Barnes back from the wilderness
It has been a long wait for Tranmere manager John Barnes.
Next Saturday his team will stride out at Huish Park, Yeovil for their opening fixture of the 2009-10 League one season.
According to my calculations it will be 3,469 days since Barnes last managed in a match in club football.
That game was Celtic's 3-1 Scottish Cup defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle - a result that sparked the now legendary headline 'Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious'.
Two days later Barnes was sacked, marking the beginning of a lengthy and unwanted tenure in the managerial wilderness.
Since leaving Celtic Park the man who reckons there's only one way to beat them, get round the back has worked as a pundit, hosted his own TV show, been an ambassador for Save the Children and waltzed his way through Strictly Come Dancing.
"It was a frustrating time but it's gone," Barnes told me of his time out of club management. "It took a long time but I'm back and it does not really matter."
But does he think that people will be surprised that a man who has 79 England caps and forged a reputation as one of the finest wide players of his generation, has re-entered management in the lower reaches of the Football League?
"I had previously tried to get in a lower level than this and couldn't, so maybe some people will feel it is too high," deadpanned the 45-year-old.
Rovers would occasionally play home matches on Friday evening in those days and, every now and again, Barnes went along to watch. They were heady days for Tranmere, who reached the 2000 League Cup final and the last eight of the FA Cup in both 2000 and 2001.
"The desire and the intensity during those cup runs under John Aldridge - we have to aspire for those days to return," Barnes told me.
A laudable ambition but it will most definitely not be easy for Barnes, who took over at the club in mid-June, replacing Ronnie Moore.
Moore is an experienced and wily lower-league manager. He worked wonders on a shoestring at Rotherham and was minutes away from securing a play-off place for Tranmere last season.
Speaking with all the acquired wisdom of a man who has done the rounds, Moore observed after he was sacked that "it was a massive surprise to me - but the one thing you know as a manager is that you are going to get the sack sometime".
Barnes has nothing like Moore's knowledge of the lower leagues, nor experience of how to prosper on a shoestring budget - of hustling to bring in free transfers or pull off shrewd loan moves. Furthermore, Barnes took over at a club that needed to reduce its wage bill. Influential players such as Ben Chorley, Anthony Kay, Steven Jennings and Danny Coyne have left the club since the end of last season.
But Barnes is clearly not fazed by the size of the task facing him.
Back at the start of the decade I used to ghost write a column for Barnes. He always came across as an intelligent man with a strong self-belief and a crystal-clear awareness of what he wanted. I wondered whether his years out of management might have eroded his confidence but when I spoke to him about Tranmere, it was pretty obvious that nothing had changed. The sharp mind was also in evidence, with words like 'dogmatic' and 'utopian' popping up during our conversation.
Barnes had spent nine months as coach of Jamaica prior to his appointment at Tranmere but was clearly relishing a return to day-to-day involvement. The club have signed players since his arrival - Mark Allot, Alan Mahon, John Welsh and Paul McLaren on permanent deals with Luke Daniels and Shaleum Logan on loan - but Barnes' over-riding focus is on the training ground.
"There are other things to do which can take a lot of time but I am not interested in that," he told me.
"I'm trying to get the team to play in an organised, disciplined manner and with plenty of desire. That means spending time on the training field and leaving the office stuff to the chief executive and other people."
Barnes has been drilling into his squad the system he wants them to play, doing the same things over and over again. As he told me: "That can be quite repetitive and boring for the players but I make no apologies for it. If you are changing the system you play it is important that the players fully understand it."
Barnes won't be drawn on exactly what system his team will play. They will line up as a 4-4-2 but as the Rovers boss pointed out: "It is the workings of your formation that is your system - the angles you play, how you try to work the ball from the back and so on."
It is hard to imagine a side coached by Barnes playing a graceless, direct style and I imagine he will try to deploy attacking full-backs and ask his group of players to be able to adapt as the situation demands.
For Tranmere's sake I just hope that his players fully understand what he is teaching them. Barnes clearly has a deep understanding of tactics and can discuss them at length. I have never seen Barnes working with players on a training pitch but I guess the key is keeping it simple, ensuring the message is concisely delivered without overloading information.
What's more, if Barnes is to succeed in management at a lower level I think it is crucial that he understands that some of the things that came naturally to him may lie beyond the scope of some of his squad. I'm sure that Barnes will tell you that he himself was no stranger to hard work as a player - indeed that it was part of the reason why he succeeded - but that is not necessarily the same thing.
Having said that, several interviews with various Tranmere players that I have seen have all talked about how much they are enjoying working with Barnes. Appointing Jason McAteer as his assistant seems like a good move. McAteer understands Tranmere and the division having been reserve team boss under Brian Little.
What's more, there is an undeniable realism to Barnes when he discusses management.
I asked him whether he was at Tranmere for the long haul.
"There are no long-term projects in football," he told me. "If you don't win matches you are out."
Barnes discovered that when he was sacked by Celtic just seven months into his first season in charge.
He has not set targets, focusing only on the opening game against Yeovil. "I have always felt that sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees because you are looking so far ahead," said Barnes.
The 45-year-old is also adamant that last season means nothing - "We are starting afresh, that is the great thing about football".
But he is in no doubt that Tranmere can cause a few surprises in a division that is likely to be very competitive.
"I expect consistency and good performances - and wherever that takes us, that takes us," he said.
"But if we play with spirit, determination and discipline we can succeed."