Ross Barkley photoshoot ()Ross Barkley photoshoot () © Copyright

Ross Barkley talks Euros, and England's chances

Ross Barkley is a big lad. When he walks into the Liverpool warehouse-cum-bar that we’re due to meet in, wearing the full England kit, heads turn.

Barkley is 6ft 2in. You can read that on his Wikipedia page. What you can’t read on Wiki, or detect while watching him play, is the lean bulk of his imposing frame. The neat tailoring of the new England kit he models does help define his muscular contours, but it does not work miracles. If they filmed Vindaloo tomorrow with a kit update, Keith Allen would still have a beer belly.

Ross Barkley playing for England ()

 

Wavertree diamond

Though Barkley is built like an Olympic sprinter, he’s a pure, thoroughbred footballer. “Football meant everything to me,” the 22-year-old tells us about growing up in Wavertree, inner-city Liverpool.

It’s not hard to see why. Barkley has been touted as a talent ever since Alby Heywood saw him dominating a kickabout in his local park as a spindly eight-year-old. Heywood, the founder of Liverpool junior football club Ash Celtic, signed him up.

What started as a means of getting him “off the street and doing something” turned into a mercurial rise. Not that Barkley saw it as the start of something big at the time. “I’d always loved playing football in the street, so I went there,” he says. “From the off, I was scoring goals, and I was just enjoying it straight away.”

Ash Celtic enjoyed having him, playing him across the age groups. On a typical Sunday he’d play for the under-11s, then get to another pitch to play for the under-10s, the kick-off of which was delayed until his arrival under the pretence of a player being at morning prayers.

“He’d play all day if he could,” Kevin Fray, his coach in those days, has said about Barkley’s love of the game. And it wasn’t just his enthusiasm: Barkley was magic on the pitch. Tales abound of him scoring from kick-offs, scoring from the opposition’s corners, coming on with 20 left against older lads and turning games around.

It was a matter of time before a big club picked him up and the first one to come calling was Everton, Barkley’s boyhood team. He joined aged 11 and he’s still there now. Though he played as a centre half in his younger years, his creativity, vision and eye for goal meant he was destined for the attacking midfield role he now calls his own at Everton.

Ross Barkley Photoshoot ()

 

The big break

Barkley’s development was astonishing. He trained with the Everton senior squad aged 14. By 15, he was a member of the England under-17 side. At 16, he scored twice as England won the 2010 European Under-17 Championships.

So rapid was his progression that then-Toffees boss David Moyes told the young Barkley that he was in line for a first team game. Bluenoses would see his face on the bench, and Moyes regularly told the press it was only a matter of time before he’d get the nod. He was given a run-out as a 16-year-old in Jamie Carragher’s testimonial match against Liverpool at Anfield in autumn of 2010.

The rise came to a sharp halt when, in late 2010, Barkley was away in Belgium with England’s under-19s, and he broke his leg. A triple fracture: “a big injury,” to borrow Moyes’ words.

Though the Belgian doctor’s assessment that he might never play again proved a hasty prognosis, it was nonetheless a major setback for Barkley. His chance of eclipsing Wayne Rooney as the Goodison Park outfit’s youngest ever league debutant was gone.

But on his return, he was straight back into the first team fold, and, as ever, he was leaving a big impression. Everton’s combative striker Tim Cahill called him a “special talent”. “I think he is going to be a massive asset to Everton and [the city of] Liverpool,” Australia’s leading World Cup goalscorer said.

Barkley never got ahead of himself. His mother would say “when you play for Everton”, and he would counter it with “if”. But the dream became real when he made his long-awaited club debut in Everton’s opening home game of the 2011-12 campaign. He enjoyed five further Premier League outings that season, as well as appearances in the FA and League cup competitions.

In the 2013-14 season, he became a fixture in the Everton first team. New manager Roberto Martinez gave Barkley a platform to shine. In his new attacking midfield role, he played 34 league games as Everton finished fifth. He scored six league goals, including a virtuoso run from his own half away at Newcastle, and a memorable 30-yard winner at Swansea. His reward was a place in the England squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Ross Barkley Photoshoot ()

 

Club England

If Rooney is the final member of the so-called Golden Generation, Barkley is one of England’s new young order – a product of both club academies and the national youth development system.

England under-21 manager Gareth Southgate told this magazine in 2014 that the purpose of St George’s Park, the £105million National Football Centre that opened in 2012, is to “identify [players] earlier, get them used to coming here and used to working in the way we want to”.

That ethos predates the opening of St George’s Park. Former England boss Graham Taylor talked about a “Club England” concept as far back as 2007, and Barkley is a case study of that approach. He has represented his country at every level since the age of 14, playing alongside the likes of Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Jack Butland.

