Ahead of the Community Shield between Manchester City and Liverpool at Wembley, Football FanCast spoke exclusively to Gareth Barry.
Barry, who holds the record for the highest number of Premier League appearances, was at the home of English football to present at the The FA & McDonald’s Grassroots Awards National Ceremony.
He said: “I’m at Wembley today helping the FA present some awards for grassroots football, for the volunteers that help out kids across the country and give up their time to help this game grow in the UK.”
It is the noble commitments of individuals at grassroots level – often unpaid, time consuming and tiresome – that prop up the very foundations of the English game, that allow youngsters the opportunity to blossom into fully fledged professionals, that give the next generation an opportunity to pursue their passion.
The awards included: Coach of the Year, Official of the Year and the Rising Star award, which Barry himself was presenting.
The 38-year-old knows all too well about being a rising star having left home to join Aston Villa at just 16, settling in with a foster parent in the Midlands some 200 miles from home.
In the career that has unfolded and spanned more than twenty years, it’s become abundantly clear that Barry is a player defined by his selflessness, professionalism and humility, qualities that are synonymous with those individuals who were recognised for their contribution to grassroots football at the home of English football.
The former Manchester City star was naturally intrigued by the Premier League curtain raiser and he suggested the fixture could have a small psychological impact for both clubs.
“I think it might have a little bearing, it’s a little advantage they’ll be looking to sneak in before the start of the season. But I think both managers will be using it as more minutes for the players in pre-season. Pep made quite big thing of it last year, he wanted this one on top of it (the domestic treble)!”
Guardiola’s relentless thirst for silverware, no matter how big or small, was quenched via a narrow penalty shootout win. But evidence that Liverpool remain a stark threat to City’s supremacy was sprayed all over the Wembley turf, and the Reds’ dismantling of Norwich City last Friday provided a fresh reminder when the new season got underway at Anfield.
Barry ultimately joined City in 2009 but not without first resisting the advances of Liverpool. Reports closer to the time suggested Rafael Benitez was eager to replace Xabi Alonso with Villa’s lynchpin, but the Spaniard missed out on his midfield target.
Why, you might wonder, would a player turn down a club of Liverpool’s rich history and international prestige, one who had won the Champions League just four years prior, in favour of little City, a club who had failed to win a single trophy since 1976.
“The one thing that stands out at the time when I was leaving Villa, and obviously Liverpool were interested. There’s one conversation that I always go back to. I spoke with Mark Hughes about the project and he said City are a train that’s going somewhere special, and you’d be foolish not to get on it.
“He mentioned a few players they were trying to sign and he mentioned the ambition of the owners and what they wanted to do on the training ground and eventually they saw the club winning Premier Leagues. That’s how I saw it and I got on that train!”
And a wise decision as well. The steamrolling train has perpetually gathered momentum, toppling the established order and overtaking their fierce local rivals on the journey, and Barry is far from surprised with the extent of the success they have accumulated since the takeover.
“I did see them winning trophies in the time I was there and, once clubs pick up that trophy and break their duck, it breeds confidence. They’ve continued to bring in top class players and to improve everything around the club both on and off the pitch, and they’re a powerhouse of a club across the world.”
City’s status as a global powerhouse has been cemented by Guardiola, who has finished the job of his predecessors in imperious style. Records have fallen and titles have been won while his side have championed a brand of football that has arguably revolutionised the entire footballing pyramid from grassroots level upwards.
It is easy for supporters to gush over their current situation and forget that this is not a pattern that can continue indefinitely. Such is the beauty of football that changes in management can stimulate tectonic power shifts. Just ask Manchester United.
But when questioned about City’s potential contingency plan, Barry spoke with an assurance that suggested he’s familiar enough with the moving cogs behind the scenes to trust in the long-term future.
“That will be a problem [Guardiola’s departure] but again everything comes to an end. I’m sure the people in place are planning for that future but why look past Pep when he seems to be really happy and enjoying himself.”
As Barry alluded to, breaking the duck is imperative. One brings two and City’s ability to lift four Premier League titles in the last eight seasons certainly owes a great debt to Roberto Mancini’s title-winning campaign in the 2011/12 season, one which will go down in the annals for its spine-tingling drama and astonishing unpredictability, and one which the holding midfielder played a key role in.
Sitting alongside Nigel de Jong at the base of a deep-lying two man midfield, the partnership formed the backbone of the club’s success. They complemented one another and always seemed to operate in tandem, remaining aware of each other’s whereabouts at all times. But how did the chemistry translate away from the pitch?
“That was it really, Nigel’s really bubbly. Even our styles of play are a bit different, he’s a bit more diving into tackles and letting people know he’s around and I’m more calm and that’s pretty much how we are off the pitch. He’s loud and bubbly and I’m a bit more quiet, so we complement each other on and off the pitch.
“It was a good time there and I enjoyed playing with Nigel. Yaya used to pop up in front of us and he was great to have.”
Throughout Barry’s career he was lauded by his managers but perhaps somewhat undervalued by rival supporters. That, to an extent, is a byproduct of playing in defensive midfield. It is a humble role, one which requires immense discipline and a selfless attitude.
It is a thankless task on paper but ringing endorsements from various managers throughout Barry’s career underlined how highly he was regarded by the most important figures in the game. Roberto Martinez labelled him as “one of the best English players ever”; Ronald Koeman dubbed him one of the best players he’s ever managed; Mancini claimed he was fit to captain the England national team.
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But praise of comparable esteem was not usually as forthcoming from the average fan, though that was never a concern to Barry.
“I think that’s it. It’s one thing that’s not really bothered me. Whenever I go back to my former clubs I always get a good reception, a good ovation, that means a lot and I don’t need the opposition fans to appreciate me too!
“As long as the fans who follow you week in week out and follow you across the country, across Europe, are happy, then that’s more than enough for me personally.
“I’ve played at four clubs now and I’ve been picked for a lot of games, so the manager is the one! If they’re happy with what I’m doing that’s more than enough for me.”
After his contract at West Bromwich Albion expired, Barry was one of the more attractive free agents on the market, but the Baggies didn’t allow him to leave for too long as it has since been confirmed that he will re-sign for the club.
When we spoke to the Premier League legend he seemed eager to return to action rather than follow the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard into management, so the announcement comes as little surprise.
“I’m just getting over my operation on my knee this year and doing a bit of rehab.
“Until it’s official that the playing career is over then I’ll make a decision then and see what the future holds.”
Gareth Barry was speaking at The FA & McDonald’s Grassroots Awards National Ceremony. The awards reward the volunteers who keep the grassroots game going. To participate in the Fun Football programme, go to mcdonalds.co.uk/FunFootball