Monday, July 15

John Barnes and a banana: The story behind English football’s most notorious photo

This article is part of The Athletic’s series celebrating UK Black History Month. You can find the full series here.

Bob Thomas had no idea he was about to take an era-defining photograph.

When he set off from his home in Northamptonshire bound for the Merseyside derby in February 1988, his focus was simply on capturing an almighty sporting tussle between the two most successful football clubs of the decade.

Everton, as reigning First Division champions, had won the title in two of the previous three seasons; Liverpool had claimed the other, having dominated English football in the 10 years before that.

Thomas liked to arrive early. For a 3pm kick-off, he would be settled two hours before. He considered Everton’s Goodison Park an awkward venue for angles, depending on the light. His favourite position was along the Bullens Road touchline, level with the Park End penalty area.

He does not remember why, but for the second half, he decided to switch, taking up residence in front of the Park End, as Liverpool kicked towards it. Close to the corner flag, it offered a perfect view of John Barnes.

The Jamaican-born left-winger and England international had become Liverpool’s first Black signing the previous summer and at Goodison, he was the only Black player on the pitch. The focus on him became sharper that day because of a new shaven haircut, administered in the hours before kick-off by room-mate Peter Beardsley. 

This development was worthy of some analysis from the match commentator, John Motson, who in the opening moments of the BBC’s coverage chirped up by suggesting that Barnes looked like the Black boxer, Lloyd Honeyghan.

Motson, however, said nothing seconds later when Barnes received the ball and was loudly booed, a reaction that could be heard clearly in the front rooms of millions of homes across the United Kingdom. And it went on throughout the game.

Thomas says it was impossible to hear exactly what was being said about Barnes on the terraces. He could, however, see some things that the television cameras, mainly following the ball, could not pick up. He recalls a banana being chucked from the Bullens Road stand at Barnes, just missing him. Thomas was about 30 yards away but he decided to watch him for the next few minutes.

Then, it happened again: another banana flying towards him. This time, Barnes saw it, glancing just behind him. Thomas started pressing into his camera. He could see the studs of Barnes’ right boot connecting with the banana with a degree of force that sent it into the air, before it landed on the dead side of the touchline.

Liverpool won the game 1-0, thanks largely to Barnes’ arcing cross delivered from the same area of the pitch. Thomas, however, was not sure exactly what he had on his film until he returned home. Shooting in colour transparency, the photographs would not be processed until the next day at his studio in Northampton, and they were syndicated to the worldwide press the day after that.

This meant that newspapers did not pick up the image until the middle of the week after the match. 

For 48 hours or so, only Thomas, Barnes and the person who threw the banana, as well as those nearby who had witnessed it, knew what had happened.

This was Barnes kicking the racists into touch. And as soon as he saw it, Thomas knew what he had in his possession. 

“I immediately thought it was an important picture,” he tells The Athletic. “And so it has proven.”


Bob Thomas’ iconic picture of John Barnes (Bob Thomas Photography/Getty Images)

Thomas’ photograph from 35 years ago has become one of the most famous in sport but in the days and weeks that followed, media coverage was minimal. 

Unaware of its existence, the next morning the local Liverpool Echo newspaper was preoccupied with skiing stories — Britons escaping a fire at a Bulgarian resort and the Duchess of York going on a third Alpine holiday since announcing she was pregnant with her third child.

Throughout the week, the focus of the back pages remained entirely on football.


The media focused on the football in the aftermath of Everton 0 Liverpool 1 in 1988 (PA Images via Getty Images)

Everton had another important game on Wednesday, a League Cup tie at Arsenal. The sports news cycle, therefore, was moving on from the Merseyside derby by the time Thomas’ photograph was circulated.

The Echo claimed to be “the voice of Merseyside sport” and “the paper that keeps you in the know”. But while crowd disturbances at Luton Town and Millwall earned coverage across their pages, as well as an incident in Argentina, where goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol had projectiles including a guitar thrown at him, there was no mention of what had happened to Barnes. 

The Echo wasn’t alone. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, racist incidents were common in football and barely made the news. Only one British newspaper initially published the photograph of Barnes, and that was part of a tabloid picture special.

The caption in The Sun, which a year later came to be reviled on Merseyside due to its lies about the Hillsborough disaster, made a joke of it. “What a banana shot!” read the caption. “John Barnes not only skinned the Everton defence to lay on Liverpool’s FA Cup winner on Sunday. He also made sure there would be no slip-up when he neatly backheeled this banana into touch when it was thrown at him by a Goodison fan.”

