On a cold night a couple of months ago my friend Jonathan and I climbed the many stairs of the Leazes stand at St James’s Park Newcastle and took our seats in the top corner, which, even though it was now past seven and was dark, had a clear view of the headlights and taillights of vehicles travelling up and down the A1 motorway as it cut through Team Valley. When I lowered my gaze, I could see the entire pitch below – players from both sides warmed up, but their numbers and even their physical characteristics were somewhat disguised by my distance from them. It was like watching the game from an airship – or, if you’re theologically-inclined, the kind of view God might have of a football game between Newcastle United and Everton.
The game kicked off. In the run up to the match, Newcastle had been doing badly and Everton well, but the home side dominated for the first fifteen minutes before being pinned back into their half.
A free kick was awarded to Everton outside the Newcastle penalty area. A figure in blue stepped up. ‘Oh no! Barkley’ a nearby Magpies fan muttered to himself. Sometimes a stadium is an amplification system for thousands of anxious internal monologues that, when externalised all at once, sound like a single voice: the roar of the crowd.
Except it wasn’t Barkley – it was Leighton Baines, and the free kick came to nothing. The nearby fan had, nevertheless, given voice to the growing buzz that surrounds Barkley. Barkley’s ability to turn a game was feared by opposition fans, even if there hadn’t actually been much proof of that potency. Barkley had had a reasonable season, and had started perhaps half of Everton’s games. But he was still more likely to tire or lose the ball than galvanise a victory – his uncompromising physicality had a tendency to burn itself out, and his individualism often blinkered him to the simple pass that kept possession. He had scored a handful of excellent goals and put himself about admirably. I was a little amused, however, by the way opposition fans anticipated his brilliance – it seemed, to me, a bit of an urban legend, like the way the children on the streets of Baltimore tell tales of the renegade stick-up man Omar in The Wire.
Then Barkley picked up the ball in the Everton half and ran two-thirds of the length of the pitch, dodging half-hearted tackles from the Newcastle defenders and ignoring his teammates’ invitation to pass before thumping it into the goal at the Gallowgate end.
As an Irish Everton fan, drawn to the club after the World Cup in 1990 because Kevin Sheedy played for them, I had seen a couple of friendlies Everton had played against League of Ireland sides over the years, the most recent of which was an August 2011 friendly against Bohemians. The game actually took place in the second week of the Premier League season – Everton’s away game against Tottenham had been postponed because of the riots a few days before. In Everton’s side was Jermaine Beckford, who had enjoyed a fairly indifferent 2010/11 season with the club, aside from a remarkable goal against Chelsea where his solo run from the edge of the Everton area ended with him hitting the net. He scored against Bohemians too, and even though the game was pretty dull and ended 1-1, Barkley impressed in midfield. The overriding impression I still hold of him was his raw, unfinished quality: he galloped around chasing the ball, he mistimed challenges – but his touch and control were generally very impressive. He was still 17 years old.
In football, a sport where careers are short, youth is fetishized. Many Evertonians can reel off a list of players who started young for the club and went on to great things: Joe Royle made his debut for the first team in 1966 aged just sixteen. Wayne Rooney was the same age in 2002 when he came on at Goodison Park against Tottenham Hotspur. Some others who got their start young: Jack Rodwell, Jose Baxter, James Vaughan, Francis Jeffers and Danny Cadamarteri. (A couple of years before, I had seen Dundee United play a friendly against University College Dublin where Cadamarteri was an unused substitute for the Scottish side. He retired at the end of the 2013-14 season, having played for two years with Carlisle United.) The fetishisation of youth is in part a mania focused on potential – what a player could become, based on the possibilities projected onto the imagination by their every move, shimmy and shot.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s highly entertaining autobiography is particularly good at ignoring the relative importance of the kind of everyday drudgery most people know essential to football – instead, he concentrates on the pivotal, kinetic moments of his career. These transformative events take place largely when Ibrahimovic knows he must impress a scout or a potential manager. They are performed, in other words, when an opportunity – often financial – presents itself. Ibrahimovic conceives these moments – the memorable, often stunning passages of play where time appears to stand still and the crowd collectively holds its breath – as not just the product of the game on the pitch as it happens, but part of a larger game of contract negotiations and transfers to bigger clubs. (Although, this being Zlatan, there is also a persistent motivational factor of spite in some of his greatest performances.) Given Ibrahimovic’s contextualisation of these moments, one must applaud the contemporary player who creates a moment of undomesticated transcendence in a comparatively meaningless game – applaud him not least for his lack of self-control.
When Barkley picked up the ball in St James’s Park, I still had an idea of him as a raw player, full of potential. When the ball hit the net, I began to think about how that raw individualism – responsible for the kind of outlook that makes you elbow your fellow players off the ball and dribble eighty yards – might be educated out of him in the future. A few weeks later, he scored a spectacular long-range goal, struck from an angle against Manchester City, that was later awarded Everton’s goal of the season.
When Barkley was named in the England squad for this summer’s World Cup, manager Roy Hodgson echoed what Everton manager Roberto Martinez had been saying all year: it might be a little early for Barkley, but his potential makes him an exciting prospect. It remains to be seen whether his rawness – that which makes Barkley great, but also unpredictable – is harnessed or discouraged at international level.
Posted by Karl Whitney