Barnes: Quality more important than youth
Brendan Rodgers has a long-term plan to take Liverpool back to the top. It won't be easy and it won't be quick, but after a catalogue of failed attempts over the last 20 years the club's faithful fans are willing to give him a chance.
Among those watching eagerly to see if Rodgers succeeds is a man who was not just present the last time they were top of the footballing tree, he was one of the main reasons for their success. John Barnes knows better than most what it will mean to take them back to the top.
Barnes counts two league titles and two FA Cup triumphs among his many honours during a decade's service at Anfield, but having been an integral part of the glory days he also witnessed the beginning of the decay - the former winger was a part of the last side to win the league title with Liverpool, a feat that has not been repeated for 22 long years and counting - far too long for a side that until two years ago held the record for most top-flight titles in English football.
The first part of Rodgers' plan is to assemble a group of young, hungry players with a point to prove in the game. He wants a team willing to fight their way to the top, in many ways similar to the side Barnes found when he arrived at the club in 1987 which included Peter Beardsley, Steve McMahon, Steve Nicol, Alan Hansen, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge.
The class of 2013 boasts an exciting crop of Liverpool academy prospects - Andre Wisdom, Jon Flanagan, Martin Kelly, Adam Morgan, Jack Robinson and Conor Coady - mixed in with talent assembled from further afield in Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, Suso and Joe Allen. They may not yet be the household names that their predecessors were but they possess the raw ingredients and there are similarities between the generations with natural talent the most important one.
"Having the quality to take Liverpool where you want is the most important thing," Barnes tells ESPN. "Homegrown players, if they aren't good enough, they aren't going to help you. You need the quality. Having quality is important and having young players at a club who are going to be given the time to develop, who know the history and what is required is very important. But ultimately if they are not good enough it means nothing so they have to have the quality to help Liverpool."
Barnes is impressed by the addition of Daniel Sturridge from Chelsea and what it says about the club's ambition, but it is his belief that there is no value to be had in the January transfer window - something proven by the £35 million purchase of Andy Carroll two years ago, a player expensively discarded by Rodgers in August - and has urged caution amid reports the club seek another two or three new players this month.
"I think Daniel Sturridge is a very good player but I don't think January is a good time to sign players so you can't get better than Daniel Sturridge in January," he says. "The top players, the world class players you want will not be available in January because they are playing at a club who is in the Champions League so January is never a good time to buy. However, he is young, he is English, he is hungry and he has a point to prove.
"July and the end of the season is when we need to look at getting better players into the squad. That is the best time and depending on who they sign, I will then personally put a little bit more pressure on them to move forward and improve next year, but this year I am willing to sit back and trust Brendan Rodgers and support him in what he is doing rather than saying let's change manager if they go out to Mansfield and they finish eighth in the league."
Sunday's FA Cup third round tie at Mansfield presents Rodgers with a fresh opportunity to examine his young charges. Having seen them begin to thrive in the spotlight of the Premier League and the Europa League he can now see how they cope with the raw footballing test of a do-or-die game in an unforgiving non-league environment, something Barnes is hopeful will help their development.
"The FA Cup is always, in terms of the bigger teams, a good opportunity to play youngsters," he explains. "What will help Brendan Rodgers is that he feels he can trust these young players after their performance against West Brom in the League Cup. After going 1-0 down to a West Brom team who were in the top four they could have capitulated but they came back to win 2-1 and put in one of the best performances I've seen from a Liverpool side with Suso and Wisdom and a lot of these young players in.
"He knows that they can perform, but young players who are at a Premier League club and performing is completely different to these same players going to a non-league club. You are playing in a smaller stadium, maybe the pitch is not great and you're playing against rough players so as much as they went and beat West Brom it shouldn't naturally follow that these young players can go to Mansfield and win. You have to make them aware that going to play Mansfield is a completely different proposition."
A 3-0 win against Sunderland, Liverpool's third win and clean sheet in four Premier League games, has lifted the team to eighth in the table and introduced renewed hope of a push for the top four and Champions League qualification but Barnes wants the fans to retain a vision of the bigger picture.
He insists it is far too early to cast a verdict on Rodgers and his incomplete team yet, but concedes that, at a point in the not-too-distant future, Liverpool will have to force themselves back among the title contenders if Rodgers is to be considered a success at Anfield.
"I am looking for improvement from Liverpool but I'm not going to be judging them on this season - regardless of whether they finish in the top ten or they go out of the FA Cup," he says. "You're looking for the development of the squad, the development of the players and we have good young players coming through.
"They are a couple of years away, at least, from challenging for the title. They can challenge for the top four now, mainly because of the inconsistency of the fourth place and they are only a few points off fourth place. That's not bad but it has more to do with the inconsistencies of the other teams rather than their consistency. Liverpool, for me, have always been challenging for fourth place but that is not what we want to do, we want to be challenging for the title."
John Barnes was speaking ahead of ESPN's live and exclusive coverage of Mansfield Town v Liverpool in the FA Cup 3rd round at 15.45 GMT on Sunday, January 6. ESPN, in conjunction with Budweiser, is searching for fans' all-time favourite FA Cup moments. Visit espn.co.uk/facuppoll