There was no condemnation of the act, which is now considered a hate crime. And though reporters and their editors were unaware of Thomas’ photograph when match reports were published, there was no mention across nine national newspapers of the verbal abuse that Barnes was subjected to either. The coverage largely focused on his haircut. 


Four months earlier, the reaction had been slightly different when Liverpool hosted Everton at Anfield in a League Cup tie. 

This was Barnes’ first experience of the Merseyside derby, an occasion where fans in the away end sang, “N*****pool, N*****pool, N*****pool,” as well as “Everton are white!”

London Weekend Television held the rights to the game’s highlights. Though some of this chanting was audible beyond the commentary, it was not mentioned later that night.

There was, however, a response on some radio channels. While BBC Radio 2’s Alan Green, backed by summariser Denis Law, highlighted what was happening in front of them, Clive Tyldesley, representing the local station, Radio City, condemned it live on air.

Tyldesley would become one of the most famous commentators in Britain, later working for the BBC and ITV. He says his reaction was instinctive because he considered Barnes a friend.

When Barnes joined Liverpool in 1987, Tyldesley liked his “charismatic and enigmatic” personality. They both lived across the River Mersey in Wirral and would sometimes socialise together. 

Until the start of that friendship, Tyldesley says there were not many black or brown faces in his professional or social circle. It was only through coming into contact with Barnes due to his high-profile move to Liverpool that he came to understand him as a person, and appreciate the difficulties he faced. “I sort of needed John to come along to make me realise a lot of things,” he tells The Athletic.


Clive Tyldesley spoke out about the abuse of his friend John Barnes (Willie Vass/Pool via Getty Images)

The post-match routine of the Liverpool and Everton players involved drinks at the Continental Club on Wolstenholme Square in the city centre. He cannot remember exactly when the following “minor incident” happened, but it might have even been after Barnes’ first experience of the Merseyside derby.

Tyldesley says he was one of the first into the club that night, waiting at the bar for others to join him. From behind, two men he did not know approached him and asked whether he was Clive Tyldesley. He turned around, expecting to sign an autograph, only for one of them to tell him he’d heard on the radio what he’d said about Barnes. “You’ve got to decide which side you’re on,” the man concluded.

Tyldesley says he didn’t lose any sleep over it, but it did unsettle him. Though there was coverage in the local papers in the days that followed, the conversation was mainly amplified through phone-ins like the BBC’s In and Around Town show, with some callers expressing their abhorrence at what had happened at Anfield.

The headlines, though, would come from an authority figure in Philip Carter, Everton’s chairman, who was also the president of the Football League. Freakishly, the fixture list pitted Liverpool against Everton again in the league just four days later in a broadcast beamed live by the BBC, not only in England but to millions of viewers across the world. 

Carter called the perpetrators of the songs aimed at Barnes “scum”, but Barnes felt Carter’s interjection helped no one. He was booed when he touched the ball in the early stages of the subsequent match, with Barnes later recalling that some away fans sported badges reading “Everton Are White – Defend the Race”.

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“Well, the crowd have always got something to sing about,” enthused Barry Davies, the BBC commentator as the cameras panned in on a knot of Liverpool fans near the away end exchanging gestures and taunts. Davies said nothing, however, as play restarted and the racists howled “N*****pool.”

Two moments of brilliance from Barnes helped Liverpool to a comfortable enough victory and much of the talk afterwards focused on Barnes’ contribution to the outcome, rather than the attention he had received. 

Four months later, in the bowels of the main stand at Goodison Park after the clubs had been pitted against each other yet again in the FA Cup, Barnes says he was not questioned about the racial abuse. Instead, the first time he spoke publicly about the incident was in an interview with the Daily Mail two months later for a feature about racism, which involved his wife. Barnes laughed off what had happened, saying that “fruit and vegetable dealers did well that day”.

Barnes suggested that if he was short and fat, he’d be targeted for a different reason and when he insisted “it doesn’t hurt”, he was believable. His positive body language in the photograph revealed that.


Barnes had signed for Liverpool in the summer of 1987, but newspaper reports had linked him instead with a move to Arsenal, who did not end up making an offer. It meant he was not exactly welcomed with open arms at Anfield, where racist slogans promoting the National Front were daubed on the walls of the stadium’s car park to greet him.

