Liverpool legend John Barnes backs Juergen Klopp to bring back glory days
All-time great says German will deliver on early promise – if club backs him in the summer transfer market and supporters remain patient
John Barnes has been coming to China and Hong Kong since 1983, when Watford embarked on a pioneering tour (and Barnes and Watford’s other black players were roundly booed every time they touched the ball during a 5-1 defeat of the national team in Shanghai).
But don’t expect any sparkling anecdotes from his last visit, for the HKFC Soccer Sevens tournament in 2007: “I can’t remember much to be honest, because I was pissed all the time.”
That was about the only time the Liverpool legend was stumped for a reply in a chat with journalists over lunch in town this week. In a conversation that spanned racism, the development of football in Asia, money and fame, England’s hopes at Euro 2016 and more, Barnes was good value as he sang for his couple of trips to the buffet table.
His opinions of the club’s potential under Juergen Klopp impressed the most. Though he stops short of predicting that next season could be ‘our year’, he’s confident the German might finally be someone to restore the tame to what fans feel is its rightful place. Unfortunately for the fans who idolised ‘Digger’, Liverpool haven’t won the league since Barnes fired 22 goals in 34 games in the 1989-90 First Division to secure the second of the two championships, two FA Cups and three player of the year awards that made him an Anfield idol.
“I think he embodies the Liverpool philosophy,” says Barnes, now 52 and in Hong Kong for a promotional event with club sponsor Standard Chartered. “Not necessarily on the field but the relationship he has with the fans and the humility he has. I like the fact that he does not go around in a three-piece suit and he is not clean-shaven and he looks a little unkempt; Scousers are like that and he is one of us!
“The honeymoon period has been great but we have not been really consistent ... This year I didn’t put any pressure on them at all because coming in 10 games into the season is not ideal ... next year, I would expect much more in terms of consistency.”
Liverpool have blown hot and cold since Klopp took over in October, but Barnes believes he can challenge at the top next term – if he’s backed by the club. “It’s simple, you’ve got to get better players. Take all the managers, Mourinho, Klopp, Ancelotti, they’re all great managers, all equal. Who’s going to win the league? The one with the better players.
“So to look at Klopp and say ‘He’s a great manager, he’s going to win the league,’ he’s not. He’s got to better players in.
“The pleasing thing for me about Liverpool and the fans, previously if we signed players no-one had heard of and it wasn’t for £30 million we’d say ‘lack of ambition’, be disappointed because we didn’t get Messi or Ronaldo, but now we trust Juergen so much that if he buys a player from Germany for £5 million we’ve never heard of we’re going to think ‘He must know something about this guy, he’s going to get the best out of him.’
“He’ll be given more time than other managers but I have faith he’ll do well next season.”
Klopp and Liverpool face a key couple of weeks, with the first leg of their Europa League semi-final against Villarreal next Thursday night. The competition may have lost its lustre, but now has a Champions League place on offer to the winner. A place in Europe’s elite competition could make player recruitment easier for Klopp – even if Barnes insists that shouldn’t be the case.
“People say, ‘Manchester United have to be in the Champions League to attract players’ – any player who only wants to go to Manchester United to play in the Champions League is not a player I would be interested in,” he says. “You want players who want to play for you because you’re Manchester United, because you’re Liverpool.
“That’s what Juergen Klopp is saying, he wants players who want to come to Liverpool and he wants players who want to stay long-term. If any player wants to leave [they can], even if it was Gerrard in his prime.
“When you put the power in players’ hands you undermine the club. When you put the power in Suarez’s hand by bending over backwards to say, ‘Luis, please stay because we love you and we want better players to play with you,’ you’re making him more powerful than the club. I think that Klopp is bringing it back: I don’t care who it is, they have to want to play for Liverpool.”
Barnes is mystified that Liverpool fans remain so spoiled by the glory days of his era and hopes – probably in vain – that Klopp might be shown patience .
“If you keep holding on to that, and Liverpool fans say to me all the time ‘It’s not the Liverpool of old,’ – we have to forget the Liverpool of old.
“The ‘Liverpool way’ is nice for the academy, but what has to happen now is the Juergen Klopp way. If you employ someone to be the coach – unless you’re Barcelona which is unique – if Jose Mourinho goes to Manchester United, forget about the ‘Manchester United way’, you’ve got to give Jose Mourinho full control ... and that’s what we have to do.
“Twenty-six years later the Liverpool fans still remember the team of 1990 and say ‘This isn’t the real Liverpool team.’ Well it is, and it has been for the last 15 years. Wolves fans aren’t going ‘We were fantastic in the 50s,’ Everton fans aren’t saying, ‘We were the Bank of England, we were the richest team in the 70s.’ You have to be realistic and say this is where we are now.
“It’s understandable when you’ve been winning the league and one, two three years go by where you don’t. But after 25 years to still think, ‘This year is going to be our year’ is unrealistic.”