For Liverpool FC fans, John Barnes needs no introduction.
The Jamaica-born winger made his debut at Anfield in 1987, bringing an awesome blend of strength and skill that propelled Liverpool to two league titles and an FA Cup in the late ’80s.
During his decade-long stint with the Reds, Barnes scored 108 goals in 407 appearances, making him one of the club’s all-time greats.
But the mark he left on Liverpool transcends accolades and silverware. Barnes was the first high-profile black player to grace Anfield back in the 1980s, when racial abuse still echoed across the stadium, and his dedication to fans during the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 turned him into an ambassador for the club.
Barnesy, as he is affectionately known, is now a popular football pundit for TV, and was in Brunei this weekend at the invitation of Standard Chartered Bank (Liverpool FC’s main sponsor) to run a youth football clinic at Jerudong International School.
We teamed up with our friends at BruSports News to talk to Barnesy about the current state of the Liverpool team, and how he thinks small nations like Brunei can turn out quality youth players.
1. We saw that Liverpool destroyed Roma 5-2 in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. How do you fancy their chances of going through to the final?
I wouldn’t say that they destroyed Roma, because people said that Barcelona destroyed Roma in the first leg and they went out. It’s a good result which obviously puts us in the driving seat, but we saw what Roma did to Barcelona in the second leg. They are capable of doing that if we go into this game with complacency. We are in a good position however game is not over yet.
2. Mohamed Salah has just been named the PFA Player of the Year, do you think he could go on to win the Ballon D’Or?
I think he has got a great chance, a fantastic chance. Obviously with World Cup coming up, and depending on Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, because those two have really been the winners for the last 10 years. They have been best players who have been unchallenged and Neymar was the closest to challenging them.
Now you have Salah challenging for Ballon D’Or. Ronaldo and Messi are two great players and they will have great seasons once again, but I have never seen a better first season from any player in any country as good as the one we have seen from Mo.
But [the Ballon D’Or] is in December and there is still a lot of football to play until then, but if he continues like this up till then he will have a fantastic chance [of winning].
3. You played with Robbie Fowler, considered the most lethal left foot finisher in club history. But do you think Salah is now the most gifted left foot finisher you’ve ever seen at Anfield?
We can’t say we ever had. We need to see what he does in the next 10 years. Of course, he has had a fantastic first season and I don’t think I’ve seen a better first season from any other player in the Premier League. But of course we would have said the same about Luis Suarez, but he is no longer with us anymore.
Salah has had a fantastic start and I hope that he can continue in this vein of form. We wouldn’t have necessarily said Mo is a goalscorer. He is obviously a creator but now he has scored more goals than anyone else in Europe. He has brought that to his game but that has a lot to do with the way how Liverpool plays. It also has a lot to do with the strategy that Jürgen Klopp has implemented to suit players like Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. The way Liverpool plays suits Mo down to the ground. I don’t think there is another club that would get the best out of Mo and that is because Jürgen Klopp has the play.
4. How would you rate Jürgen Klopp’s performance as manager thus far?
The most important thing with any football team, manager or club, is the harmony and togetherness. And that it isn’t just about players.
The players, hierarchy, fans and Liverpool family worldwide — he has brought them together. He has brought the harmony back. We haven’t won anything yet but when you look at the harmony and togetherness brought back to the club, it means us going in the right direction and hopefully we can go to the Champions League final and win it.
Hopefully next year we will be looking at improving in the League as well. So he is the right man absolutely for Liverpool, and his character suits Liverpool down to the ground, and the fans love him. So he is doing a great job.
5. Loris Karius has faced a lot of criticism for his performance as goalkeeper this season. Do you think Liverpool needs a new keeper going into next season?
No, I don’t think so. There are no bad goalkeepers who go to big clubs. Karius, [Simon] Mignolet are good goalkeepers. As goalkeepers, you make mistakes, and you are to be shot at and people question you. But the Liverpool fans support anybody who Jürgen Klopp picks. That’s how much they love Klopp.
We have seen in the past how players have gone through a hard time — Dejan Lovren for example — but the fact that Klopp has picked and supported him means that the fans back him, and see how well he is playing now.
So as much as goalkeeping has been an issue for a lot of people outside of Liverpool, the fact that Klopp has supported and picked [Karius] means that the fans get behind him. And when the fans get behind you and support you, you show your worth. And as you have seen with Karius he is really playing much better with the support everyone has given him.
6. You have 79 caps for England as a player, but have also managed the Jamaica national team. How do smaller nations like Brunei stay competitive in international football? How integral is youth development?
Football youth development is necessary worldwide. It is probably more necessary for small and developing footballing countries.
When you look at football development at top European clubs, yes it is important, but you can also attract the best foreign players… so you can always get the best to come help develop your league.
Brunei is not on that boat where the best players in the world want to come here and play so it is important to develop local football.
You can see in Southeast Asia, the way it has been done. I remember Malaysian football in the 1970s was quite strong but because of the lack of [youth] development it went down. I think you want to look at this region as to what youth development and developing football can do to inspire the country, and to make you better at top level.
Look at Japan and South Korea, how the youth programme they put in place years ago means they are now two very strong nations. I suppose for a country as small as Brunei, it’s important for you to develop young players because that’s where you get players for the future, you’re not going to attract players to come.
So it is a small country and I know it’s difficult. But I saw how the under-21s beat Thailand [during a match for the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy]. Thailand is a much bigger country and [footballing] nation. I didn’t see the match, but I know the result as they won 2-1, which shocked me because I know how strong Thai football can be, and it shows that Brunei — they are doing something right.
7. Would you like to say anything to Liverpool fans in Brunei?
Let’s see how the game goes against Stoke. Everybody knows that second leg of Champions League is vital. We still want a good performance against Stoke but thanks for supporting club.
I’ve been here [to Brunei] 15 years ago and been to this part of the world — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand — and I know how passionate the fans are here for Liverpool FC.
When people ask me if I’m surprised of the interest and support the fans have here for Liverpool — no I’m not, because I’ve been coming to this part of the world for the past 15 to 20 years and I know how passionate they are about Liverpool and how passionate they are about football.