By Matt Rowson
"So who's your favourite player then ?".
It seemed odd that I'd never considered the issue before. As a ten year old, already a Watford obsessive and veteran of, ooh, at least a dozen games, this should have been the sort of question dominating my everyday thoughts. Now, confronted by a next door neighbour feigning an interest, I contemplated the subject for the first time. It didn't take much thinking about.
For all the fanciful and romantic superlatives employed in these pages, it's not stretching matters to say that John Barnes was with little doubt the most talented player ever to wear a Watford shirt. I won't bore you with the stuff about his Dad in Jamaica, or Sudbury Court... you can read that in any Shoot! annual from the late eighties.... however I was lucky enough to witness his first appearance, as a substitute at home to Oldham in 1981. "Some kid we've just signed" was my Dad's retort to my enquiry. "Some kid" indeed.
The impact was immediate; the seventeen year old Barnes was straight into the team and quickly attracting interest from Q.P.R. (prompting the British Caledonian-inspired chant "we'll take more care of you...", which dominated his first couple of seasons). He was just awesome; fast, skilful, strong, with a devilish left foot, the boy had it all. In Watford's first season in the top flight he made the national squad with Luther Blissett and Nigel Callaghan, but unlike the others, who had brief and non-existent international careers respectively, Barnes was a feature of national squads for over ten years.
The special moments are too numerous to do justice; the famous goal at the Maracana for England, the utter demolition of Birmingham in the Cup Quarter Final, the awesome scythe through the Liverpool defence in his last season... the list is endless. Perhaps my favourite was in an unexceptional league game against the Chelsea of Dixon and Speedie in 1985. Luther won the ball in the centre-circle and foraged down the middle of the pitch, taking three defenders with him before backheeling it to Barnes. He had all the time in the world, he could have taken it round the keeper and stopped to milk the applause, but he hit it first time from outside the area, and I was directly behind the ball as it arched into the far corner, leaving Niedzwiecki absolutely helpless. A sublime mix of showmanship and raw ability.
The rumours of offers were constant, linking Barnes with moves both internally and abroad. His brief appearance in the World Cup in Mexico that was so fundamental in England's fightback against Argentina (the pundits chose not to mention it... but we all noticed !) brought the rumours to a frenzied climax, but he stayed one more season. Then, legend has it, Liverpool, having just lost the title to Everton, asked their squad which three players had caused them the most hassle the previous season. Barnes, Houghton and Beardsley topped the list, these players were purchased, and Liverpool over the next two seasons put out a side that I've not seen bettered before or since.
The one criticism levelled at Barnes was his apparent and occasional apathetic lapses, born of the frustration that we knew that he so often tore teams apart when he seemed bothered. At Liverpool he achieved that consistency to devastating effect, and for two seasons before an injury from which his career never really recovered, he was the best player in the country by a mile and a half.
These are Watford pages... but two incidents from his early Liverpool career perhaps should be mentioned. The first, his first (and, to date, only) playing return to Vicarage Road with Liverpool that season. Luther Blissett scored to end Liverpool's record run of clean sheets, but it mattered little as the Reds put four past us, including one from JB. Twenty minutes before the end, Dalglish substituted him... the win was secure and, not wanting to twist the knife in the wound, Barnes had stopped playing.
The second anecdote comes from a programme shortly before the 1990 World Cup, where soon to be national boss Graham Taylor was invited to discuss the "enigma" that was John Barnes. Predictably, the video of the goal at the Maracana was rolled out, the implication being "why can't he do that all the time". GT offered his verdict, the most plausible I ever heard:
"Ah. Well, you see, this was when he was a Watford player. I've always maintained that he's never been the same player since he left Watford."
And who are we to argue with that ?