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An Interview With: Warren Barton

The Newcastle United Legends Series

Sunderland v Newcastle

In an era of loan signings, stepping stone moves and profitable short-term transfers it has become more challenging to make lasting bonds between player and fans. Motives of players are often questioned with the assumption that money usually talks, and agents always talk. Badge kissing and proclamations of loving the city and its fans are as genuine as they are permanent, as the transient nature of the modern transfer market takes over. The world is a different place, where lives are often lived online and lasting bonds are reduced to follows and likes. This creates an environment in which nostalgia flourishes, as those alive to experience it reminisce about better days. It is why the retro market exists, it is why Newcastle Legends exist.

With this in mind, Coming Home Newcastle wishes to remember those who were more than just another player. Those who understood Newcastle United, who wanted to be a part of the fabric of our club and made eternal contributions to it. These are the players who continue to be a part of the Toon Army, no matter where they now find themselves. Once a Geordie, always a Geordie.

Photo by Visionhaus

This week I fine-tuned my Zoom skills to connect with San Diego and a man who represented Newcastle United for seven years, Mr. Warren Barton. Signed by Kevin Keegan in the summer of 1995, along with Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Shaka Hislop he would go on to make 164 appearances in black and white and play for Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson in the post-Keegan era.

At the time of his move to Newcastle, Warren was one of the most highly rated defenders in England and there were several clubs interested in signing him including Celtic, Everton, Man City and Arsenal. I asked him what (or who) sold him on the move up North.

Wimbledon played Newcastle at St. James’ Park and me and Robbie Earle were doing a cooldown afterwards. Newcastle had won the game and I’m sitting in the middle of the pitch with the lights dimmed and there’s just the two of us doing stretches and I say to him, ‘Imagine playing in front of this crowd? Imagine playing for this team?’ Ultimately when Newcastle showed a lot of interest, it didn’t take long to get the picture about what was happening. A good friend of mine was Les Ferdinand and we always seemed to be linked with the same club and I’d say, ‘Well where are you going? If you go, I’ll go.’ So it was a mixture of having that time in the stadium looking around with nobody in it and thinking about playing there but then spending that time with Kevin and seeing what he was all about, the way the club was going, the players, the fanbase, the style of football and what they were trying to challenge for. Kevin’s opening line was, ‘Come and join a big club.’ It didn’t disappoint.”

Newcastle United v Nottingham Forest, 1997
‘If you go, I’ll go.’
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Simon Greener/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

At £4m, Warren became the British transfer record for a defender. As fans, we often hear about the pressure that comes with transfer fees and how players can struggle to cope with the additional expectation that comes with significant financial investment. I asked whether this was something he experienced at the time.

“I didn’t think about it too much other than feel pride in it. I’d been told I wasn’t good enough and was too small and now I was the most expensive defender in England, playing for a big club. I’d been playing for Maidstone five years earlier and working in the mail room of an accountancy firm, so it was a bit surreal. The fee was nothing to do with me though so when fans got on my back it wasn’t because of the price tag, it was because of my performances but that made me get in the gym and work harder. I thrived in that environment and relished it. Pressure is where I came from, getting up at 5am and working and then playing. Being in the changing room with people who had jobs to pay their bills. That’s real pressure.”

Coming from the notorious Crazy Gang at Wimbledon, led by Vinnie Jones, I asked whether there was a notable difference in the day to day life at the training ground when Warren moved North.

“The camaraderie and banter was pretty similar because there were some big personalities at Newcastle. Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Pavel, Les, Rob Lee, Bez, Ginola. That spirit of being together and sticking up for each other was there, although the football was obviously very different to Wimbledon. That’s one thing Kevin said that he wanted me to bring with me. Wimbledon used to bully teams and Kevin said if we’re going to win things we can’t get bullied so he wanted that bit of steel and determination. I’m not saying I was like Vinnie Jones but I would give everything for the cause and I tried to bring that but Les could look after himself, as could David. Then we got David Batty and Tino, who could both handles themselves on the pitch. We had good characters there so we had a nice mixture of what Kevin thought was enough to win the league.”

Coming from Maidstone to Wimbledon and then to Newcastle, I wondered how he felt about such a change in intensity in terms of expectation and fan base. Wimbledon’s average home league attendance in the 93/94 season was 10,474 whereas Newcastle’s was 33,439 and there was also the change in lifestyle and football focus that comes from a move to Newcastle.

