There was a time, going back a few years, when Everton envisaged Ross Barkley being a different kind of player to the one we see now. Ask David Moyes and he will tell you that at 15 Barkley was the closest he had ever seen to a young Norman Whiteside. Barkley could get up and down the pitch, he had the same kind of rare quality that saw Whiteside bend the ball past Neville Southall in the 1985 FA Cup final and, more than anything, he was utterly fearless in the tackle. Moyes and the youth-team coaches would flinch when they saw him hurtling into a 50-50 challenge.
That changed, at 16, when Barkley broke his leg in two places after going into a tackle during an England Under‑19s game against Belgium. When Barkley came back from that double fracture his coaches noticed how he no longer launched himself at the ball quite so vigorously. Barkley started to play with more restraint, relying on the skills that brought other comparisons, not least to Paul Gascoigne.
He took his time but when he announced himself as a first-team pick, amid gushing eulogies from Roberto Martínez and the sense the entire team could be shaped around him, it was perfectly reasonable for Evertonians to think that maybe this time, just for once, one of their emerging heroes might actually stick around.
Instead, the next time we will see him in blue will be for Chelsea and it is difficult not to think that Everton have come off distinctly second-best in a deal that gives Barkley the chance, in a World Cup year, to restate his England ambitions and leaves the distinct impression that the Merseyside club, however it is dressed up, have been played like a fiddle.
Chelsea have certainly worked the system, bearing in mind the transfer fee was set at £35m in August until Barkley ruptured his hamstring and the Premier League champions obligingly stepped to one side. Everton have continued to pay the player £60,000 a week, as well as forking out for his medical bills and overseeing his rehabilitation program, until now he is fit again, the transfer window has reopened and Roman Abramovich’s staff have swooped back in to resurrect the deal, just for £20m less, with Barkley moving within six months of his contract expiring.
In the meantime, Davy Klaassen and Gylfi Sigurdsson have arrived at Everton for a combined £79m and Wayne Rooney has signed on record wages, all with the mandate of filling the void left by Barkley’s impending departure. None, however, has consistently played with the wit or creativity that Barkley, at his best, could offer and it feels a bit of a stretch to imagine that Kieran Dowell, on loan at Nottingham Forest, is going to save Farhad Moshiri from spending even more. Chelsea have got their man for £15m, the kind of fee a 15‑goal‑a‑season Championship striker goes for nowadays, while Everton would be kidding themselves if they think they have done well out of this deal.
That, however, is the way the business goes sometimes and it is tempting to think Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, should be busy enough without announcing via Twitter on Friday that he is going to ask the Premier League and the Football Association to investigate the way Everton have been “ripped off”.
Anderson, an Everton supporter, maybe needs to read up about the Bosman rule and the way players’ transfer values depreciate in the last year of their contracts. He won’t be alone in thinking Everton have been done up like a kipper but, if there was anything sinister enough to warrant a top‑level investigation, shouldn’t it be the club issuing the complaint? The fact Everton agreed the transfer and have absolutely zero plans to take it up with the authorities suggests Anderson didn’t get voted in because of his football knowledge.
This is an unsatisfactory story, though, from Everton’s perspective because there is always something profoundly sad when a local player breaks through with the club he has embraced all his life only for it to end badly, and in Barkley’s case, without him offering even a flicker of an explanation.
Perhaps he doesn’t feel it is necessary when Chelsea can offer better wages and all the fun of the Champions League. Yet a few honest words might have been appreciated when Everton’s supporters, on the whole, thought of him as one of their own.
Sure, there were a few grumbles during his periods of lost form. But the game against Burnley towards the end of last season was an accurate barometer. A few days earlier, CCTV pictures had leaked of Barkley being thumped in a Liverpool bar. Barkley’s name was belted out by the Goodison crowd. He played well, clutched his badge in front of the Gwladys Street end and there was a standing ovation when he was substituted late on. It is not true Everton fans had unequivocally turned against him.
Might he now re-establish himself as an England player? Barkley was part of Roy Hodgson’s squad in Euro 2016 but came home without playing a single minute. Sam Allardyce excluded him for his one match in charge of the national team and on the solitary occasion Gareth Southgate called him up, for the double-header against Germany and Lithuania last March, Barkley was one of only two players not to kick a ball.
Barkley has not played for his country since May 2016 and has made only three 90-minute appearances in 22 caps, 14 of which have come as a substitute, since making his debut at the age of 19. In his last seven call-ups he has been an unused substitute and if he is not careful that is threatening to be the story of his international career – a nearly man, a player who stayed too young too long, never quite fulfilling his potential or showing he can dominate, rather than decorate, matches.
Yet Southgate has shown already that he is willing to change his mind about a player and it is still possible Barkley can find a way back, before Russia, if he has not been held back too much by that hamstring tear (anyone doubting the seriousness of that injury, incidentally, should check out the nine-inch scar that runs down the back of his leg) and if Antonio Conte, his new manager at Chelsea, can make him start believing again that he is capable of holding his own at the highest level.
Barkley is a confidence player. The problem is that confidence started to ebb away when Ronald Koeman took over at Everton and misread the situation by assuming Barkley was the type of character who would respond better to public criticism than Martínez’s arm-round-the-shoulder indulgence. Barkley, in fact, was a Toffee with a soft center, sensitive enough to Koeman’s words that at one point he asked his manager why he talked about him so much in press conferences. It hurt him that his manager would go to the media and it hardened his resolve to cut himself free, even if what Koeman said was fundamentally correct.
Another insight into Barkley’s personality goes back to Everton’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in April 2016, in the final few weeks of the Martínez era, when the players came in at half-time, losing 1-0. There were boos from the Everton end and Barkley had convinced himself, wrongly, they were directed towards him. It was up to the other players, led by Phil Jagielka, to let him know he was worrying unduly. For such a gifted player, Barkley has still to show, aged 24, that he has the maturity to make that next step from being a good, sometimes very good, player to being an outstanding one.
The bottom line, however, is that people talk about him, and write about him, because he belongs to the small band of players with the potential to do it. What Barkley has to avoid is for people to still be discussing all that rich potential when he is in his late 20s. But the facts, statistically, are that no other player at Everton has set up more goals, created more scoring chances or had more successful dribbles in the previous three seasons. Those kind of players do not come through the system very often and that, I suspect, is what really grates Liverpool’s mayor rather than the fact that Chelsea, for once, have paid below the odds.
The Guardian Sport