible to get the approval of every footballer to return to training because there are some who are bound to feel uncomfortable. The authorities have to come up with a detailed training plan for the clubs in a certain time frame and then let the player decide if he wants to return to training or not. We have to respect the individual's choice in the matter. Once again, this problem is not limited to footballers. Factory workers will be facing the same dilemma, but because of the current financial crisis, they will be willing to take health risks because they can't afford to forego their wages, whereas a top-level footballer probably can.

DSD: We have seen the Bundesliga start and La Liga is headed for a June 11 restart as well. On paper, the Bundesliga's concept seems to be working -  but should the Premier League follow? Because England appears to be behind Germany and even Spain in the fight against the coronavirus?  

John Barnes: Absolutely. Any authority must look at the state of affairs in their own country and then make an informed decision with proper government and medical advice, and I think that is what the Premier League is doing. It would be unwise to just blindly follow the German Bundesliga template because the situation in England is unfortunately completely different.


DSD: What have you made of what we have seen in the Bundesliga - football in the COVID era - I found it rather bizarre that the players are being made to socially distance on the substitutes benches even though many of them end up on the pitch together at some point.

John Barnes: These are unprecedented times and necessary compromises have to be made for football to get back. We are not going to be able to get back to the sport as we knew it before the pandemic, so we have to adapt, there is no other option. If that means having no fans in the stadium and adhering to certain protocols, then those steps have to be taken for the game to take place. We cannot wait for the time when it will be safe to resume football as it were before the crisis, because if we do then we won't get to see the game we love for years.

DSD: Lots of debate in England about playing at home grounds or neutral venues when the season resumes.where do you stand on this - a big part of home advantage is the fans, so if they are not around -  should it be such a big talking point?

John Barnes: The advantage of playing at your home stadium is not just limited to having the fans on your side, it is also about being in a comfortable environment. If the fans are not present in the stadium, the home team will still have an advantage because the players are familiar with the dressing room, the pitch and they have a routine which they follow on a home match-day, since they are coming from their own houses and not from a team hotel. There are some who feel that if matches are held at home stadiums, then fans will congregate around those arenas during and after the matches, which will defeat the purpose of holding games behind-closed-doors. This is again a problem that you will probably only see only in the UK & us because of the sense of entitlement that people have about certain freedoms. That would have not been a danger if matches were being held in some other country. So the authorities maybe do not trust the fans to stay at home on match-days and in order to avoid those large gatherings outside stadiums, they are planning to hold the matches at distant neutral venues, which would ensure that such congregations do not take place.

DSD: Another big concern around the restart is the susceptibility to injuries. We've seen in the Bundesliga that more players are getting injured every match - in the Premier League, managers are warning against rushing to action in mid-June, saying players need 4 weeks of proper training. Are you concerned that the restart plans are being rushed?

John Barnes: I don't think that is an exceptional concern. The players have still continued their individual fitness training at home, they have just not been playing football, so they are still in good shape. Players will probably have a month of on-ground training before they start competing again, so the situation is very similar to what we see in pre-season. During the off-season, players usually have a six-week break when they go on holiday and there is an obvious drop in their fitness levels. However, in this case, the players have not been on holiday and they have in fact continued their fitness sessions at home. So I don't see any reason that suggests there will be an exceptional increase in the number of injuries because of this break. There are bound to be 'natural' injuries in the game, which would happen with or without this enforced break.

John Barnes

DSD: Lots of uncertainty at the moment but one thing for certain is that Liverpool will be crowned Premier League champions for the first time since your team in 1990. Will, it be the albatross off the neck?

John Barnes: Hopefully the season will start soon. There are a lot of people who are pushing for the season to be scrapped and straightaway begins the next campaign, which is ridiculous. The German Bundesliga plans to finish the current campaign by the end of June, which leaves them with more than enough time to begin the next season as scheduled. So the premier league can also easily follow that precedent and finish the current season in about six weeks or two months. As for Liverpool, I think unless there is a calamity, they are going to crowned champions.

I think it's not just about this season, the team cannot take their foot off the gas and rest on their laurels if they do manage to win the premier league. A true marker of success is being able to win trophies for a sustained period of time. The team will enjoy the triumph, but then the focus should shift to the next season. Jurgen Klopp will hopefully drive the players to maintain such levels of performance in the years to come. I hope this is the start of another great era in the history of the club when the Reds can challenge for the domestic league title and champions league title every season, as they did in the past. The league triumph will no doubt be fantastic for the club, but the success must not stop there.

DSD: Liverpool were almost there last season, but lost by just a point to a great Manchester City team. To have the intensity to bounce back from that near-miss and go unbeaten till February has been remarkable, as of now they sit 25 points clear at the top.