“When we went to Maiden Castle for our first training session with Les, David and Shaka there must have been 5000 people there just to watch us train. At Wimbledon, we played in a Premier League game against Bolton and me and Terry Gibson counted the number of people in the stand when we were warming up. There was 225 people. So I’ve gone from that to 5000 people watching me train, so that opened up my eyes straight away. You get told about what it’s like but until you’re there in amongst it, you don’t realise. Obviously we started off really well and it was great but there are times when it can overpower you. Jon Dahl Tomasson was a young boy, who’d come over from Feyenoord and he missed a chance against Sheffield Wednesday. We won the game but he never got over that, he never recovered. He went off to AC Milan and won the Champions League! But he couldn’t handle the expectations and the pressure and the constant ‘football, football, football’. I remember going for a meal in Stowell Street with my wife and this table of three guys are next to us and they spend the full hour and a half chatting with us. So I’m eating my Chinese ribs with my wife and spend this full evening talking to fans. But I didn’t mind it because it was part of the job. I’ve been away from the UK for twelve years now and I miss that suffocation of football. It’s in my blood, it’s all I’ve ever known. Every time we went into training there were people there. Peter Beardsley would say, don’t just walk by the fans. You need to spend time and be with them. Bobby was great at that too, we’d be stuck at an away ground for ages afterwards wanting to get home but he made sure we saw every fan. But that was about being part of that football club and I miss that. I loved it. Philippe Albert would sometimes be sick about it with worry but that was part of him enjoying it and being committed to it. We’d go down towards the pitch and hear the music and hear the roar and if you can’t get off on that then you shouldn’t be playing the game.”

Speaking of thousands of fans turning up for a training session led us to another attraction of similar numbers. Months after signing for Newcastle United, Warren traded sprinting up and down the touchline for strutting up and down the catwalk as the club launched its 1892 clothing range at an evening event at St. James’ Park. Around 5000 fans turned up to watch the four new model professionals for an occasion that seems hard to imagine in the modern day.

Model professionals
Photo by John Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

“Ginola was a natural. It didn’t take him long before he took his shirt off. He didn’t have to but if I had a body like him, I’d never a shirt on! I was with Adidas at the time and so was Les and obviously the replica shirts with the Grandad collars were flying off the shelves. So they asked us to do it and was probably the most awkward thing I’ve ever done but once we got into it, it was fun. I’m standing there with Les Ferdinand on one side, Shaka and then David Ginola. You’ve just got to walk behind them and not worry about it because those three are good looking boys so nobody’s looking at me! They enjoyed it and it was a bit of fun. Obviously when we got back to training we got absolutely hammered by the other players but it was all in good spirits. There were people queuing at midnight to buy the shirts though, thousands of people there. People across the country couldn’t understand what was going on but the club was exploding and the city was bubbling and we embraced it all. If you ask any player from that era, they’ll all say it was the best time of their career. David said it, even though he had success at Spurs, that looking back it was phenomenal in the short time he was there. The city was building, the club was building, the energy about the place was amazing. It was a wonderful time.”

Signed by Kevin Keegan, Warren would go on to play under Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and then Sir Bobby Robson and I was interested in what he thought of Keegan’s successors and whether each of them had unique qualities to the others.

“When Kevin left, someone like Kenny had to come in who had won things and understood what the football club was. I always think Liverpool and Newcastle fans are very similar. They won’t suffer fools, they’re passionate and knowledgeable and understand what the club is about and what it means. When Kenny came in, he was great about getting us through the post-Kevin era, made us defensively sound, got us to a cup final, into the Champions League. He was limited a bit financially and you get judged by your signings and players like Tomasson and Pistone didn’t really work out but he was great with players and would protect us from the media and fans if things weren’t going well. Maybe he protected the players too much and he would divert criticism. When we were at Anfield and losing 3-0 and a fan came over and threw his shirt at us, we deserved it because we played crap! Ruud, football-wise, he was an outstanding player and had an outstanding knowledge of the game but he didn’t get what Newcastle was as a club and a city and he couldn’t speak to players properly. His man management just didn’t work. Bobby was the whole package. He had a bit of Kevin, where he understood the people and the identity of the club and the black and white shirt. He had the tactical understanding of winning games and being in Europe like Kenny and he was the opposite to Ruud with his man management. He was brilliant. I was ‘Barton, Speed, Lee’ but Alan was Alan. I couldn’t care what he called me as long as he played me and I loved him. I still do now. He’s the best package of what the club was. I wish we’d got him after Kevin left. Watching that documentary and seeing how things ended with Newcastle makes me feel sick and angry because he didn’t deserve that. Bobby got us back playing exciting football and with Ruud we weren’t going anywhere. It was anarchy and chaos. He stabilised it and the signing of Kevin Gallagher was so important, one of the best and most underrated signings for that team. Not a flash person or player but worked his socks off and epitomised what we needed to do at that time. Then building on that and bringing in the young players and getting to the champions league. He was phenomenal. Those four years I had with Bobby were great, I’ve got so much respect for him. He was married to football. I suppose we all are to an extent. When I moved to Newcastle, I didn’t ask my wife first! I knew it was the right thing to do and knew I was going.”

