With the kind permission of When Saturday Comes, there follow some excerpts from Dave Hill's recently
re-published book about John Barnes, Out Of His Skin. These extracts offer fascinating insights into the
characters of some of the key players - in particular, Bertie Mee - at Watford Football Club when Barnes rose to stardom.
Out Of His Skin is available for £9.99 (inc. postage and packing) from:
By post: WSC, 17a Perseverance Works, 38 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DD
By email: email@example.com
By fax: 020-7729 9417
By credit card: 020-7729 9461
Or through: www.sportsbooksdirect.co.uk
Chapter 3, excerpt
The Watford man who first contacted Colonel Barnes about his son was the former manager of Arsenal's Double-winning team of 1970-71, Bertie Mee. That Watford's initial interest came via a tip-off from a fan was extremely unusual, as Bertie Mee himself indicated to the Sunday Times magazine: 'He is absolutely a one-off in 28 years' experience. We act on a tip from a fan every two or three years.' At Watford, Mee had been important in building up the club's scouting system. So it was ironic that he should be the key figure in securing the services of the club's most talented player, after he had been missed by the system he had done so much to organise. One Saturday morning, he went along to watch the first half of a Sudbury Court game accompanied by the scout whom Sudbury's Watford fan had alerted. 'I looked at John Barnes for ten minutes, and I said, "I want his phone number and address. He's good enough for me." With an outstanding player, you can tell.'
The discovery of Barnes was a gift from the blue. It also reacquainted Bertie Mee with a man he had never expected to meet again in his life. Their first encounter had not been under the happiest circumstances. It had been in Jamaica and the circumstances were those of civil unrest. 'I rang up on the Saturday evening. Someone answered the phone and said, "Colonel Barnes here". I said "Oh... Colonel Barnes. My name's Bertie Mee, from Watford Football Club." He said, "Really, Bertie? Well, what do you know?" He said, "You don't think you know me, do you? But you'll recall when you were with Arsenal and you were in Jamaica five years ago and you had a hard game and there was a bit of a riot, and we had to escort you off?"' Bertie Mee did. It had been a major incident during a pre-season tour. The Colonel had continued. 'Well, I was the team manager! Anyway, what can I do for you?' Mee stated his business: 'About your boy, John.' 'I've heard he can play a bit,' said the Colonel. 'What about coming round tomorrow for a gin and tonic?'
It was a meeting of minds. Old pals and G&T. The Barnes family delighted Mee. At Arsenal his public image had been at odds with the growing tendency for successful managers to be flamboyant, outspoken 'personalities', men-of-the-people made good in the mould of Bill Shankly, Malcolm Allison or Brian Clough. By comparison, Mee was rather correct, economical in his speech and sober in his dress - almost genteel. He was keen for footballers to shed their illiterate image. In his foreword to Arsenal midfield man Jon Sammels's autobiography Double Champions (1971), he expressed his hope that the book '... should convince the public and grammar school boys that football has come into the forefront as a career, even for the academic. University graduates such as Steve Heighway and Brian Hall [interestingly, both Liverpool players of the time] ... have set the pattern, and the influence of those who combine skill with intellectual qualities can do the game nothing but good...' So when he went round to make the acquaintance of the Colonel, Jean and John at what was their last home in England, he was quickly impressed. 'He was in a lovely mews property off Portland Place. Marvellous family. Marvellous family.'
Chapter 4, excerpt 1
Between 1977 and 1982 Watford Football Club emerged as a cause célèbre of modern British football. It is not simply that during this period the small Hertfordshire club, which had never won a major trophy since its foundation in 1891, climbed from the Fourth Division of the English Football League to the First. To appreciate fully the achievement on the pitch, it is important to understand what was going on around it.
In the first place we are talking of paupers competing with princes. Never mind the thundering cliche that, at the end of the day, it's still 11 men against 11 on the field of play. The numerical equality required by the rules of the game pales in significance next to the vast differences in the wider contexts within which those two teams of men set about their work. By the start of the 1981-82 season, when John Barnes took his place on the Watford payroll, the wealth in professional football had long been heavily concentrated in the bank accounts of a handful of big-time clubs. Even compared with many of their Second Division peers, Watford were a humble concern. Money may not be everything in football, but it can buy you an awful lot of what there is.
The secret of Watford's rise from obscurity lies in a combination of things, only partly to do with hard cash, a combination of pragmatism and idealism that proved in many, if not all, ways well suited to the early career of John Barnes. Three key individuals stood tall in the rise of the club into a footballing power above its station. They were, respectively, a former Lincoln City half-back, a mercurial millionaire rock star and a former National Health physiotherapist who spoke the Queen's English on TV: Graham Taylor, Elton John and Bertie Mee.
