Warren Barton, an Englishman, has been a part of the American soccer landscape the last few years working as an analyst for Fox Soccer Channel and now Fox Sports 1. If you’re a fan of the game in the States, you’ll no doubt recognize the former England international and are well aware of his tendency to mix it up with former U.S. National Team striker Eric Wynalda on air.
Although FOX lost the rights to the Premier League, it still airs the Champions League and FA Cup. Right now we’re smack dab in the middle of peak soccer with European competitions, the start of MLS this weekend and the World Cup looming less than 100 days away. Over the weekend FOX aired the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, including Wigan Athletic shock 2-1 win over Manchester City. The second leg of the Round of 16 Champions League games resume on Tuesday with Bayern Munich/Arsenal and Atletico Madrid/AC Milan.
The Big Lead spoke with Barton by phone last week on a number of soccer topics including what makes the FA Cup special as an Englishman, why English fans are rarely realistic about their national team and what it’s like working with Gus Johnson.
TBL: Obviously Americans are wrapped up in English soccer, with the Premier League mainly. The FA Cup … sometimes it feels like the appeal is lost in translation. As an Englishman, describe what makes the FA Cup so special?
WB: As a British person who thinks of the FA Cup, it’s the romance. We love the opportunity an amateur athlete pitting his wits against the Premier All-Stars. It’s like a high school team playing against the Steelers or the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. It starts with a policeman, a builder, they could be doing well and playing against mighty Manchester City or Arsenal. There’s the history. It’s the oldest domestic club competition in the world. That’s how I generalize it. The romance, the history. The beauty, as I said, an amateur athlete playing against one of the heroes of the Premier League.
TBL: What matchup would make for the best final for the Champions League this season?
WB: Bayern Munich, they are the benchmark. Real Madrid, at the moment, with the best player in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo), the most expensive player in the world (Gareth Bale) and maybe the most underrated coach in the world, as well with (Carlo) Ancelotti. Obviously ex-pats would like to see Chelsea or Manchester City. If you’re a purist, looking at the game, looking at (Bayern and Real) they’re exciting, they score goals and they play to win. They have the other team worried about them, rather than being cautious. Take Manchester City, they were very respectful of Barcelona and when you talk about Bayern or Real Madrid they go out to win regardless of who they’re playing against.
TBL: You’ve been in America for a while, what do you make of the audience who watches English games or soccer in general, who do you think that audience is?
WB: I can go just by Twitter. They’re very knowledgeable. They’re very passionate. They can be very critical as well. Now with the game being shown on so many channels, the Internet, people’s knowledge is getting better and people’s opinions are getting stronger.
The growth I’ve seen in six years, you could just go by our viewing figures. Each year it gets bigger. The knowledge is spreading. … What’s exciting is the game in the U.S. hasn’t even reached it’s potential yet and it’s already breaking records week-in, week-out. That’s exciting as an analyst, as an ex-player, as a coach going forward. I know that’s how Eric (Wynalda) and Brian (McBride) feel. We love it.
TBL: What’s the most noticeable change in soccer since you’ve been over here in America?
WB: Look at the shirts. You’re talking about every now and again you might see a West Ham shirt or an Everton shirt. Before it used to be just Barcelona or Real Madrid, Manchester United. Clearly there’s passion.
It’s also people recognizing you. You go to Phoenix, you go to Miami, Los Angeles, people always ask me, ‘What’s Eric like, what’s Brian like?’ That shows you that the audience is getting bigger. Certain people are wearing not only top Premiership shirts, but maybe a Stoke shirt will be worn. You’ll obviously see a lot of MLS shirts. The game is growing. It’s the same as the NFL in the UK. I speak to my friends there. Before you might see a Cowboys and a 49ers shirt. Now you get a Chargers, Tennessee. It’s crossing over.
TBL: I’m sure you saw the rumors last month about Vince McMahon’s interest in buying Newcastle United, one of your former clubs. What did you make of that? Would he be a good addition to English soccer?
WB: You can’t help but have a smile on your face, because of the ties to the WWE and what he’s done. Anything is possible. That’s the beauty of what’s going on.
Am I against it? No. Would it surprise me? Yes.
You look at Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire coming to Chelsea. You look at what the Qataris have done at PSG and obviously those type of clubs. They’ve taken these mediocre teams from a decade ago and turned them into global giants. It’s intriguing. As I said to Rob Stone, it would intrigue me. It would bring humor back into the sport and that’s what it’s about. (McMahon) definitely knows business, look what he’s done to that enterprise. He’s also got a strong opinion which is nice.
TBL: Newcastle has a huge, passionate fanbase, a big stadium … why has it been so hard for them to get over that hump and compete for trophies consistently? What is it about that club that always holds them back?
WB: It’s the turnover of coaches. You look at Chelsea and the turnover. To bridge that gap, you have to sign high-quality players. We finished second twice (Barton played for Newcastle United from 1995-2002), played in Cup finals, played in the Champions League. You have to find the right coach. There are only so many Sir Bobby Robsons that are around. You need to have an owner that understands the opportunity you’ve given a certain coach. It’s an amalgamation of turnover of coaches, turnover of players and it’s like everybody – there’s only so many winners. Unfortunately Newcastle are one of the teams like an Everton, like a Liverpool at the moment who are trying to break into the Top Four. You can throw Tottenham into that equation as well and they’ve spent over $100 million. Money doesn’t always buy success, but it certainly helps.
