With Everton's Ross Barkley named in Roy Hodgson's squad for the World Cup in Brazil, Richard Edwards charts the rise of the scouse sensation...
Phil Neville describes Ross Barkley’s sensational strike against Manchester City in early May as a “Wayne Rooney moment”.
But in reality it probably did little to alter the thinking of England boss Roy Hodgson who, like the majority of other judges, have long suspected that the unassuming Evertonian represents the future of the English game.
That ‘Rooney moment’ referred to by Neville happened as far back as 2002 and remains the most significant goal ever scored by a man who now earns the thick end of £300,000 per week. Back then, as a 16-year-old apprentice at Goodison Park, Rooney was trousering just about enough for a Happy Meal, a copy of FourFourTwo and a couple of cans of Red Bull.
Like Rooney, whose famous goalscoring cameo against Arsenal was actually his 10th appearance, Barkley made his Everton debut as a fast-tracked starter - a low-key 90 minutes as David Moyes’ men slumped to a 1-0 home defeat to newly-promoted QPR in August 2011. If and when he runs out with the Three Lions positioned proudly on his chest against Italy in Manaus on June 14, that club bow will seem an awfully long time ago.
Watching on from afar will be Tosh Farrell, the former Everton coach who can claim to have played a key role in the development of some of English football’s most outstanding talent. Alongside Barkley and Rooney, he has also worked with the likes of Manchester City’s Jack Rodwell and Jose Baxter, a recent FA Cup semi-finalist with Sheffield United. This summer, though, all eyes – including Farrell’s – will be focused firmly on the Everton starlet.
“Ross can be anything he wants,” Farrell tells FourFourTwo. “He can play centre-midfield, he can play as a striker. He’s flying but there’s so much more improvement in him.
“He was never scared to take a chance in the game and he still makes one or two errors in the game where he gets dispossessed in vulnerable areas but the modern-day manager has to accept those mistakes because he’s the sort of lad who learns from them.
“If you start telling Ross not to do things he wouldn’t be anywhere near as creative as he is.”
Ross Barkley has the temperament to do well at the World Cup...
The conservative Hodgson is unlikely to give Barkley the same licence he was handed by Everton boss Roberto Martinez this season, but his performance against Manchester City in the title run-in suggest that the 20-year-old is ready to step-up and shine on football’s biggest stage.
“Ross Barkley has the temperament to do well at the World Cup,” says Neville. “His goal (against City) reminded me a bit of the Rooney moment from way back. It was a bit of a moment that said ‘I’ve arrived’. He has been on the periphery for the last 12 months; I think that was the moment where he said ‘I’ve arrived, I want to go to the World Cup’.
“Roy was at the game and I think he not only thought that he’s got to go (to the World Cup) but he also might have to play.”
"Jack was like a Rolls-Royce"
While Barkley will be at his first World Cup, and potentially playing a crucial role in England’s campaign, his former colleague, Rodwell, will be watching and wondering what might have been.
Injuries and a lack of first team opportunities at City mean that Rodwell’s name was barely mentioned in the run-up to the announcement of Hodgson’s England squad. Farrell, though, tells FFT that things could have been very different.
“There are times, with the likes of Jack Rodwell and Ross, that you wouldn’t know if they were right- or left-footed,” he says. “There wasn’t too much between them. Jack was like a Rolls-Royce.
“At under-14 Jack was probably the most coveted player in the country. Everyone was after him for big money and he would have justified it, no doubt. If someone had got hold of him and taught him how to head properly he would have been the best centre-back that we’ve ever produced. He was fantastic. He had the lot.”
Every game he’s building on his last one, and soon he’ll dominate midfields...
At the age of just 20, it’s Barkley who has the world at his feet, a reality illustrated by his barn-storming performances under Martinez.
“Ross has really been given a licence to play and has been told to go out there and take a chance,” says Farrell. “Every game he’s building on his last one, and soon he’ll dominate midfields. The problem is that he’s a marked man, sometimes the opposition will try and stifle him so he’ll have to manage that too.”
Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica will provide Barkley will an altogether different challenge, and England’s warm-up matches against Peru at Wembley and Ecuador and Honduras in Miami are likely to be used by Hodgson as a chance to see if it’s one he can rise to.
The sauna-like temperatures in Manaus will also test the Merseysider, and it's easy to underestimate the importance of the conditions. Brad Friedel - who, like Neville, will be working for the BBC during this summer’s tournament in Brazil - recalls watching South Korea play Germany in Dallas at the 1994 World Cup. Germany went in at half-time 3-0 up, but Friedel watched as the Koreans dominated the "spent" Germans after the break, and the US goalkeeper notes how the defending champions were lucky to escape with a 3-2 win.
That should act as a cautionary tale for those calling for England to hand Barkley a key role and adopt a gung-ho approach in Brazil. Running 90 minutes in Manaus is likely to be very different to covering every blade of grass on a Saturday afternoon at Goodison.
Regardless of the heat that awaits him on and off the pitch in South America, Neville is sure that Barkley will tackle his first World Cup in typical style – head on.
“The moment I saw him I knew he was a special player,” says Neville. “He had the ability to take the ball under pressure and that’s a special quality to have. People think bravery is about going round and smashing people but it’s not. It’s about being able to take the ball and do something with it.”
Hodgson has shown courage in selecting him in his 23. It’s now up to Barkley to live up to his billing.