Ross Barkley has so often been a talking point. Evertonians, the media, various managers, coaches and pundits alike have, since he burst into Everton’s side in that whirlwind 2013/14 season, discussed the young man’s ability, his physicality, his local roots and touted him for stardom at some point. His teammates have given him glowing reviews – the world’s hottest young striker, Romelu Lukaku has described playing with Barkley as a ‘privilege’. Every week, Evertonians tell the world about their diamond from Wavertree who has time and time again brought elation to that faithful crowd and passionately kissed the badge to the delight of everyone in the stands. Young, athletic, adored by thousands, many would do a deal with the devil to live a life like Ross Barkley.
However, the journey of Ross Barkley to this crossroads he now finds himself at in his career is not that of the typical starlet. He is not courting the attention of the countries superpowers off the back of jaw dropping displays as a certain Wayne Rooney once did. Rather, Barkley has been forced to take a very different path.
The second season dip under Martinez was not strictly down to Ross. Shunted out wide and playing in a team lacking the confidence and dynamism of the season before, coupled with the very common ‘second season syndrome’, Barkley could be forgiven one season of disappointment. Still early in his career, it was an unwanted but manageable blip.
The season after was again a major disappointment. Despite brief flashes of the player we saw in 2013/14, Barkley brought yet more frustration as the Blues slumped to yet another bottom half finish. Despite a decent return of goals and assists, he once again did not reach the heights expected of him, and questions were raised about his mental strength – could he handle the role of the local hero? As the first academy player of real class to come through since Wayne Rooney, Evertonians placed their hopes of greatness on his shoulders – a burden that has proved too heavy to carry for Ross, and which has now, in the eyes of most, been passed on to Tom Davies.
You might think I am blowing Barkley’s shortcomings out of proportion. He was indeed playing in a poor side lacking tactical awareness and technical quality, particularly in wide areas – under a manager who was more concerned with an ideological vanity project of possession football rather than properly coaching and developing the players at his disposal. However, Barkley reached the age where players would carve out their reputations – if he were ever to become a Lampard, a Scholes, a truly world class England midfielder, then last season was the time to show it. Players have flourished in poor sides before – that very season, Romelu Lukaku scored 25 goals despite having a severe lack of service due to the shortcomings of Everton’s wide men. When in a rut, the best players take matters into their own hands and drag the team up to an acceptable standard. Barkley sank with the rest of the side, leaving only Lukaku with his head above water.
This season has seen improvement. Barkley has had a good season and has delivered performances particularly at home, that once again put his name up there with the country’s top young talents. His mental strength has appeared to increase markedly – after being dropped by Ronald Koeman Barkley’s performances became much more mature, confident and – crucially – consistent, embracing his new role at inside forward that yielded more goals, assists and a recall to the national setup from which he had been frozen out in Allardyce’s brief tenure and Southgate’s inaugural squad. Despite a poor display in the derby and a couple of lacklustre turnouts in away games, Barkley can be considered to have had a very good season – on the pitch.
Ross has had a tough couple of months away from football, to say the least. For any man, finding out there’s a video of you getting sucker punched is humiliating, but knowing that millions of people would be aware of it, having to sport a black eye on television, and the details of the affair being bandied about and speculated on over social media – those of us out of the spotlight can only imagine the intrusiveness of such an ordeal.
On top of all that, Ross also had to endure the words of one of Britain’s most repulsive individuals being aimed at him, totally unprovoked. To have your intelligence questioned is something footballers will be used to, it’s part of the stereotype and is nothing Barkley wouldn’t have heard before. Racial abuse isn’t meant to be part of the deal. No ifs, no buts, no pleading ignorance. Mackenzie’s disgusting dog whistling was meant to incite outrage, and then like the coward he is, he claimed to be unaware of Barkley’s African heritage. Bollocks. Not only was Barkley’s courting by the Nigerian national team a well circulated story back in 2013, but for a man as despicable as Mackenzie, it is obvious that this kind of statement is calculated and deliberate, and designed to offend while hidden behind a defence of ignorance.
Barkley’s response to these events on the pitch was telling. He gave us the breakthrough in a tight game against Burnley and his passionate celebrations with the fans was a show of defiance to his critics. However, off the pitch, a cloud seems to remain over his head. He has stalled on signing a new deal despite Ronald Koeman’s insistence that he will be sold if he does not – suggesting that Barkley is unsure about where his future lies. Without concrete links to a better side emerging, it seems that he may be wanting an escape from the city and his issues within it. Without the clear backing of the manager he may be seeking a route to a quieter life – perhaps a move abroad, out of the limelight and in a place where he can focus on what he loves – the football.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe he and his agent are just holding out for a bigger pay packet in light of Everton’s new financial muscle. Maybe by the time this article goes out he would have renewed and be preparing to embrace Koeman’s high standards for next season. However, should Barkley turn his back on the Blues this summer in pursuit of a new start, we should not judge him too harshly. In a career that has already brought considerable highs and lows, he cannot be ostracised for seeking a clean slate. We all want Ross to stay put. It is now in his hands. Whatever his decision, he has given us some fantastic moments in blue and white, has come through adversity when challenged, and represented our club and city fantastically. Whether it is the end or the beginning – well in, Ross. You’ll always be our diamond.