Ross Barkley’s four-year contract extension will initially just be celebrated on Merseyside, but in time today might become an important moment for English football as a whole.
Barkley, unlike so many other talented British players before him, clearly has a healthy degree of humility.
We talk about entitlement in the Premier League and specifically in reference to the home-grown talent who emerge into it. There’s a growing temptation now for developing talent to believe that, as soon as they’ve stepped onto a top-level pitch, they’ve made it and that they are then - by default - owed all the fame and notoriety associated with being a professional athlete.
Give the average British player thirty Premier League appearances, a couple of England caps, and a nice write-up in a broadsheet, and they will start assuming that the Balon d’Or is an inevitability. Then come the wage demands, then the apparent ‘need’ to be playing Champions League football and then, almost inevitably, will follow a period of mid-career stagnation at a club they weren’t ready to play for.
The irony here, is that Barkley is more talented than any of the players associated with that cycle. He’s not Shaun Wright-Philips, he’s not Jack Rodwell, and he’s certainly not Scott Sinclair. Barkley is unquestionably one of the most exciting prospects of his generation and so he could probably be excused for wanting to make that transition sooner than others have done, but it’s genuinely heart-warming to see an English player ignore all the hyperbole around him and make a career decision based on development rather than money.
Everton seems to be a perfect environment for him at the moment and, more specifically, Roberto Martinez appears to be the ideal manager. The Spaniard not only has a lot of faith in Barkley and not only tolerates the rawness in his game, but he also preaches a style of football that will allow the player to develop at a very quick pace. Everton are now an offensive, possession-based side, and that style is completely in synch with Barkley’s game - he wants the ball at his feet, he wants to express himself, and he wants sometimes to be able to play the game in a high-risk/high-reward way.
Everton and Martinez will allow him to do that.
Barkley is talented enough to get games at a Champions League level, but it would under completely different circumstances. At a Chelsea or Manchester City-sized club, he might well have got onto the pitch and he might even have started games, but it would all have been conditional and would have involved much less creative responsibility and licence.
And ‘responsibility’ is a key word here. By being a regular starter at Everton and by being one of the players upon whose shoulders his side’s fortunes ultimately rest, Barkley will mature very quickly and begin to marry his talent with better decision-making. He’ll learn when to play a low-percentage ball and when not to, and he’ll find out that beating two players and retaining possession is more productive than beating three and turning it over; these are the little details that turn a theoretical talent into actual greatness because it’s how a player acquires game-intelligence.
What happens if he makes a mistake in a Champions League game for Chelsea? He’d get benched for six weeks and bracketed as untrustworthy. But at Everton? He plays again the next week, and gets the chance to actually learn from the experience.
There are of course no guarantees that Ross Barkley will remain at Everton until the end of his new contract, but that’s really not the point - it’s the intention that’s so refreshing here and it’s the player’s appreciation of his own standing that makes this deal noteworthy.
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