It is hard to believe now that Gareth Barry's ankle was as much of a cause celebre amid England's World Cup preparations last May as the fractured metatarsals of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney had been to previous campaigns. "Barry preying on Fabio's mind" ran one headline at the time. "Not a prayer without crocked Barry" was another.
Wearing the captain's armband, as Barry will for the first time tonight, should be the pinnacle of a stately progression from a player whose performance against Israel in September 2007 was a revelation to the apparent lynchpin of Fabio Capello's side. Instead, Barry finds himself assailed from all sides by other England midfield prospects – Jack Wilshere and, as of Saturday, Scott Parker – and is unmistakably wounded by the fact that Capello did not even deem him worthy of a place on England's bench in Cardiff on Saturday.
He put a brave face on that yesterday – "this is just football; it sums up the game," he said – though he has grounds to feel he has been dealt a poor hand. Barry did travel to South Africa, of course, and though not fit when finally pressed into action for England's second game against Algeria, will always be cast as the midfielder whose lack of pace was exploited by Germany's Mesut Özil on that fateful afternoon in Bloemfontein, rather than the one prepared to risk his reputation by playing at less than his physical peak.
Barry was not allowing excuses yesterday. "It would be easy to say 'no I wasn't [fit]', that I wanted to get out there and play for my country, but I'm not like that. I'm not looking for an excuse. I felt fit enough. It's no excuse," he insisted. Neither is he pretending that he has blistering pace, though that is not what the nation was focusing on last May. "That's one thing that's been aimed at me since I was 17, a lack of pace," Barry said. "I'm no slower now than I was then. That one incident people recall, from the Germany game, [the fourth goal] was on the highest stage at the World Cup, so it will be remembered. I'm comfortable with it. You have to be strong and forget about it, play your normal game. I'm not going to go out and get some extra speed training. You are what you are. You're picked to play and do your job."
That "job" has never involved snapping into challenges like Claude Makelele in his pomp: the role he has been asked to perform for England is Nigel de Jong's at Manchester City, not his. Why Barry so obsessed the nation was that quiet and busy efficiency he can have at harassing opponents and shifting a ball – a killer pass sometimes – to a team-mate, to give England their rhythm.
With Parker so formidable in the harassing role, Wilshere so thrillingly inventive and Steven Gerrard also due back, the picture looks grey for Barry, though he has been here before. He waited three long years for his seventh international cap and when two came in 2003, there was another four-year wait for a ninth. But little wonder he looked more bruised than ebullient when he arrived yesterday to discuss his role as stand-in captain against Ghana.
There was a brief flash of the wit that is a lesser known part of his make-up. Asked if the England players were offered the same opportunity to challenge his appointment as when Capello gathered his team to reveal John Terry's reinstatement he said, "No. I didn't give them the chance." Yet you sensed his acute awareness of the struggle ahead. Barry as the pivot of England's midfield was "the way it was being spoken about" last May, he agreed. "I was comfortable playing there and my form was good for England. On Saturday I wasn't involved, and now I'm captain. That's just football and the way things can change. I'm not sitting here thinking I'm a regular again for England, that I don't have to keep my form. It doesn't work like that."
* Through injury or otherwise, England are without a number of experienced players for tonight's visit of Ghana.
Rio Ferdinand (calf; 80 caps)
Ben Foster (virus; five caps)
Steven Gerrard (groin; 89 caps)
Adam Johnson (ankle; six caps)
Ledley King (thigh/knee; 21 caps)
Aaron Lennon (hamstring; 19 caps)
Theo Walcott (ankle; 16 caps)
Kyle Walker (groin; no caps)
Ashley Cole (88 caps)
Michael Dawson (four caps)
Frank Lampard (85 caps)
Wayne Rooney (70 caps)
John Terry (67 caps)