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Chelsea v Newcastle United Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Over his seven year spell at Newcastle, Warren played with the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of his teammates and I asked whether one stood out as the best overall player. He didn’t hesitate with his response.

“Peter Beardsley, the way he trained, the way his mind was. Incredible. David Ginola had a spell – I was playing with Rob Lee in midfield in a pre-season game at Hearts and he was doing things I’d never seen before. The way he controlled the ball, turned, left foot, right foot, whipped the ball in. The ball seemed like it was stuck to his foot. Alan is the best striker, the way he trained, the injuries he overcame, his mental toughness. He was so single minded. If we finished training early, he’d say, ‘Oi, where you going? Get back here and put some crosses in!’ Me and Nobby or Ruel Fox or Keith Gillespie would go and put some crosses in for him. But Peter was the best. He was a nightmare in training because he trained the way he played, 100% all the time. He was phenomenal. His mind was two or three steps ahead of anyone else. With England, the best was Gazza just before Euro 96 and the best I played against was Zidane. He was like a grown man playing against kids in a playground when he had the ball.”

Warren’s game developed into an attacking full back role which is fairly common in modern football but wasn’t the norm in the ‘90s as solid defensive full backs like Stuart Pearce reigned supreme. The athletic up and down style we are familiar with from the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, with the two near the top of assists charts, certainly wasn’t commonplace in the Premier League. Perhaps there might have been one such player in a team but the opposite flank would rarely have the same role and would stay back if the other attacked. However, Kevin Keegan famously gave Warren and John Beresford the target of putting in three crosses per half, rather than a defensive target.

NEWCASTLE V LEEDS

“When I started at Maidstone and then Wimbledon a full back would just stay in the back four. My game was about being an athlete and going up and down the pitch. I’m not saying I changed the position but the position certainly changed. I wasn’t the most natural defender but I liked to see how good the winger was going the other way and try to take them that way. At the time, there wasn’t really anyone who went up and down the line all game. The Brazilian full backs like Roberto Carlos and Cafu, that’s what I wanted to do. There wasn’t anyone I looked to and wanted to emulate, I just wanted to do my own thing and that’s what I was good at. I’d be great these days as full backs don’t need to defend! Terry Venables at Euro ‘96 against Holland played McManaman and Anderton as wing backs. They couldn’t defend but he knew they’d give their wingers something else to think about. Kevin didn’t judge me on how many crosses I stopped, he judged me on how many I put into the box for Les. The game was evolving and that’s how defenders were starting to be judged. In the Premier League at that time, there were a lot of English full backs and Gary Neville and David Beckham had the monopoly on that England right side so my chances were limited but I was called into squads by three different managers so that’s a proud achievement. It’s nice to have the caps that I did. Every time I played against Gary, I tried to kick him to give me a chance at the England position but I couldn’t get near him!”

Warren’s enthusiasm and love of football is evident throughout our conversation and he can’t help but smile as he reminisces about his time in Newcastle. I ask him whether he had a favourite moment or memory of his seven years in black and white.

“I loved all of it but looking back at it now when I’ve had a lot of time to sit and think, my first game at home against Coventry. We were so good that day. The sea of black and white and the excitement, there wasn’t a roof on it but if there was it would have been blown off when Les scored. That was special. It’s hard to look past the Barcelona game. Does it get any better than your teammate getting a hattrick and you’re beating a team with Rivaldo, Figo, Luis Enrique? The two semi-finals at Old Trafford too. The Sheffield United one was more relief because we were expected to win that one but the Spurs one, when Alan got the second goal with the shot from outside the box. I’ve never seen a stadium bounce. My wife was in the main bit and said she could feel it shaking and thought it was going to fall down. I doubt Old Trafford has ever experienced that. The fans were going crazy. So those semi-finals were big ones. The one we lost was a sickening feeling. It’s just our luck, we played Arsenal in the final when they won the double, Man Utd when they won the treble and the year we would have had Villa in the final, when I’d fancy our chances, we lose the semi! But at least we scored in that one at Wembley, Rob Lee keeps reminding me of that!”

After years as first choice right back at Maidstone, Wimbledon and then Newcastle, Warren had spells in and out of the team as his place went to Steve Watson and then Aaron Hughes and Andy Griffin. I asked him how he coped with this challenging spell.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Coventry City v Newcastle United Photo by Barrington Coombs/EMPICS via Getty Images

“It was tough. I’d spent 7-8 years playing every week as first choice and then Steve Watson came in who was perhaps a bit more versatile. I had a big look at myself and how I was playing. It was the same when Aaron Hughes came in, we were all competitive. We liked each other and got on well but we weren’t daft and knew we were competition for each other. I just had to keep my focus and when I got a chance, to take it. Rob Lee was great with me and would see me get in early, in the gym, working out, doing extra. He’d tell me to keep my head down and keep plugging away. He’d do the same with Steve too though, so it’s not like it was preferential treatment. I remember Bez saying to me that I was too honest but that’s who I was and I couldn’t change. I was never going to hide on the football pitch, I always made an option to try and get the ball from Shay or David Batty. I dug in and fought because I wasn’t going back to where I’d came from. It was tough but I know what it’s like to be on a moped freezing cold driving over a field at 5am to go to work and I wasn’t going back to that.”

