There’s a problem in English football. When it comes to a young midfield player showing signs he could be the next big thing; he’ll always be compared to Paul Gascoigne. “He’s the new Gascoigne” is the go-to statement for every journalist, sports pundit or football fan when they want to give their opinion on an emerging talent. The latest pundit to use the Gascoigne tag about Everton’s hottest starlet has been Phil Thompson, and if they aren’t careful, the kind of expectation already heaped on Jack Wilshere’s shoulders will soon be upon those of Ross Barkley.
At only 19, he has already made his debut for England, and impressed, and is continuing to excite in Roberto Martinez’s new look Everton side. Wonderful goals in the opening day draw with Norwich, several impressive displays, followed by another goal against Newcastle have put him firmly in the media limelight. For Evertonians however, this is not a surprise but more of a case of about time. For several years now there have been more than whisperings that Everton had a special talent in their youth ranks.
Barkley joined Everton aged 11, and has impressed ever since if reports are to be believed. However the emergence of Jack Rodwell at the same time allowed him more development time away from the publicity. Five years later all was going well, until an unfortunate collision with Liverpool’s Andre Wisdom in an England under 19s match resulted in his leg being broken in three places, a demoralising setback for any player, never mind someone so young.
Not to be deterred though, Barkley bounced back and was ready for pre-season before the beginning of the 2011/2012 campaign. During this time, Tim Cahill heralded him as the “most talented footballer he had ever played with” and an impressive first team debut followed in a poor 1-0 defeat to QPR on the opening day. Early notable performances led to further praise, this time from Martin Keown, stating that he “will be one of the best players we’ll ever see in this country”. High praise all round at this point for the young Scouser.
Then things seemed to go downhill. David Moyes was well-known for blooding his Everton youngsters slowly and seemingly had no faith in young Barkley. Despite indifferent performances from Everton’s midfield, and the crowd demanding their young starlet, Barkley did not see first team football and was shipped out to both Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, the latter being the most productive. It could be argued that Moyes wanted Barkley to be schooled in the Championship, following in the footsteps of Leon Osman and Seamus Coleman, but it was not a point of view many agreed with. Common consensus that Barkley should have been in the Everton starting eleven was widespread, with the player saying in a recent interview that Dave Jones confided he felt “privileged” to have the youngster in his team.
This year however, things have changed for the better. Ferguson left Manchester United, Moyes jumped ship and Everton had a decision to make. In came Roberto Martinez of Wigan, fresh from defeating Manchester City to win the F.A Cup, but with relegation to the Championship a negative mark on his record. It was instantly obvious that Martinez was impressed by what he had inherited and ready to place his trust in the 19-year-old. Already he has described him as an “incredible football diamond”, even going as far as to compare him to a young Michael Ballack. High praise indeed and it would seem Barkley has taken it all in his stride with impressive performances for Everton and a call up to the England senior team for the qualifier against Moldova. These performances have allowed his career to take off after a few years of struggle, and the interest in him has risen exponentially. With this interest and expectation comes a worrying amount of pressure for someone so young.
However recent interviews from the youngster demonstrate a level head, stating he would “prefer not to be compared with other players” and wishes to do his own thing. Despite the praise and attention, the midfielder is keen to just learn and take everything on board, another aspect Martinez has been keen to highlight. Everton must be cautious in their approach to handling such a talent however. Mistakes will be made, by player and manager alike, Everton’s manager has already alluded to this learning curve, and the expectancy should be kept at a minimum to allow his development to run its natural course. To put too much expectation upon the shoulders of a young player who is still essentially learning his trade would not only be unwise, but reckless.
As Gascoigne is the player that all young talents are compared to, he is also the example of how things can go terribly wrong. Obvious psychological problems aside, the pressure put upon Gascoigne clearly had a negative effect and ruined what should have been a much more glittering career, a problem Everton have to be acutely aware of. Early signs would indicate that Martinez knows what he is doing, but with the praise must also come careful management and criticism. There must also be a cautious approach to ensure that young Barkley remains a team player and not a superstar bigger than his Goodison team mates. Everton are a team known for their spirit and togetherness, something we pride ourselves upon, and this must not be lost by focusing solely on the emerging English talent of the day. If Everton play their cards right, they could have a very special player who will not only be key to their future, but that of England as well.