Features. Harvey Barnes: 'I don't think you can ever feel like you can take your foot off the pedal'

02 Mar 24
Read time
10 min

The thing you miss the most, explains Harvey Barnes, is "that football feeling" – pulling on the boots, the snapping intensity of full training, the looming pressure and sound and breathlessness of a matchday. "It's the main thing," he explains. "It's what I'm here for, what I'm here to do."

Tom Easterby
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That football feeling is different to what the 26-year-old has experienced in the majority of his time at Newcastle United so far. He signed last summer from Leicester City as an attacker with a proven Premier League output and scored on his debut. By the end of September, he had been sidelined for what turned out to be a third of a year.

"Especially when you newly join a club, the last thing you need is an injury," he shrugs. "You want to come in, hit the ground running, show everyone what you're about and help the team out. Injury stops that, and you're watching from the sidelines for a good few months. I've been biting at the bit to get back, to get back fit and help the boys out, and that's what I want to do in the second half of the season."

Barnes was born in Burnley in December 1997, a month before his father Paul – a frontman with a stellar Football League pedigree – left the Clarets to join Huddersfield Town. Barnes senior also turned out for Notts County, Stoke City, York City, Birmingham City and Bury. His son remembers watching the odd game he'd play for Tamworth as he wound down his career in the upper reaches of non-league after the family had returned to Leicester, where most of them hail from. "It wasn't the pretty football of the Premier League, but it was just going and watching your dad play… it was great," Harvey recalls. "You get a buzz as a kid, going to watch your dad."

He never felt forced to follow his father into the profession and the photos of Paul's playing days around the house didn't weight him down. Instead he found something comforting about having someone so close who was well versed in "the little details" of the game they both happened to become professionals in.

"There are probably certain things you can only understand at a deeper level when you've actually been there and done it," he says. "Of course the game's changed since he was playing, but the principles are still the same so there was so much – especially when I was younger – that I could learn from him growing up. That transition from the academy and the boys' side of things, to becoming a man and dealing with that side of the game – he definitely had a big help in that.

"He's been through the highs and lows of football and he understands that for me there's going to be highs and lows too, so he's got a good understanding of how I'm feeling at certain times. He'll tell me both sides of it, which I think as a player is important. You don't always want to hear the good stuff – it's the bad stuff as well."

In his younger years, Barnes played deeper, in midfield. The more offensive instincts that came naturally to his dad were things he had to develop himself as he moved forward, figuratively and literally. "It was more about arriving late into the box. When you play wide and you’re in the main three attackers, you can't arrive too late into the box – you need to be in at the back post every time. It's almost gambling where the ball's going to go – 'if the winger gets the ball there, I need to be hitting the box at this point'. It's all about probability – if you're hitting the right areas, it might not happen every time, but eventually it's going to fall to you. And you need to be there when it does."

Honing his movement helped Barnes bag 45 goals in his 189 games for the Foxes, including 13 last term as Brendan Rodgers' men succumbed to relegation. Looking back on his bow for Leicester, his boyhood club, feels like looking back at a simpler time. The Foxes had won the unlikeliest of Premier League titles in 2016 and seven months later an 18-year-old Barnes, juggling his own fandom with trying to break into an iconic team, made his debut in a Champions League game at Porto.

"It was crazy really. I wasn't involved with the first team (when they won the title), I was too young, but I was just a fan. I grew up in Leicester and it was amazing. I was playing for the youth team but just a mad Leicester fan, really, watching it all unfold," he says. "Being around the training ground and seeing it up close was crazy.

"On the back of that, the year after, being involved a bit and making my debut, it was like, 'wow – this team won the league last year, and now you're involved'. It was some experience, just being around it all."

There were three loans to escalating levels, at MK Dons, Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion, and all were successful. "From the start it was perfect really. I came on and scored on my debut after about three or four minutes and ended up playing pretty much every game for MK Dons. I know lads go on loan and it doesn't always go as well as that, and there's always challenges you face, but it just seemed to go so smoothly. I was getting the experience of being around a first team dressing room, which is new to an under-21s player, playing in front of fans every week, having the pressure of getting three points. It's all new experiences and I loved it, I loved every minute of it. It was what I needed at that point."

