Football: Brilliant Barry is top of the form

He is younger than Michael Owen and has Villa Park enthralled. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
TO PARAPHRASE a well-known advertising slogan featuring Eric Cantona, 1966 and all that: 1981 was a great year for Aston Villa - Gareth Barry was born.

Villa go into Saturday's top-of-the-table collision at home to Derby County occupying the top spot in which they last finished 17 years ago, when Barry was sucking dummies rather than selling them to forwards. Their fine start has been based on defensive meanness - just one goal given up in six Premiership games - and the contribution of their fresh-faced No 15 has been as awesome as it was unexpected.

Barry did not become a full-time professional until February, having come to the club only the previous summer. But already, perhaps prematurely after fewer than 10 senior appearances, he has drawn comparisons with the young Bobby Moore. Time will tell, yet the belief that Villa have unearthed pure gold in claret and blue owes more to his extraordinary composure than the coincidence of colours.

On Friday Villa will attend a tribunal which will decide how much, if anything, they must pay Brighton & Hove Albion for plucking him from their centre of excellence at the age of 16. A figure of pounds 3,500, to cover coaching expenses, has been mentioned. If John Gregory were ordered to pay pounds 3.5m, he would be advised to cough up.

The scout who delivered Barry to Villa was Brian Jones. Having spotted him playing in a Sussex schools match and recommended him to Brian Little, Jones now regards him as his best discovery since Gordon Cowans. Arsenal and Chelsea also had designs on him, although at one time he was tempted to pursue a career in rugby or cricket.

Gregory, then two months into the manager's job, gave him his debut against the new champions, Arsenal, on last season's final day. Barry hardly gave Nicolas Anelka a kick in a 1-0 win. However, when Villa paid pounds 3m for David Unsworth to replace Steve Staunton on the left of the back three, the former midfielder looked set for another year out of the public gaze.

Now the guitar-strumming Gregory could be forgiven for bursting into an impromptu rendition of "Here's to you, Mrs Unsworth". For it was her insistence that her husband find a club in the North-west that led to Barry receiving his opportunity on the opening day of the new campaign.

He took it with both feet, coping with the heat, the clamour of the Everton crowd and Duncan Ferguson as if he was enjoying a beach game back in his home town of Hastings. "The lad had no fear or apprehension at all," Gregory purred. "He produced one cushioned header to a team-mate, under pressure, that made me turn to Steve Harrison (Villa's coach) in disbelief."

One of Glenn Hoddle's backroom staff, Peter Taylor, was equally impressed. Barry, who stands a quarter of an inch under 6ft, is an England Under- 18 cap and seems certain to follow his fellow Villa defender, Riccardo Scimeca, into the Under-21s.

To put his promise into perspective: Scimeca, who captained his country at the latter level, is rated a good prospect. Barry has a staggering six years on him, not to mention being 14 months younger than Michael Owen.

Villa-watchers have waited for a hint of fallibility. Alan Shearer did not manage to expose one. Nor did Wimbledon's towering strikeforce. And he was coolness itself at Leeds, killing one long pass on his chest in the penalty area and feinting past Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink with a drop of the shoulder before launching a counter-attack with the outside of the foot.

That cameo moved Gregory to describe Barry as "a bit of a freak", and to admit there were times when he wished he would belt the ball into Row Z. "I suppose one day he'll get caught being too clever and it'll cost us a goal, but we're not going to try to change him," he said "It's best not to tamper with talent like that."

Nor to burn it out either, as his manager is only too aware. "Gareth can be anybody he wants, but you would think there will come a time at such a tender age when he dips and has to come out of the action. It's down to us how we use him, how we look after him after matches and to make sure we don't flog the guts out of him all week in training.

"He has coped with it all so far. He's a quick learner and has the advantage of being a down-to-earth kid but I've seen so many players destroyed by putting them on a pedestal. They can be on top of the world at 17 and disappear off the face of the earth by 19. Still, he's been the biggest bonus of my time here and if he plays 30 games this season it'll be phenomenal."

Strikers win matches, Gregory is fond of saying, whereas defenders win championships. Villa have won nothing yet, but with Barry maturing rapidly alongside Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, they are unlikely to fail for want of a solid foundation.