TBL: What’s it been like working with Gus Johnson, like you did last spring with the Champions League?
WB: There’s no doubt. I’ve worked with Martin Tyler, with Rob Hawthorne on Sky and Gus is just as passionate as them.
We’re in America and I think we should have an American voice. It sounds strange coming from a Brit, but that’s me personally. We have an American audience and to bridge that gap to get the American people to understand you need an American voice. That may get myself out of a job but that’s how I feel. I’ve lived here and respect the country and respect what the sport is. I think Gus Johnson is as good as anybody in the world. Yes Martin Tyler is the benchmark but you’ve got Gus Johnson 15-20 years in the game and he’s right behind him. I’m a big fan, not just because he’s with us, but for what he does with the game, how strong he is to put his reputation on the line, to do that. That takes not only guts, but it takes confidence to do that and he’s got all our confidence and the network behind him.
TBL: Will you be working more Champions League games this spring with Gus?
WB: Our boss, obviously, has already spoken to myself and Eric about that on the timescale. It obviously has to be a game that appeals to people. From that standpoint I think it will be done. It will be a game that’s worthy like Manchester United/Real Madrid. We don’t want to shortchange the audience. Gus is very committed as well as everybody on the soccer side. [Ed. note: Johnson will likely be back calling Champions League games this spring, but FOX hasn't confirmed game or date yet.]
TBL: Getting back to the Champions League, a few years ago we had three of the four semifinalists coming from England. We’re always told the EPL is the best league in the world, but now the continental European teams are faring much better against them in the Champions League. Is it cyclical or is there a reason why?
WB: The Premier League is the most exciting league. I think Tim Howard said that. Brian McBride said that. You can take a team like Fulham and can go and beat a Manchester United, a Chelsea. When you’re talking other leagues, Real Madrid normally win their games, it’s very unlikely they’ll lose. The Premier League is competitive and exciting because of the style of football. It’s very much a mixture of continental and the British physicality. Now it’s a shift. Whether it’s La Liga, the Bundesliga or Ligue 1, you’re seeing that because of the money. PSG have done well with the players they have. I still like the EPL is the most exciting or competitive.
The Champions League is the most exciting in terms of the technical quality of the coaches. When you talk about the knowledge of the game, there’s where the Champions League for me is so intriguing. The quality of players, the quality of coaches. The Premier League still has to bridge that gap. When you’re talking about knowledge and tactics, it’s the Champions League. If you’re talking excitement it’s the Premier League, no doubt because of the physical side of what you have. If it’s the all around package it’s Champions League for me.
TBL: As an Englishman what’s a realistic expectation for England at the World Cup this year?
WB: To win it! (laughes) No, if we can get to the quarterfinals that would be a great achievement. As you know in England we all get so excited that we’re going to win it, that this is the year. When you talk about South America you talk about Brazil, Argentina and in Europe you look at the Germans and the Spanish.
TBL: English fans are weird with the World Cup. Half of them think it’s their birthright to win it, the other half think they have no chance. What’s it really like?
WB: Two weeks before everyone says we’re going to win it. The Queen will be on TV. We’ll have Prince Charles, Prince William, it’ll be our time. Once we kickoff, it’ll be, no we’re going to lose and go out of it. There are so many mixed emotions. You have all the flags out, we’ll be ready to go. Maybe this year we’re being pessimistic, but realistic. This is the first time I’ve spoken to people and they’re like “we ain’t going to win it.” We’ve always said before “we’ve got Rooney, we’ve got Peter Crouch, we’ve got Steven Gerrard.” This time it’s more like, if we get out of our group we’ve done well. A bit of reality has kicked in.
TBL: I’m not sure how closely you monitor the U.S. team, but we’re three months away from the World Cup. What do you think the U.S. expectation should be?
WB: Last week, when I watched them train – Jurgen invited us down with Rob Stone – it was a privilege to speak to Landon (Donovan). The European players weren’t there. I just thought it’s very unfortunate with the group. Jurgen can turn it around and say to do well we’ve got to play against the best, but I think there’s such strong momentum from what he’s achieved in the last 18 months. The Donovan situation has changed, where you have to earn the right to play for the U.S. which is fantastic. There’s competition for places. The best players have stepped up. (Chris) Wondolowski, Eddie (Johnson) guys like that have stepped up. If they get out of that group I think they’ve done very well. Anyone, even if it was England, even if it was France in that group. Looking at that group is very difficult.
TBL: You’ve worked with Eric Wynalda for a couple years now. What’s the most heated argument you’ve had together?
WB: Obvious: The Premier League and the Bundesliga. He is in awe of the Bundesliga. He loves it. It’s his biggest passion and rightly so.
We argue about three things: Premier League vs. Bundesliga, the U.S. vs. England … and who’s going to buy lunch. Every time I’ve won and I’ve bought lunch every single time for the last three and half years with him. He’s a great guy. We have a lot of fun on TV. People ask if we get on. I think yeah we do, but we have opinions and that’s what it’s all about.
He’s not bought me one beer or one sandwich in four years, and you can quote me on that.