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The ex-Liverpool and Watford man excited crowds throughout his career as he flew down the wing. While he’s no longer on the pitch, he still kept us on the edge of our seats when he provided an insight into what it took to become a skilful player. 

Barnes burst onto the scene in inspiring fashion at Watford, became a legend at Liverpool, and won 79 caps for the Three Lions. As with so many top athletes, the foundations for this success can be found in Barnes’ childhood.  

“My dad has always been my biggest influence. He was a colonel in the Jamaican army, so discipline was a big part of his life ever since he was 19 years old.  

“He understood the value of not just discipline but determination, drive, effort, and commitment. Yes, talent is important, but from a very young age, that’s what was instilled in me.  

“My sister swam for Jamaica, and I was swimming competitively when I was seven, eight years old. We’d have to train every day. On the way, I would stop and play football with my friends. I wouldn’t go swimming.  

“My dad said to me, if you’re not going to be committed to what you’re actually doing, don’t do it. I grew up with that. When people looked at the way I played, they thought I was a maverick, and I just played off the cuff and didn’t play with responsibility. But my most important thing was the responsibility to the team, the effort, the commitment and the determination. That was what my father instilled in me.”   


Yes, John Barnes’ skills wowed the crowd. But being a skilful player doesn’t mean that you just pull out all the tricks. It’s so much more than that. Reading the game and making the right decisions are key to being successful on the pitch.  

“Your talent isn’t just your physical talent. It’s your mental attributes. It’s your decision-making and your ability to play off the ball. Unfortunately, people just look at a player who can dribble around lots of people – Lionel Messi – and say that’s their talent. But their talents are also to play without the ball.  

“I had a natural ability with the ball. But my father made me understand the responsibility of the team from a defensive point of view, from a point of humility, working for your teammates, doing all the things to allow your teammates to do certain things, and encouraging them – that is also a talent.  

“I do believe I had natural ability, but I knew so many kids my age who had equal ability to me. So, what one considers to be your natural talent is not enough. I believe that I made it because I had those other attributes as well – and most footballers do.”  


It’s important to remember that players need the opportunity to hone their skills. Realistic practices that replicate the game will help players develop and link training to matchday.  

“I think a lot of people just feel [what you do] comes naturally. But when I was at Watford, the repetition of doing it again and again made it stick in our minds. Because I know that we have repetition – repeatedly work on these things all the time – that’s why it actually sticks in your mind.  

“Terry Venables favourite saying is: we all tell our kids practice makes perfect. It doesn’t. Practice makes permanent. Because if you do the wrong things and practice the wrong things, you’ll permanently do the wrong things.”

Movement and repetition

When working with young players, no one knows where their final position will be. Letting them play in multiple roles helps them gain the skills they need.  

“I think that’s what you have to do with young players; let them develop, and then you can see traits in them.  

“So, what you do is you look at them, you look at the attributes they actually have, and you look at how they develop in certain positions. Then you say to them, ‘I think this is going to be where you’re going to maximise your potential to be a footballer’.  

“I went and observed Louis Van Gaal at Ajax for a week in 1996, just to watch the way they train. And I spoke to him about it. Ajax develop footballers; they don’t give you positions at that particular age, they’ll develop you, and then you can see what position actually suits you.  

“I think, at eight, nine, ten, eleven, you have to develop footballers to understand how to control the ball, how to dribble, how to pass, how to defend, how to attack, and just have a more holistic approach to it.”  


Having a clear philosophy helped Barnes to be effective. Understanding how the team plays leads to players being on the same wavelength. They know their own roles and responsibilities as well as those of their teammates.  

“The way I played as a wide midfield player for Watford and the way I played for Liverpool was completely different. So, the most important thing is for there to be a philosophy on the way the team plays – and to understand it.  

“At Watford, my job was to get the ball, get down the line and put crosses in. When we didn’t have the ball, I tucked into midfield and chased my full-back. In many respects, my first job for Watford as a wide midfield player was not to let the full-back get a run on. And if that happened, Graham Taylor would give you a hell of a time.  

“Now, if I’m playing with Ross Jenkins and George Reilly, I can go down the line, put a cross in, and they’re going to score. If I’m playing with a Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero, as a wide midfield player, it doesn’t mean I have to go down and put a cross in - maybe you have to pull it back along the ground. I’ve got to look for different things. But my job is determined by how the team plays and what the function is. So always, for me, it’s about understanding the requirements of the team.  

“Yes, you can then work on individual aspects of dribbling, wanting on the half-turn, getting people off balance, to move inside to outside, to whip crosses around early, putting them in late, putting them in high and even low. But ultimately, it’s really governed by your understanding of how the team functions.”