What's it like going into a new dressing room for the first time as an unproven young player? "It can be daunting, definitely. I've always been quite a confident and social lad so I knew I'd be able to go, mix in well and handle it, and I do think that's a big part of it. If you go into a changing room and get on well with all the lads, off the pitch as well as on, it helps so much if you have that relationship and understanding with people. If they get on well with you and trust you, when you're on the pitch it follows on. The changing rooms were great – all three that I went into were amazing, so it made it seamless for me to go in and get on with everyone, and that showed on the pitch."

In each of his final three seasons at the King Power Stadium, amid rising demands on wide forwards in the modern game, Barnes' combined goals and assists tally reached double figures. When did he begin to feel less like a hopeful and more like a top flight shoo-in? "I don't think you can ever feel like you can take your foot off the pedal with it. I felt like the last few seasons I did well. Last year was a bit of a mix of emotions really, because we went down, but for me personally it was one of my better seasons goalscoring-wise. I was obviously gutted that we went down and it didn't finish how we wanted it to, but also, personally, you think there's some positives to take from it, which is tough with what happened.

"For me, I'm very ambitious and I always wanted to test myself and get to the highest level I can. After doing well at Leicester, I was always thinking, 'what's my next challenge?' and when I heard about this, it seemed perfect. I spoke to everyone here, it all seemed great, I made my mind up and that was it. I just wanted to get here. It took a couple of weeks to get everything sorted but I was buzzing to come here.

"And then it started great – had pre-season, things were going great, started the season well, scored (on the opening day against Aston Villa), and then after a month or so I had the setback of the injury."

Leaving Leicester was a wrench in one sense and he harbours a vision of being able to go back there as an opposition player, see some familiar faces and feel some sort of finality. The bizarre injury he suffered as he pushed off to sprint in the Magpies' 8-0 win at Sheffield United in September – torn ligaments underneath his foot/toe – made his induction period trickier.

"Asking around, no-one's really dealt with this injury – we were almost going into other sports to find out how they've rehabbed it," explains Barnes. "It was really unusual. And even more so for a player. It's like, how has that happened? No injury is good, but it's not your common hamstring where you can go, 'right, I can understand why that's happened'. This is just like, how on earth has this happened? What are the chances of this happening?"

He didn't initially anticipate being out for as long as he ended up being so when it came, his return was a welcome one. His equaliser after coming off the bench in the barmy 4-4 home draw with Luton Town last month marked the end of a chapter to forget and it was "the scenario I'd been playing in my head for the last few months – getting back, first game, scoring, whatever it might be," he says. "As soon as I came on I wanted to make up for lost time. I wanted to help the team out and that was the perfect sort of scenario – to come on for half an hour, get a goal, help the team. It would have been amazing if we'd won but on a personal note you think the hard work for the last few months has paid off, in that you’ve come back, helped your team get a point and you've got that feeling back of scoring a goal.

"If you're injured or you come back and you don't score for a little while, it can play on your mind for a bit. When you come back and you score straight away, that's one relief – there's a bit of pressure off your shoulders, you can go and enjoy it and your confidence is back up there. It was important for me."

He hopes to showcase his bow and arrow celebration – something he says there is no real story behind ("it's just something that I like doing and I thought if it sticks and I enjoy doing it, then why not? That's the point of celebrations") – more regularly now he’s back. There is no shortage of motivation for him; Newcastle's season is still alive, they have scraped into the FA Cup quarter-finals, and he is a member of an exclusive club he'd rather not be part of. Barnes is among a group of players who have a solitary England cap to their name. It is something he wants to change.

"It's always something I've had in the back of my mind. It's something that every player wants to do, to represent their country," he says, having made his only international appearance in a 3-0 win over Wales in 2020. "But I'm fully aware of the quality that they have, so I think it takes a real good run of form or something special to get yourself into that squad.

"For me as a player, of course the start I've had here hasn't been good with the injury or what not, but I think this is the perfect platform for any player to hit the highest level – to go and perform at the highest level individually and as a club, to get yourself in there. There's no reason why, if I get back to having a good run of games and hit my best form, that I can't be back involved in the squad.

"That's my dream, to be back involved in there and get myself more caps – that would be amazing. The focus was getting back fit – I've done that – so now it's about getting a good run of games, helping the team and getting back to my best form, and that will give myself the best chance."

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