I met the last of these three on a damp December morning in his director's office at the club's Vicarage Road ground. A neat, genial gentleman, dressed like a bank manager from an Ealing comedy, Bertie Mee seemed pleased at the chance to discuss the philosophy of the game rather than the minutiae of his chairman's sex life. Behind him, a window opened on to the pitch below as the 1988-89 Watford squad went through their training paces. Barnes and Taylor had departed the close season before last and Watford had been relegated to the Second Divison. It was the club's first major setback since the glorious rise from the Fourth, but even so, the ground's yellow paintwork still looked fresh and bright, a suitably cheery confirmation of Watford FC's continuing reputation as a cheery little club. Bertie Mee's reminiscences were cheery too.
Watford, after all, had given a new lease to an already illustrious footballing life.
'I came to Watford to help Graham Taylor and Elton John create a club. I came in September 77. I think Graham had got here from Lincoln City [where he had gone on to become manager] in the August. I'd taken a year out to recharge my batteries and take stock of a few things. Graham had communicated with me when I was at Highbury because he wanted to come and work with me, but I couldn't fit him in at the time. He was still a young manager, a very, very young manager. But Graham is a very intelligent man and you'll probably realise that there's a big similarity between us in our philosophy and attitudes - Graham is very different to the average professional footballer. So I dropped him a line and said, "Look, if I can be any help, fine." He was most enthusiastic to have me along.'
What Mee and Taylor had in common was belief in a rigorous outlook from their players towards all aspects of their lives, as befitted their idea of how professional people should behave. It is that philosophy which Mee believes he brought to Arsenal after he was promoted from physiotherapist to team manager in 1966 and which lay behind the side's Double triumph in 1970-71: 'Blowing my own trumpet now, I probably made Arsenal more professional than any other club,' said Mee. 'But when I use that term in this context, I don't use it in relation to playing, but purely in relation to organisation backstage. I was a professional, and very much opposed to the lack of attention to hygiene, diet, conduct, behaviour, drinking and so on. I restructured all that and produced a professional outlook because that's what the game obviously demanded and needed.'
When Mee spoke of 'professionalism', he explained, he did not mean that playing philosophy associated with the so-called 'professional foul'. No, what he meant by 'professionalism' was a willingness to shed those oafish working-class habits and replace them with an outlook appropriate to young men going up in the world. Arsenal's young players - of whom Brendon Batson had once been one - would be schooled in everything from which knife and fork to pick up first in expensive restaurants to how to contend with the carnal temptations of trips overseas. Mee took raw, new recruits from the backwoods on educational visits to the Tower of London and introduced them to the joys of personal pension schemes. He prides himself on having set an example that others would be expected to follow: 'I had to demonstrate behaviour patterns in order to get across this professionalism. I had to be dedicated, my staff had to be dedicated and that transmitted itself to the players.'
It is an outlook which corresponds precisely with the trademarks of Graham Taylor's management style. He and Mee set about restructuring the club in their mutual self-image. There was only a skeleton staff and no grass-roots network designed to scout local players or bring the public in. Mee sorted out a youth development operation, the celebrated Family Enclosure was instituted at the ground, and Graham Taylor took it upon himself to get out and about in the town. Mee, becoming animated behind his desk, set the policy in perspective: 'It's unusual for a football club manager to get out to schools and visit hospitals and get involved. Not easy. The demands on his time are very, very great. But Graham was particularly good from this point of view.' Taylor expected a similar dedication to public relations from his players. At his instigation Watford became the first club in the country to include a so-called 'community clause' in players' contracts. This required, among other things, that players should reside within the boundaries of the town - to become once more what footballers had been before the war. That is, as Mee put it, 'the chap next door'.
It was into this environment that John Barnes was introduced as a rookie professional, one where he was expected to help project the profile of the club towards the townsfolk it needed to woo if its success as a football team and a business enterprise was to be sustained.
Chapter 4, excerpt 2
Barnes's and Blissett's effectiveness could not fail to endear them to the Watford fans. They also met with the approval of Bertie Mee as PR men: 'In both cases they were first class here as members of the community. They worshipped Luther here. He was accepted. Colour,' Mee asserted, 'never came into it.'
Blissett and Barnes make an interesting comparison. Blissett too was Jamaican-born, though his father was a Kingston carpenter. As the scorer of two outstanding televised goals that removed an earlier Manchester United team from the League Cup at Old Trafford in 1978, he had already come to national attention. Taylor, Mee, the Colonel and Barnes himself have all acknowledged the support Blissett was able to give his young team-mate in his earliest days. Blissett had already experienced, with shock, the nasty side of English football spectators. But his celebrity status at Watford helped pave the way for Barnes's own career. The most telling insight their relationship gives us into the circumstance of being black in Britain is that back 'home' Barnes and Blissett would have occupied different worlds. But with the potential for white hostility a fact of English life, racism realigned them on a common ground more unifying even than being members of the same football team.
