Exclusive Interview: Warren Barton

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

JR  ‘'Hi Warren, thanks for taking the time to talk me at TSF from across the pond.  Having retired from professional football in 2005, you relocated to California.  Sounds awful!

WB  ‘’Ha!  Life is pretty good my friend because I live in Southern California where I moved with my family in 2008.  I retired from professional football in 2005 and I did media work for SKY Sports, BBC, ITV covering World Cups, but I always had it in the back of my mind with my wife and my family to come over to the United States.  I love the positivity here, and the lifestyle for the family is amazing.  For 365 days of the year it is between 65 and 70 degrees - always sunny.  It was a big change.  Even though we speak the same language we are pretty different. 

You are a long time retired even though I had been involved in the game for so long.  Soccer in the United States was growing, not only at grass roots level but right up to the higher level of the MLS.  It was getting bigger and better and more organized with better facilities, players and coaches, and that was a good pull for me.  Career-wise it has been great for me.  I have been able to do media work for Fox Sports for the last 13 years covering everything from the Champions League, Premier League, Bundesliga, MLS and even World Cups.  

Even though I am very fortunate to cover a lot of different league and cup competitions, I also get the chance to coach my kids and to be with my boys.  It has been a great move even though there are certain things that I miss back home like my family.  Also being around the football there, that moment of sticking together with the fans after what has recently happened (Super League) and I miss that side of it, but the upside over here in the United States is far greater.  It was a big decision and it has paid off for us as a family.  It has been wonderful to be out here and it’s funny what a bit of sunshine does to you, it has been a dream move for us.”

JR  ‘'Well you don’t get the rewards unless you put in the graft as they say, I guess five years at Wimbledon where you made over 100 appearances showed you the value of working hard?

WB  ‘’Absolutely.  I look back on my time with Wimbeldon FC with great fondness and whenever I think of my time at the club a little smile comes to my face because it was like playing football with your mates.  We had that real team spirit and togetherness and we knew that while we didn’t have the superstar players that later on in my career I was lucky enough to play with, what we did have was honest, hardworking and committed players. We did have some good players though, it gave me the chance as a lower league player to go on and play in the First Division and the Premier League.  It changed me from a Non League player to a Premier League player and I have a lot of fond memories of Wimbledon FC. 

We used to have a good time too, the initial cutting up and burning clothes was a normal thing.  I remember that when I got selected for England I went to my car in the car park and found all my tires had been slashed.  I thought it was Vinnie Jones or John Fashanu but it was actually the owner of the football club, Sam Hammam.  That was his way of making sure that we all kept our feet on the ground and we all worked hard together and that we stuck together.  The recruitment of the team was phenomenal with the likes of Terry Phelan who went on to play for the Republic of Ireland and win the FA Cup, Dennis Wise, John Scales, myself… lots of players had come through that lower league conveyor belt to go on to play international football and play in cup finals Champions League games and win trophies.  It just goes to show what a good communication, structure and foundation can do. 

To be called the Crazy Gang was part of the culture and what we did.  It was a phenomenal time and even now on WhatsApp we have 20 of us that keep in contact.  The likes of Neil Sullivan, Chris Perry, Marcus Gayle, Efan Ekoku, Robbie Earle, John Scales and even the club secretary David Barnard who is now on the Executive board at Chelsea FC, because he was a good friend.  We have a real togetherness. 

During my time at the club we never finished lower than 9th in the Premier League which is a marvelous achievement for a team that probably had the lowest budget, wages and transfer fees in the division.  We were competitive in the way we were and we still are now, we are friends and we are still keeping in contact over 20 years later.  I think that shows the togetherness we had, I loved every minute of it.’'

JR  ‘'Out of the frying pan and in to the fire, seven seasons at one of the most passionate clubs in the world, Newcastle United….’’

WB  ‘'When I think of that time I feel nothing but pride.  Pride, because it was a wonderful time in the North East in general particularly in Newcastle… I mean the area and development going on with restaurants, bars, offices and buildings, it was a really vibrant town and a big part of that was down to the football club.  

When Kevin Keegan came in for me in the spring of 1995, he broke the record signing for a defender.  It’s funny because when I look back on my career I was told twice that I was too small, once at Leyton Orient, and once in the academy at Watford FC.  I was told that I was not going to make it, but I went on become a record purchase for a defender for a great club like Newcastle United.  I feel nothing but pride.  It was the right time for me to leave Wimbledon FC because I wanted to try to compete to win trophies, and I had already been in the England setup with Terry Venables for a number of years.  

We were getting ready for Euro 96 so there was an opportunity to go and join the likes of Peter Beardsley, Rob Lee, Ruel Fox and then that they brought the likes of Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Tino Asprilla, David Batty and myself were added to that mix and it made it a really exciting time.  I played for some wonderful managers Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish of course, but the ultimate manager for me was Sir Bobby Robson.  His tactics, personality, the way he handled the media and the fans… he was magnificent to work under.  I was lucky enough to have three years under him and be his captain when Alan Shearer was not there or if he was injured.  And we come so close.  We were twice runner up in the Premier League and FA Cup and we played in the Champions League against the likes of Dynamo Kiev, PSV Eindhoven and FC Barcelona, they were really exciting times. 