“It helps having us mix from an early age,” says Barkley. “When I first got involved in England, you didn’t really know the other lads from a young age. We’re like teammates now, we text each other all the time.”

The big man is naturally reserved, humble for a modern footballer, fiercely loyal to his family, his club and his town. He is at ease with his status as the city’s leading young sportsman; he enjoys eating out in Liverpool and staying in town for a few games of pool with his mates. I see him gladly pose for photographs with young fans whose Snapchats have just hit the jackpot.

His quiet, assertive tone underlines the self-belief that comes out when I ask whether he feels any pressure to maintain the same levels on the senior stage that he performed to throughout his development.

“I’ve always tried to be the best I can be,” he says. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the game. I see it as a hobby, I don’t see it as a job. So I don’t see any pressure in me playing for the seniors now. I just see it as me playing football, and doing what I’ve been doing since I was a kid.” 

Ross Barkley celebrates with Everton ()

 

Dominate like Demebele

Barkley’s earliest memory of watching England is the stoppage time free-kick David Beckham scored against Greece to book a place at the 2002 World Cup. But Goldenballs was not one of Barkley’s idols. He looked to engine room players for inspiration. 

“It was [Steven] Gerrard, [Paul] Scholes, those types of players,” Barkley tells us. “And then Rio Ferdinand as well, because I was a centre half when I was a kid.”

In one of his earliest appearances in an Everton shirt, Barkley found himself up against the “class” of Scholes and Rooney at Old Trafford. But another, less obvious player left just as big an impression in his late teenage years – Belgium centre mid Mousa Dembele, then of Fulham, now of high-flying Tottenham.

“That’s when [Dembele] really kicked on,” Barkley recalls. “The way he manipulated the ball was really good. He was a strong player as well, difficult to play against.”

Like his opponent that day, Barkley is another player who has kicked on. He has played more games for Everton this season than ever before, and has racked up a double-digit goals tally for the first time, helping fire Everton to the League and FA Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1984.

At international level, too, there are signs that Barkley’s influence is growing. He didn’t feature in the first three of England’s Euro 2016 qualifiers (mainly because of a medial collateral ligament injury), but was involved for the remaining seven, scoring two goals, as England secured qualification with a perfect ten wins in ten games. It’s a record that gives him confidence about England’s chances in France.

“We were flying in the qualifiers,” he says. “We won every game, and we’ve been doing well against the top nations in the friendlies. So we’ve got the belief now going into the tournament.

“We know that people are going to see us as one of the favourites because of how well we’ve done. But we’re focused on doing things right in the group, and hopefully kicking on from there.”

Though England flopped two years ago at the World Cup in Brazil, Barkley at least benefited from being part of that set-up for the first time. He came on for the final half hour against Italy and Uruguay, and started the final group game against Costa Rica. It was a valuable learning experience.

“The atmosphere in Brazil was unbelievable,” he recalls.

“Their fans and our fans. Every stadium was really loud.

“In the Premier League, it can be lively when you’re getting chances, but in Brazil the whole 90 minutes, you were struggling to hear people speak on the pitch.

“It was disappointing [getting knocked out in the group stages] but I learned a lot from it.” 

Ross Barkley England Costa Rica world cup ()

 

In the two summers that have passed since Brazil, the England team has been revitalised by the addition of Barkley’s peers from the youth ranks: Kane, Dier, Stones, Butland, as well as Tottenham’s 20-year-old attacking midfielder Dele Alli. It’s an exciting dynamic
to be a part of.

“It feels great, because there’s a mixture of young lads and experienced players,” Barkley says. “We’ve got no fear. We’re all young and have lots of ability. We’ve played together from a young age, so we’ve got chemistry, an understanding of what players need and what they want on the pitch.”

He believes the “world class  players” in all the Premier League squads means that England’s young crop will have no problems stepping up this summer. And though the nation’s expectations have incrementally diminished with failure after failure, Barkley remains upbeat.

“We’ve got as good a chance as the nations like Germany and Spain,” he insists. “We did well against Germany and well against all the other teams. So we’ve got a good chance of winning it.”

Win the opening few games, and the pressure from the public will start to rise. Lose, and the usual attitude of ‘try to prove you’re not as useless as we thought’ will prevail. Either way, Barkley is ready.

“I don’t feel pressure,” he says. “There are teams in the past who’ve had unbelievable players and haven’t won anything. So we’re not gonna feel any pressure. But it would be unbelievable for us to go out and win something.”

As ever, Barkley does not want to get ahead of himself, but that last line shows he’s prepared to dream. This summer is his chance to make the ultimate step up. Do it, and he’ll make us dream, too.

Ross Barkley wears England’s new 2016 home and away kits, built for speed with revolutionary Nike AeroSwift innovation. Visit nike.com for more information

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