In his 1999 autobiography, Barnes remembers other messages like “White Power”, “No Wogs Allowed” and “Liverpool are White.” He says he expected it, partly because some people thought Liverpool was his second choice, but also because of the history of the city, which had grown powerful through the slave trade. It was a place where segregation still existed, and the six per cent Black population was rarely reflected at Anfield or Goodison.

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The race divide had been highlighted in Liverpool during the riots of 1981, an event that Black locals in the inner-city area of Toxteth still refer to as the “uprising”. Six years later, Barnes describes a “bad aura clinging to me… had I played badly, it would have been hell for me”.


The Toxteth riots in 1981 scarred the city (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Barnes thought the solution was simple — deliver on the pitch and make the fans love him.

“The Kop would have slaughtered me with racial abuse if I had faltered on the field,” he said. “If I had been playing for Everton, and doing well, their fans would not have been throwing bananas and spitting at me. Liverpool’s would.”

Barnes was fortunate because the stadium’s famous Kop grandstand was closed for the first three games of the season because of a sewage problem. Liverpool had to play away. Had his debut instead been at Anfield, Barnes believes he’d have been booed, “and that could have affected me”.

In his last season as a Watford player, Barnes was jeered at Anfield. Nigel Spackman, a recently signed midfielder in the Liverpool team, tells The Athletic that he remembers it clearly, although he believed it was “because of his links to Arsenal”. 

Barnes ultimately joined Liverpool, where he initially moved into the Moat House hotel in Liverpool’s city centre, living just down the hallway from Spackman, just signed from Chelsea.

The Moat House was not the Ritz but it was popular among footballers because it had a restaurant attached to it. Barnes and Spackman regularly ate together and Spackman remembers thinking how relaxed Barnes was about the social barriers he was encountering. Certainly, it seemed as though Barnes wasn’t going to change his ways just because he’d signed for one of the most famous clubs in the world. Barnes had a tremendous appetite, for example, and would sometimes order the Chateaubriand or the rack of lamb. “But that’s for two people, Mr Barnes,” a waiter would warn. It didn’t matter.

His manager, Kenny Dalglish, was adamant that he did not once consider the colour of Barnes’ skin: he just saw a talented player. Others saw it differently. Immediately after signing, Barnes received hate mail at the Moat House, and he’d sometimes spend his evenings reading the letters. One read: “You are c**p, go back to Africa and swing from the trees.”

Barnes’ response was to laugh at the grammar and pass the letters around to his team-mates, “imagining the pathetic types of people who’d written them”.


John Barnes was key to Liverpool’s success in the late 1980s (Allsport UK)

He would learn later that these were only a small percentage of the racist letters written about him. His new club received many more but opted not to make him aware of them, worrying they would upset him. 

The squad had not changed that much from the one that involved Howard Gayle six years earlier. Gayle became Liverpool’s first Black player, having been picked up as a teenager from local football. He had grown up as one of only a few Black kids in a white area of the city and was used to challenging the racism he encountered, but Barnes was raised around other Black people in a middle-class military family in Jamaica.

Gayle was conditioned not to ignore the barbs that came his way, including from his notoriously sharp-tongued team-mates. Barnes, by comparison, had a different way of dealing with things. As an expensive signing going straight into the starting XI, his entry point was different to Gayle’s, who had the additional challenge of fighting his way past team-mates if he wanted to take their place. 

Barnes saw racism not as football’s problem but as society’s. His team-mates laughed when, before one of his earliest training sessions, a dinner lady forgot to serve him a cup of tea having given one to each of one of his white colleagues. “Is it because I’m Black?” Barnes asked.

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Over the months that followed, Barnes would hear team-mates calling opponents “Black b*******”. He says he would call them out on it, only to be told that they got called “white b*******”. He concluded that “dressing rooms were not the best place for heavy debates”.

Barnes changed the style of the Liverpool team, from one that passed opponents off the pitch to one that dribbled past them. His 15 league goals in 38 games helped Liverpool win the title by nine points. 

In one game in which he did not feature, at Norwich, he heard Liverpool fans booing Ruel Fox, the Black winger. Even with his success, Barnes thought the reaction was “hardly surprising”.

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Jimi Jagni, a half-Gambian, half-Chinese social activist, grew up in Toxteth, segregated from the rest of the city. He wasn’t into football but remembers Barnes signing for Liverpool as really “big news”.