But to those who knew them, the variance in background and personality between the two was clear. 'John was slightly different,' confirms Mee, 'a very educated lad.' Mee, who had been awarded an OBE for his achievements at Arsenal where the directors included company chairmen and dignitaries from the Bank of England, enjoyed considerable social kudos. A sherriff of the City of London once invited him and a guest to attend a lunch with the Law Court judges. 'He said, "Would you like to bring a player with you?" So I took John Barnes along. Now if you can imagine that scene, all these judges sitting there in their red robes... but his behaviour was absolutely impeccable. And of course he had a talking point because his sister was doing law... But I've seen John Barnes in all sorts of community involvements where he's conducted himself extremely well. And because of what he is, he has no problems.'
'Because of what he is' - a phrase which, if used in relation to most black footballers by most white football people, would be delivered swollen with derogatory potential. Barnes, in Mee's eyes at least, was able to prove himself the exception to the 'common sense' rule. But if Barnes's capacity for escaping the straitjacket of other people's expectations must be seen as a victory for his own charm and social confidence, it is worth noting also that Bertie Mee himself proved something of an exception to the rule in the way he talked about Watford's two black stars. Of all the 50 or so individuals interviewed for this book he was the only white one who did not reach, unprompted, for the sporting cliches that comprise a racial stereotype in football's insular little world, the only one who did not volunteer the popular myths about lack of discipline, natural athleticism, chips on the shoulder or dislike for the cold. And when he talked about John Barnes the footballer, he defined him as the product of an environment as much as of nature, of social background rather than biology. In fact, Barnes made Bertie Mee, OBE, positively nostalgic. And the historical parallels he drew were not with great black players of the past, but the lusty white, working-class wizards from English football's Golden Age.
'Barnes was brought up, by and large, in Jamaica,' Mee enthused. 'So he acquired all his skills in the dirt of Jamaica, in the same way that in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties we all acquired our inherent skills kicking a ball around in the streets from morning till night, all our lunch hours, all the evenings and seven days a week during school holidays. So the Mannions, the Finneys, whoever you like, it was all those intuitive skills, all acquired at an early age, at six or seven. And all those people needed was a little bit of organisation. They were so adept and skilful that was all you had to do. Now when you reach the Sixties, we in England had competition from television, then the pop scene. You can't kick a ball round in the street because of all the traffic. And you have a situation now where we're recruiting players that do not have anything like the basic skills that their predecessors had, because of the different environment they've been brought up in.'
Incongruous, perhaps, to hear the mastermind of the ultra-rational 'boring' Arsenal waxing lyrical about a player who reminded him of another time in England, a time before the big money, the big media business and the neuroses of the 'win' mentality. Mee's image of Barnes's early upbringing may be romantic, but it correctly identifies the influence of the Jamaican football ethos on his style. He draws a persuasive picture to explain why the things that make Barnes special may be impossible to separate from the things that so irked Graham Taylor. 'In terms of talent there's no doubt that John has got as much as anyone that's ever graced our game, including Stanley Matthews. And had he been in the era of Stanley Matthews then he would have been an equally outstanding player.
'But the game is a lot harder now. I don't mean physically harder, but more demanding over 90 minutes, which means physical effort and it means concentration. And John doesn't seem to be able to produce all his ability every time he turns out. It's only under certain circumstances and for small periods of time. In terms of nostalgia, yes, one would yearn for 11 people with his physical abilities, his skill. But a manager has to come to terms with whether you want someone with less inherent ability, like Kevin Keegan, who was invaluable within the team and gave you 90 minutes every time he turned out. And we're sorry, if anything, that because John's too nice a guy he's never realised his full potential. What you see him do for 20 minutes in 90, as a manager and as an onlooker, you would want him to do for 90. But he can't do that because of what he is.' A gentleman among professionals, perhaps - an aristocrat out of time. 'You have to tolerate it,' Mee explained. 'And it's difficult, isn't it? It's ability-plus, and you can't coach that. Your most important job in management is to come to terms with those little situations that you can influence... and the ones you can't.'
Graham Taylor tried and kept on trying. A man whose methods were based upon percentages and rationality, he found the fitfulness of the inexplicable hard to contend with. A disciplinarian, he did what came naturally, cajoling, hectoring, nagging Barnes to find consistency at the peak of his skills. There were long interrogations and there were rows. The response was not recalcitrance but a reluctant submission to authority and the love-hate relationship the Colonel described, the inevitable result, perhaps, of a non-meeting of minds - Taylor, the artisan, the dogged self-improver, Barnes, in spite of everything, the Corinthian, the artist, dependent on his muse. 'I think Taylor used to get at him if the team wasn't winning at half-time,' revealed the Colonel. 'And I think Johnny felt, "This guy keeps treating me like a little boy." He got older and he got a place in the England team. I think he felt, "Ah, I'm not a little boy any more," but I think Taylor kept treating him as if he was still a 17-year-old... I felt it was a wonderful introduction into professional football.'
Whether it was the best way to help talent fulfil itself might be open to debate.