In defence of John Barnes and those six goals
The end of the most bizarre season in living memory brought about an abundance of stats, with pundits and supporters alike desperate to use facts and figures to peddle their own agenda in an attempt to put their unique spin on all things NUFC.
After the recent 2-2 draw at home to West Ham (Almiron and Shelvey for us), the media were lining up to tell us that their darling Steve Bruce was just two points off equalling Rafa Benitez’ total points for last season.
That the remaining five matches would see him crowned not only the better manager, but also the king of the universe, as he delivered a ‘phenomenal’ mid-table finish.
What they failed to remember was
A) Bruce was working with a net spend of about thirty three million pounds as opposed to Rafa’s net loss and
B) Steve Bruce is a big bag of a.se who would only manage one draw from those five matches thus rendering the entire comparison moot.
One stat that did catch my eye was the fact that our top scorer in the league Jonjo Shelvey has ended up with just six goals. This is the joint lowest in our premiership history. The last time it happened was 00/01 with six apiece from Carl Cort and Nobby Solano, the other was 97/98 with six league strikes from golden oldie John Barnes.
The emergence of this has led to some fans on social media claiming Mr. Barnes was slow, past his best and (most bafflingly of all) ‘sh.t’ during his time as a Toon player. Let’s set the record straight on this modern-day legend who contributed a huge amount to one of the most difficult seasons in living memory.
The summer of 1997 was particularly strange (and ultimately traumatic) for those of a black and white persuasion, initially things seemed to be going well with new signing Jon Dahl Tomasson netting goals-a-plenty in pre-season as United won a mini tournament in Ireland.
Events took a drastic turn for the worse however at the Umbro International Tournament staged at Goodison Park on 26th/27th July. Whilst United stuttered to a draw against Chelsea (eventually losing on penalties), talisman Alan Shearer went down with a serious injury that would rule him out for the next seven months.
This horrific situation was compounded (in typical Newcastle United style) by our other key forward Sir Les Ferdinand agreeing to sign for rivals Tottenham Hotspur on exactly the same day. The pair had scored forty one league goals between them the previous season and now there were two huge holes to fill in our frontline to ensure we’d once again be challenging for honours at the right end of the table.
By the time the season kicked off in August, Kenny Dalglish had cobbled together one of the most bizarre makeshift forward lines in our history.
We had madman Tino Asprilla (two league goals) leading things supported by attacking midfielders Tomasson and Ketsbaia (scoring three apiece, six between them), Ian Rush (who was unable net a single league goal) and John Barnes who topped the lot by scoring six.
Halfway through the season, Kenny would attempt to bolster the attack with the signing of Andreas Andersson who would find the net on just two occasions between February and May.
It’s no secret that the majority of Kenny’s summer signings didn’t go down too well. Of particular ridicule was his ‘Dad’s Army’ group of Rush, Barnes and Stuart Pearce – all great players who were well past the peak of their careers by the time they donned the famous black and white. What many fans seem to forget however is that Barnes’ goals were absolutely crucial in ensuring NUFC didn’t have to endure a catastrophic relegation just a year after finishing premier league runners up. By the end of this abysmal season, Newcastle were just four points clear of the relegation places and thanking their lucky stars for victories against teams in the bottom half of the table.
In September 1997, just a few days after the whole of Tyneside celebrated an historic victory over Barcelona, Barnes scored his first for the club. He smashed home the only goal of the game from twenty five yards at Upton Park. Fan favourite Asprilla held up the ball and Barnes did the rest crashing a long-range effort into the top corner. This goal ensured a 1-0 victory over West Ham and put United near the top of the league having won three of their first four matches. In fact Newcastle made a very strong start to this awful season, winning five of their first seven league games and enjoying early success in Europe.
Things began to unravel however in October during an appalling defeat at Elland Road, that led to United winning just twice in the next fourteen games.
Thankfully,|John Barnes stepped up and was counted during November, the month seeing him net four times in three straight matches.
Firstly, our man scored an early penalty in an incredible 3-3 draw at home to Leicester City (John Beresford scoring a last minute header to salvage a point) before bagging an equaliser in a 2-2 draw away at Coventry (Robert Lee also amongst the goals). This match was best remembered for Dion Dublin mugging Shay Given but Barnes’ strike was equally important in making sure the spoils were shared. Perhaps his finest hour would come in the very next match when scoring both goals as United came from behind to beat Southampton 2-1 at St James Park. Newcastle were 1-0 down and going nowhere until Barnes dragged us out of trouble with two second half strikes. This was a crucial victory against one of the teams around us as we were dangerously close to being sucked into a relegation dogfight.
On 17th January 1998, Alan Shearer returned from injury to lead United through the rest of season. We’d steer clear of relegation by a mere four points and reach our first FA Cup final for twenty four years (unfortunately going down 2-0 to a far superior Arsenal side). Whilst Shearer was sitting on the bench waiting to come on and inspire the Toon to victory over Bolton, Barnes was on the pitch lobbing the ‘keeper to put us 1-0 up. His last goal for the club setting us on the way to three points against a team that would finish just beneath us as we battled hard to avoid relegation, Newcastle won the match 2-1 in the very last minute. All six of Barnes’ goals came in wins or draws, ensuring points that were absolutely critical to maintaining premiership status.
As well as his half dozen league strikes that season, John Barnes also had a moment of glory in the European Cup. On matchday six of group C, United welcomed group winners Dynamo Kiev to Tyneside on a cold Christmas night. With just eleven minutes on the clock, Barnes picked up a loose ball, turned his man and rifled a shot past the ‘keeper to send NUFC on their way to an impressive 2-0 victory (the second coming from fellow oldie Stuart Pearce). Only thirteen men have had the honour of scoring for NUFC in the European Cup and Barnes was just the fourth to achieve this feat behind Beresford, Asprilla and Ketsbaia.
As well as five appearances in the champions league, Barnes made an important contribution in our FA Cup run. It was his sublime cross that provided the assist for Alan Shearer to score the only goal of a tense semi-final at Old Trafford as United marched on to Wembley.
He may not be everyone’s favourite legend and we may only have been able to enjoy him in the twilight of his career but take away those crucial strikes and Newcastle United were staring straight into the abyss of certain relegation from the premier league.
His six league goals made him our top premiership scorer that season and his seven overall was matched only by Alan Shearer (who managed five in the FA Cup and a further two in the league). He was always willing to give his all for the club and made an impressive twenty seven premiership appearances for the Toon that campaign.
As the season ended on a dismal day at the old Wembley Stadium, John Barnes took a minute to compose himself before claiming Newcastle supporters were the best he’d ever played for. Without his goals and professionalism during that difficult campaign, our recent history may look very different indeed.
If you would like to feature on The Mag, submit your article to [email protected]