There were lots of talented footballers in Toxteth but only Cliff Marshall at Everton, then Gayle at Liverpool, who were both born in the area, had made it into the first team at either club. 

Barnes came to represent L8, Toxteth’s postcode, in a different way. He would socialise in its nightclubs, bringing along Liverpool team-mates such as  John Aldridge. Barnes became a physical and visible link between a district that felt separated from the rest of the city.

Yet Barnes’ experiences, especially in his first season at Liverpool, reminded L8 that if he couldn’t get the media to speak up about the injustices of  the world, then they had no chance.

“We didn’t know for certain whether a banana had been thrown at him (in February 1988) because it didn’t receive the attention it should have,” Jagni says. “He was a superstar and very few people said a word about it.”

Emy Onuora, the author of Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers, was one of what he thinks was just two Black Evertonians who followed his team home and away. Joe Farrag, who now happens to be Jagni’s next-door neighbour, was the other, though Onuora was only ever accompanied by white people and occasionally would bump into Farrag at away matches.

As a season ticket holder, Onuora decided that he did not want to attend Merseyside derbies during this period. He describes the abuse towards Black players as “regular”, but with the addition of Barnes, “it was one game where it was going to be too much. I couldn’t bring myself to go”.

Onuora’s matchday experience usually went something like this if a Black player was involved: the abuse would happen, he would challenge it, and the fan or the fans would respond by saying, “I don’t mean you, mate…”

Onuora says he became the target of racist abuse on one occasion. He was in the Bullens Road stand and he responded by punching the abuser. “There were fewer stewards and more police officers. An officer was on the edge of the pitch, pointing at me, saying he was going to arrest me. But he couldn’t get his radio to work.”

The environment was not exclusive to Merseyside. Pat Nevin, who signed for Everton in 1988, after Barnes backheeled the banana, had joined from Chelsea. He had notoriously confronted racist fans — including some from his own club — abusing Paul Canoville, a Black Chelsea player, at Crystal Palace.


Pat Nevin called out racism at Chelsea before his move to Everton (Allsport UK)

Nevin says racism across Britain was “normalised. There were pockets at every ground. Some of them were more sizeable than others. But they were always loud. You’d have to stick your fingers in your ears not to hear them”.

Nevin had been a social justice campaigner since his student days, marching against Apartheid. He became involved in the Merseyside Against Racism (MAR) campaign that followed the 1987-88 season, though he stresses the organisation for this came from like-minded colleagues involved in the players’ union rather than the clubs, their representatives or the authorities.

Nevin had concerns about signing for Everton, asking the manager Colin Harvey whether the club had an apartheid policy of no Blacks. He was reassured when Harvey told him he was only the club’s second-choice signing: the first had been Mark Walters, the Black Aston Villa winger, who later moved to Liverpool.

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The image of Barnes was not a ‘big bang’ moment. It would take time to germinate as a powerful image, with campaigns like Kick It Out later adopting it.

Onuora identified a pattern across football terraces after a team signed a Black player. Fans tended to cease the booing of their own Black players, if they were successful, but those from opposing teams would still get it. 

At Liverpool, Onuora says Barnes’ impact on the pitch “changed the mood” but Everton did not have any Black players at that time and this dynamic had long-term consequences. 

“Because Liverpool had one Black player, and because of the rivalry, a section of fans revelled in having a white team,” Onuora says. “The racist abuse at Everton cranked right up. This section wanted to distinguish themselves by being more abusive, more racist and celebrating Everton’s whiteness.”

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Onuora thinks it was only when Kevin Campbell joined in 1999, going on to become captain and scoring the goals that arguably saved the club from relegation that attitudes started to really improve. 

“Suddenly, we had a Black player in a position of authority,” Onuora says. “That was the game-changer.”


John Barnes went on to become a Liverpool icon (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

And as for Barnes? It says much about the abuse suffered by a man who went on to become one of Liverpool’s greatest players that, in multiple interviews since, he has said he can’t even remember kicking that banana.

He remains, however, a thoughtful and at times forthright voice in the debate over how to combat racism and why football should be seen as a symptom, not a cause, of prejudice.

Bob Thomas’ famous picture, meanwhile, serves as a memento of another era — one many people would rather forget.

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(Top photo: Shaun Botterill /Allsport; design: Eamonn Dalton)