ATLANTA — Seven years ago, when Giles Barnes was a 19-year-old playing for England’s Under-19 national team and in the Premier League for Derby County, he never would have predicted that in 2015 he’d be starring for MLS’s Houston Dynamo and the Jamaican national team.
“I would have said, ‘Really?’” Barnes explained with a smile on Tuesday.
But life has a way of taking some unexpected turns. Careers ebb and flow. And if you’re Barnes, who had three major injuries in England—right knee microfracture surgery and not one but two Achilles ruptures—you consider quitting the sport before deciding to try your luck in a different part of the world entirely.
“I wasn’t enjoying football and needed to reinvent myself as a person,” Barnes said ahead of Jamaica’s Gold Cup semifinal on Wednesday against the United States (6 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1, Unimás). “Now I’m just loving life. I couldn’t be happier with football the last few years.
“Where people get mistaken is they think England is the be-all and end-all for football,” Barnes continued. “It’s not. There’s so many other places in the world, so many different leagues you can experience. To find a place you can call home outside of home, that’s how I feel right now. I go to training every day with a smile on my face. I come to my national team full of pride and joy and an excitement to play football every day.”
Born in London to Ronald and Sandra Barnes, who were the children of Jamaican immigrants, Giles was a major attacking prospect at a young age. He was part of two teams that earned promotion to the Premier League with Derby Country (in 2006–07) and West Brom (in 2009–10). But the injuries took their toll. In 2012 he was out of contract after a year at Doncaster Rovers and got a call from his agent saying the Houston Dynamo were interested in him.
Teams from Italy and Greece had also called, but he decided to give Houston a shot. The only problem: Houston in August 2012, like most summers in Texas, was an oven.
“I called my dad the first day and said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so unfit in my life,’” Barnes recalled. “We went 11 v. 11, and it was like 1,000 degrees. I was like, ‘I can’t do it, Dad.’ And I’m asthmatic as well, so it was like someone punching you in the face and squeezing your lungs. He told me to just keep going. It actually took me a year to get used to it.”
Barnes credits Dominic Kinnear, the former Houston coach who signed him, with telling him that he couldn’t ride his talent alone, that he needed to be a two-way player and track back to defend if he was going to play for the Dynamo. The goals started coming, too, and so did Barnes’s joy for the game. He feels just as positive toward first-year Houston coach Owen Coyle.
“Owen’s wicked,” Barnes said with a cackle. “He’s a manager who makes me and the team feel on cloud nine. You can walk into training every day and he lifts you up.”
Barnes says he has lost 25 pounds since joining the Dynamo (he’s currently at 189), and he started improving his diet and engaging in injury prevention. Instead of going on long runs in the off-season and putting strain on his joints, Barnes now engages in boxing to work on his upper body and cardiovascular fitness. Increased stretching, band work, ice baths and pool recovery have also helped Barnes avoid a repeat of his injury plague.
Barnes only began playing for Jamaica in March of this year. He said he had been approached by the Jamaican federation as far back as 2009, when John Barnes (no relation) was coaching the Reggae Boyz. But Barnes was injured at the time and declined. He said his father had been “raised Jamaican” in England and all along had wanted Giles to play for Jamaica.
“The first language I spoke in the house was patois, not English,” Barnes said. “The food was obviously a lot different from English food: ackee and salt fish, fried dumplings, breadfruit, oxtail. My granddad always cooked us gungo peas and rice and red peas soup every time I went to his house without fail. You know, as a kid you’re like, ‘Granddad, I just want burgers and chips or something, please!’ But every time he insisted on having Jamaican food. God rest his soul. He’s a missed man.”
Barnes signed last December with new agents Cory Gibbs and Richard Motzkin of Wasserman, who helped him complete the paperwork to make the switch to Jamaica. Barnes scored in his debut, a friendly against Venezuela, in May, and he has been a fixture in the Jamaican lineup ever since. He started all but one game in the Copa América (three 1–0 losses to Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina) and every game so far of the Gold Cup.
After Barnes scored the game-winner against Haiti in a 1–0 quarterfinal win on Saturday, he got a text message from his father, who told him how proud he was of his son.
“It really warms your heart that someone can be so proud of you,” Barnes said. “For me it was an emotional moment.”
When Barnes was nine years old, he said, his father put every Jamaica game from World Cup ’98 on the family television and watched the games with his son. And now that he’s helping lead a resurgence of the Jamaican national team, Barnes has high aspirations for what this team can achieve.
“I want to lift the Gold Cup with Jamaica,” he said. “That’s a big thing for me and our team, and it’s how we feel as a unit right now. And we want to qualify for the World Cup. People are seeing us now doing well, and they’re like, ‘Is it luck?’ We don’t think it’s luck. We want to show on the world stage what we’re capable of.”
His obstacle on Wednesday, the United States, is a significant one, a team that Barnes knows well, not least his club teammate DaMarcus Beasley.
“We’re the underdogs,” Barnes said. “The U.S. has a good side, everyone knows that. It’ll be good to play against Trick [Beasley]. We sit next to each other in the changing room, and we’re good friends. I played with Clint Dempsey at Fulham [on a loan]. He was a friend of mine too. And obviously with a 68,000 sellout, it’ll be a great crowd.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said his team will have to be ready for Barnes.
“He’s played a very good tournament,” Klinsmann said. “We know him well from MLS, so we’ll have a special eye on him. He drops sometimes deep and goes with speed into the box. He has good smell, he knows where the ball will drop. He has good instincts. He’s fun to watch, definitely a good player.”
These days it’s good to be Giles Barnes. He’s in the final year of his MLS contract and should be set up for a nice raise if he extends with Houston as expected. And at 26, having overcome all the injuries and the doubts, he has an appreciation for the journey.
“I’m just blessed, man,” Barnes said. “That’s all I can say. As a young kid to be up here”—he raised his hands—“to come down here, then to get yourself back to here is just a blessing. You can’t do it without God, without my family and friends who gave me a push through dark times. There were times I wanted to quit when I did my knee and then doing my Achilles again. You just lose the will.
“But they kept me going,” Barnes added. “They said it’ll be fine. It’ll work out, maybe not in a year or two, but you’ll get to where you need to be at some stage. I can’t thank them enough.”