Although it still hurts every Newcastle United fan to this day, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask Warren about the ‘lost title’ of the 1995-96 season. Newcastle’s lead at the top was twelve points in mid-January but a run of five defeats from eight matches enabled Manchester United to overtake and Newcastle ultimately finished four points behind Alex Ferguson’s team.

“Every time I see the Premier League over here and it has the list of winners and I don’t see Newcastle on there, it hurts. It haunts me to this day and it will until the day I die. It’s the first thing when we see each other, whether it’s Les or David or Phillipe. It’s that, ‘if only’ and we have to live with that. We had great times and to be called The Entertainers and the style of football, it was great. But we’d have put that aside to win it, not for us and I can honestly say that. It’s for the fans and the club because to have that for them would be something special. Even talking about it now I have goosebumps. From top to bottom, manager to players, we didn’t have enough people who had won the league. We got to a spell in February and I said to Peter and Les after training, we need to tighten up a little bit and Peter said, ‘He won’t do it. He’s not going to change.’ It wasn’t him and we’d lose a game and he’d just say, ‘We’ll win the next one’ and before you knew it, we hadn’t and we’d lost it. The Man Utd game was it though. That first half, we played probably the best football we’d ever played. Schmeichel was saving with every part of his body, Les hit the post and we just couldn’t score. Hindsight is a great thing but if at halftime we’d thought, ‘Right just don’t lose this’ then maybe things would have been different. Kevin’s team talk was, ‘Go and do the same again and let’s win this!’ and we got the sucker punch and that dealt us such a blow. You felt it in the stadium, the air get sucked out of everyone’s lungs. We never really got back into it, we tried everything. We changed tactics, formation, personnel. Everything. Our record towards the end of the season wasn’t bad but Man Utd just won every game. It’s not that we didn’t have leaders, because we did but we didn’t have the experience of winning it. That’s why Mourinho goes and wins a cup early, even the league cup or charity shield, to get that winning experience and mentality early. We needed to win a game ugly or grind a win out or just not lose a game but giving it to Les, Ginola, Peter, attacking, playing that football, that was what we knew and what we continued to do. Because we were so entertaining, we always seemed to be on TV on a Sunday or Monday too. So Man Utd would play a Saturday and win 1-0 and we’d have to sit and watch it and wait a day or two to play. It was just lots of little things like that when you don’t have the experience or nouse to deal with it. Never a day goes by when I don’t think about it though.”

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Leicester City v Newcastle United Photo by Steve Mitchell/EMPICS via Getty Images

I sense the need to lighten the mood so ask Warren about his thoughts on the ‘Warren Barton, centre parting, la la la la la la!’ song and whether he found it funny. He doesn’t waste any time to get a dig in at my follicly-challenged appearance.

“Being a bald guy, it must be tough for you to talk about this! To have fans sing your name is wonderful but when it’s not about your ability and it’s about your hair, you think am I that bad a player that they can just talk about my hair! But it’s a catchy song and it amused me. It was great. There aren’t too many people who have songs about their hair!”

Maintaining the lighter mood, I ask if Warren ever attended one of Tino’s infamous parties.

“He had a place near where I lived in Woolsington. I went to a few with my wife but would have liked to have gone to more! They were great until it reached around midnight and he started getting the guns out and shooting the ceiling. He was a great host but once it hit midnight you didn’t know what was going on. It was crazy! He always put a great barbecue on though. They were great fun.”

Although I’m fairly certain of the answer after fifty minutes of genuine smiles, physical goosebumps and evident passion and enthusiasm in his voice, I conclude by asking whether he looks back on his time in Newcastle as the best time of his career and whether he stills feels that bond with the city and the fans.

“No doubt. You have that history with the people of Newcastle, that era made Newcastle what it became as a city as well as a club. We were all part of it together and the players understood that when we were out in public we were representing the club. Kevin made sure we all knew it and it’s one of the first things Bobby said, that you’re not just representing yourself or your family, you’re representing Newcastle United so understand that. I did and Gary, Shay, people like that. It was such a special time and every player will say that. You ask Ned Kelly or David Ginola, anyone, and they’ll say the best time of their lives were up in Newcastle because you couldn’t help but enjoy it. If you’re a football person who enjoys training and the game and living it then you can’t help but enjoy living in those surroundings. I loved every minute”

We love you too, Warren.