There was a funny start to Ross Barkley’s Chelsea career against Arsenal last week. As Willian prepared to limp off the Emirates Stadium pitch midway through the first half Barkley, his obvious replacement, was still dutifully gamboling up and down the touchline in his tracksuit.
This didn’t go down well with Antonio Conte who seems, even at the best of times, to be in a state of constant eye-boggling rage at every detail of his sentient existence. This is Conte’s default mood, his baseline. But he still managed to find some even deeper gears, letting out a shriek, waggling his arms and clenching his fists like a man strangling invisible kittens and generally urging Barkley back down the touchline like the most embarrassing stressed-out dad in the long and detailed history of embarrassing stressed-out dads.
The Arsenal fans on that side roared with laughter. Barkley scuttled off to remove his shirt, all anxious fingers and thumbs. Finally he came on for his first game of football after eight months out, one traumatic hamstring injury and a life-changing move from his boyhood club. His first act in a Chelsea shirt was to fall on his face. His second was to foul Jack Wilshere. His third was to run the wrong way in search of a pass. After which things really started to go downhill.
There is something compelling about terrible debuts, a kind of voodoo that is hard to shake. Simon Kerrigan’s Test cricket debut for England against Australia at the Oval springs to mind, when Kerrigan didn’t just bowl poorly but seemed to have forgotten completely the sequence of movements he had been repeating with uninterrupted success from childhood, instead hurling down assorted round-arm lobs like a man tossing wellies at a country fair. He hasn’t been seen since.
Judgments have already been passed on Barkley on this basis, doubts confirmed, cards marked.
Which is a great shame for two reasons. First, because it does Barkley a disservice. Yes, he was bad, producing a horribly uncomfortable performance, a sense of being unable to avoid or stop or walk away from what was clearly a traumatically raw and rusty hour of football.
He whirled around a lot, finding pockets of pointless space. He looked red-faced and startled in exactly the way footballers really aren’t supposed to be startled, baffled by the patterns around him. Understandably so. Barkley wasn’t ready. He is not an instinctive, natural-genius kind of footballer, those who seem to define the game simply by playing it, to reek of pure uncut essence of football.
Luka Modric, for example, could be dropped on to the storm-racked surface of Mars with just a lungful of air and a football, and in the 40 seconds or so before he asphyxiated Modric would still be able to move and link and pass between the craters and rock piles, even here asserting his own sense of pure footballing ease.
Barkley is not that player. His form and his conditioning are more delicate. With a little care he will show the best of himself. Really, though, the point of interest here had little to do with Barkley and a lot more to do with that genuinely rare spectacle of a professional athlete so startlingly out of kilter. This is the occasional vertigo of professional sport, the revelation, suddenly, of its brutality, its rarified levels.
There is something deeply reassuring in this, confirmation that even an international footballer at 60 percent is completely out of the game, an alien, a lost boy. And that yes, this is all for real, that even playing elite professional football very badly is mind‑bogglingly difficult.
Underlying this, a background timpani to all sport, is the incredible difficulty of identifying that mixed and flowing quality known as human talent, and of predicting what it might do once you have.
By any reasonable standard Barkley is a brilliantly talented athlete capable of producing a moment as fine as the beautiful goal-making nutmeg pass against Estonia two years ago that illuminated an otherwise mind-numbing night at Wembley, the kind of grey midweek England international that comes over you like a dose of autumn melancholy.
And yet somehow it seems possible to ignore the variables in all this, the thrillingly high margins of his profession and portray Barkley as yet another lazily grasped moral fable, the old football story of squandered talent, excessive material rewards and all the rest.
There are two things worth saying about this. Firstly, the levels of anger directed at a poor performance or a duff season or a stalled career are laughably misplaced, an indication of a complete misunderstanding of what sport is really about, the dizzying human mystery involved in translating talent and graft into tangible achievement. Nobody coasts through this, or doesn’t care. The people who coast and don’t care – you’ve never heard of them. They dropped out years ago.
And secondly, any scorn for Barkley should be saved instead for his exceptionally ruthless manager who knows all of this better than anyone, knows the condition of his player, but was ready to throw Barkley on to the pitch, then to rubbish him in a press conference, using his own player as a weapon with which to gouge away at the Chelsea hierarchy.
As for Barkley he will surely come again. He remains a pure, slightly clogged talent who is simply a part of the system, the set of structures we have all created for him; and who still has the ability, as shown last week, to look alarmingly, endearingly, familiarly mortal.
The Guardian Sport