9th June 1987 – John Charles Bryan Barnes signs for Liverpool from Watford. There’s a famous picture of him with the other new signing Peter Beardsley, posing against a wall. Scrawled on the wall is some racist graffiti.
This signing, this racism, this man and this football club changed my life. Liverpool fans are often accused of mawkish sentimentality and laughable hyperbole; but in all honestly watching this man, going to Anfield for the first time and learning to love a game I could not play, gave me, an awkward-looking and awkward-feeling 11 year old black girl from Bradford a much-needed black superhero.
During my teenage years, as John owned the left wing, the presumption was that hormones had taken hold and I had an understandable crush on a very attractive man. And I did – of course I did but it was always more than that; John (Never Digger, never Barnsey, always John) represented something bigger to me, before it was a concept I knew or a global Twitter hashtag. He was Black Excellence – personified.
He is now caricatured in the UK as the affable smiley footballer who performed on THAT segment on ‘World in Motion’ and I wince that he is asked to perform it on request on bad ITV gameshows with lazy grinning hosts. He sighs, obliges, smiles – and everyone joins in the fun and ‘raps’ along:
“You gotta hold and give…”
Inside I’m screaming ‘Ask him more!!’ He is one of the most intelligent British footballers of my lifetime and we’ve reduced him to a C-grade celebrity, trapped in a 1990 New Order video, encouraging us all to ‘get round the back’.
I went to the World Cup in South Africa and John Barnes was a pundit most days on their national TV television and he was a revelation. His analysis of the game was fresh, challenging, incisive and articulate. Where are his stints on Match of the Day?
I was the only black kid in my Yorkshire primary school. My parents made a (very Nigerian) calculated deduction that a semi-rural school, with strong discipline, high teaching standards and farmland all around, would be the perfect educational environment for their firstborn. Although I learned a lot about resilience and fortitude and the necessity of humour to deescalate tense situations; I didn’t enjoy the social isolation, racist bullying, the endless cruel nicknames (I’m still triggered by BA Baracas and Rustie Lee), the bullies’ siren call to my arrival in class – ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’. The fact that I was automatically given the role of the Black King in the Nativity when I auditioned in for Mary. Being taught by the class teacher how to dance solo in paired country-dancing lessons, because all the boys refused me as a partner. These minipop micro-aggressions for a little girl were a all bit too much.
My parents did well. They bought me empowering books about Black History, told me I was descended from African Kings and Queens. Came down to the school to re-educate teachers and help shift the culture. Taught me to challenge racists and move on up. Told me I was beautiful and put up pictures of black stars around the house. They gave me ‘the lecture’ about needing to be 20% better than my white peers to reach exactly the same destination
(ALL black kids know this lecture – and it’s true. Use Obama vs Trump as a simple case study).
I couldn’t see it though. I couldn’t see the fruits of that 20%. Oh sure, there was Michael Jackson, but he wasn’t REAL. He was just a magical American sprite conjured up by Nubian Gods to bewitch us all. He could Moonwalk for Gods’ sake. Michael was out of this world. I needed a black hero very much IN my world and Floella Benjamin just wasn’t cutting it.
JB arrived in style. With a rough-looking afro. Like MINE. (Mama Shirley’s hair skills were pretty rudimentary and wandering around rural West Yorkshire looking like a little Angela Davis didn’t help my longing for pre-teen cultural acceptance).
JB faced racism. If Adam (yeah dull Bradford cretin, I used your real name – sue me) in my class could be rude about my looks, surely I could stand tall when John Barnes could win matches single-handedly, whilst opposition fans rained bananas down on him. Actual bananas. They bought and brought fruit to a game to unleash on a grown-up man and he still persisted in showing them up, scoring wonder goals that made grown racists cry.
JB was articulate. I’d been taught to debate and have strong opinions at home. Tea-time would often be my dad holding court about Russian politics or the latest Nigerian coup. I was expected to have an opinion and be heard. Then at school, the bullying took away my voice and dulled my confidence. Hearing this beautiful, powerful, talented man, speak eloquently, have humility, and exude intelligence helped me re-find my words, my self-belief.
JB scored a mesmerizing Brazilian goal. In Brazil. Watching live as my guy samba’d through that Brazilian defence in the Maracana stadium; their fans hailing him as one of their own, confirmed to me that he was a hero worth having.
I’m now 42 and my adoration of JB has well surpassed what is reasonable for a grown woman with all her faculties. I’m now caricatured as the creepily-obsessed single woman who loves John Barnes due to his 1980s thighs, Strictly Come Dancing Samba skills and questionably ambitious sartorial style.
It was always about more. He was my hero when I needed one. I met him recently and he joked, ‘yeah, I bet I was your favourite player because of those little red shorts’.
I nodded and played along because I couldn’t find the words to tell him that he actually helped save this young black girl from believing that she was less than the blonde girls in her class. That he inspired me to believe in myself and to recognise that black could be beautiful and clever and talented and could fearlessly take on the world.
Thank you John Barnes. For all your black magic.