I have fond memories of my time at Newcastle United but until the day I die I am still going to wish we won the trophy for the fans because that was the goal, it was what we all set out to do.  And it wasn't for us, or even Kevin Keegan, it was for the area, the region… 

When you see the likes of Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers and now Liverpool FC with their name on the Premier League trophy, I feel we should have been on there too.  But we didn’t quite manage it even though it was a wonderful and exciting time.  The style of football we played - and being called the entertainers of the most entertaining league in the world - we were part of that featuring great teams like the Man Utd treble winning team of 1999 and the great Arsenal double team of 1998 and the invincibles that came later.  To be around in that era and to be competing with them was a lot of fun and great competition.  

We tried to win it the right way and the way that we felt the fans and the area deserved, but we came up short.  We gave it a bloody good go though and I made a lot of good friends during my time at the club.  I lost a good friend in Gary Speed, and I met some wonderful people during my time in the North East.  It’s just disappointing to see where Newcastle United are at the moment but hopefully we can turn that around.’'

JR  ‘’You've mentioned some big, big names already, but who was on a different level altogether?’'

WB  ''I think you always go to the number nine Alan Shearer.  I was lucky enough to play six years with him at Newcastle United and with England as well.  As a number nine he was ultimately the best, every box you needed him in with his heading, power and goals and holding up the ball as well as working the channels, he was big strong and intelligent, he had it all, a top class player. I was also lucky enough to be around Paul Gascoigne at Euro 96 and I think that was when he was at his best.  

Day in and day out someone like Peter Beardsley in terms of training and the way he used to play.  David Ginola during his first six months in English football… he was doing things I have never seen a player do before, and also Tino Asprilla, he was phenomenal on his day but Peter Beardsley is the best all round player I played with, the way he worked in training and the way he played in games was no different, he was a magnificent player.’'

JR “Now we look back at that era of Premier League history, it really was remarkable.  Top players doing incredible things.  As you say, double winning side, triple winning sides.. who is the player you wish you’d had at Newcastle?’’

WB  ''Obviously Ryan Giggs comes to mind.  We played against one another for 12 years so we knew each other pretty well and if it was not Ryan it was Lee Sharpe.  Harry Kewell would also be in that equation when he burst on the scene with that exciting young Leeds United team.  Thierry Henry was a phenomenal player, I mean… I think he is the best player to ever play in the Premier League.  He did it all, he scored goals, he dribbled and his heading was excellent.  But if we’re talking about the best, it has to be Zinedine Zidane.  I played against him when he was at Juventus and he had a boy against man mentality.  I remember myself, Rob Lee and Gary Speed trying to get the ball off him and he just did a pirouette, turned and off he went.  He was a wonderful player.  The players I’ve mentioned could have played in any generation and at any level as well”.

JR  ‘’Warren, thanks for speaking to me today all the way from California.  Before I let you get back to the sunshine let me ask you about the managers you had because they are some of the best the game has ever seen.  What did you learn from each of them?''

WB  ''That is a really good question!  When I think about which coach really took me to another level it would be Ray Harford who we unfortunately lost many years ago.  He worked with Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers and he was with me at Wimbledon FC too, although we only worked together for a short time he was the one who made me think about the game. There are certain coaches that motivate you and can give you instructions, and he made me think about how to improve and how to get better as a player on and off the pitch.  He had an impact on me straight away.  To come out of Non League football and go to work with someone like Ray was brilliant. 

Terry Venables.  If people think back to Euro 96 and the systems and the style that he employed against the Dutch when we murdered them 4-1, as well as playing wingbacks against Spain in the quarterfinals (Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton), that was a little bit ahead of its time.  Changing systems whilst you are in a tournament was pretty revolutionary for England.  Terry was great in that respect. 

Kevin Keegan was magnificent when it was going well but when the going got tough he got a bit frustrated.  Sir Bobby Robson in terms of the full package had an impact on me both off the pitch in the way I lived my life as well as how I want my life to be.  My parents also did that but Sir Bobby Robson had an influence one me in that respect as well.  He taught me how to conduct yourself off the pitch, how to treat people, whether we were going past a steward at Crystal Palace or whether we were in a hotel and someone was opening the door for him.  He was a gentleman who had respect for everybody else regardless of who they were.

The way he treated every player as an individual, whether they were home grown or foreign, was impressive.  He had a great understanding of that having worked in the Netherlands and winning with PSV Eindhoven, in Portugal with Sporting CP and FC Porto, and working in Spain with FC Barcelona.  And he understood the English mentality, he was a funny man who could also be hard when the time was right.  When I was 33 years of old at Newcastle United he said to me quite blatantly, “you are not going to play a lot this season and we want you to maybe be a squad player and go into the academy and start coaching.”

My response was, “I have been your captain and played 47 games for you last season and now you're telling me that you are not going to play me?”  But now I sit back as an old man (53) and I realize Sir Bobby Robson was right.  The team was ready to evolve and get quicker and that is what set him apart from the rest, the way he did it and how he did it, he was a cut above the rest and he was by far the best manager I have ever had.  He was a big and very important part of my life and he touched so many people in so many different ways, not just players but people in the offices, in the stadium, the kit-man.  He had a rapport with everybody and when I hear Pep Guardiola talking about the game and the life I can hear Sir Bobby Robson in his words, I think Sir Bobby impacted Pep Guardiola a great deal.  If you watch the documentary about Sir Bobby Robson, Pep talks about everything that was going on at the time at FC Barcelona, the politics and the president and the fact that Sir Bobby Robson still had dignity and class.  I think that relates with certain people and I think it definitely relates with Pep Guardiola.'' 

James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.