John Barnes: Liverpool only lost one premier league match in the 2018-19 season as well, so it is not as if they are performing considerably better than last year. In fact, I think Liverpool were playing better football last season, but Manchester City were just unstoppable. This season, there has been a dip in city's performances, largely because they have lost key defensive players to injury. Whereas Liverpool have continued to be consistent, so I think nothing has changed from last season. In the 2018-19 campaign, Liverpool missed out on the league title despite having 97 points, but still won the champions league crown. This season Liverpool have been knocked out of the champions league in the knockout stages, but are well on their way to win the league crown, so Jurgen Klopp has maximised the club's potential to be consistent. Manchester City have been inconsistent this season, whereas Liverpool have been consistent, that's the difference. Those two teams are still superior to the other teams in the league.


DSD: Have Liverpool sort of set the benchmark now in the league about the way they have gone about rebuilding in the last 5-6 years. Jurgen Klopp was given time and club backed him in the players he wanted. The patience has been rewarded.

John Barnes: This has always been the recipe for success. Sir Alex Ferguson was given time by Manchester United, he had the complete support and trust of the board, which is why he was able to build such a great side. Chelsea did the same with Jose Mourinho in his first spell and were richly rewarded with trophies. Clubs will be successful if they give their manager the right resources and a sufficient amount of time to build a team. The most important thing is that the players should know that the manager is the man in charge. Player power is now a big issue all over the world, where players are seen as more important than the managers. The clubs in which the players have been calling the shots have been inconsistent. A manager's role is undermined when the players are made to seem more important. It comes as no surprise to me that Liverpool and manchester city have been the two most successful clubs in England over the last two years, because the manager in both those clubs is truly the man in charge, the power doesn't lie with the owners or the players. If Liverpool lose a game, the fans aren't going to blame Jurgen Klopp. Similarly, if he drops mo salah, the club won't get on his back because the players realise that he is the man in charge and the ultimate decision lies with him. At other clubs, when the team loses, the blame is put on the manager rather than the players, which makes the footballers feel more empowered and in a way makes them less accountable. At Liverpool and manchester city, players will be criticised for poor performances and not just the managers.

DSD: What will that league title mean to the fans and the city of Liverpool?

John Barnes: Well, it won't mean much to half of the city, because they are Everton fans and they'll be quite disappointed. For us Liverpool fans, it'll be pure joy, but only until the next season starts. The club has to forget about the championship as soon as the first ball is kicked next season. The team has to show the same hunger for the title next season to remain champions of England. It'll be unbelievable for me and the city of Liverpool but once the next season begins, it must be forgotten.

DSD: Lots of talk about Sadio Mane moving on, Timo Werner and Kylian Mbappe linked. Are Liverpool today on the same level as Real Madrid and Barcelona in terms of attracting players.

John Barnes: Every club is a selling club in modern football. A club like Barcelona was forced to sell Neymar. What attracts footballers today is the salaries that they are going to get. Whoever the player may be, whether it be Sadio \Mmane or Mo Salah if anyone is offered a million pounds per week by any club, then they will join that team regardless of their quality or standing, that is the reality of modern football.  We have had so many fantastic players leave the Liverpool- Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho. It is great that Liverpool have a bit of muscle now because of the on-field success, but ultimately players come and players go. I always tell the fans to support the club and not the players. A player must not be compelled to stay at a club against his own will, because that will make the player feel more powerful than the club and hence it will make him less accountable for his performances on the pitch. The good thing is that I can guarantee that such a situation will not arise under Klopp because of the control he has over the players and the club. Players know they cannot overstep their mark with him in charge.

Sadio Mane and Jurgen Klopp

DSD: How do you see the pandemic affecting the transfer market?

John Barnes: The big-money moves look unlikely in the short-term. Clubs will be worried about long-term financial stability. I'm hoping clubs learn to exercise some restraint in the future because of the coronavirus crisis, given the financially precarious situation the game is in right now. Hopefully, it will be a long-term change and not a short-term one. You never know, we just might get back to players being sold for 300 million euros in a few years. It is also the responsibility of the game as a whole to manage finances better. It should not be possible for a rich organisation to purchase a club and just buy all the best players in the world, that is not what sport and competition is about. There has to be a level-playing field and a structure in place to ensure that clubs do not misuse their finances,

DSD: Ok before we let you go, Jordan Henderson said it would be strange to win the Premier League title without fans. That’s the reality of sport across the globe. How would John Barnes celebrate Henderson and the team lifting that trophy?

John Barnes: I will celebrate with a small glass of wine and I'll be excited for about 20 seconds like I was last season after Liverpool won the Champions League crown. The triumph will soon be forgotten. The team must chase that title again next year. The way the players and the club treat this season's success will determine how successful the club will be next season. From a fan's perspective, it is going to be a fantastic achievement, but from a professional point of view, I would want the players to forget about the title as soon as the next season begins.