Midfield dilemma: Barry is now England's central banker

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The Independent Online

When Alan Mullery discusses his career he inevitably mentions chance. He might have been a World Cup winner if he had not injured his back brushing his teeth and missed a tour to South America in 1964. Then again, he might never have played for England at all.

"You have to grab your chance," he says, recalling he gained his first cap on the way to becoming an international regular only because Nobby Stiles was unavailable due to a commitment with Manchester United. He grabbed and held hard, and in the 1970 World Cup he had the game of his life against Pele and was England's player of the tournament.

Forty years on Gareth Barry is also seizing his moment. He would have had many more than his 13 England caps by now if Sven Goran Eriksson had not inexplicably neglected his gifts when the national team were crying out for someone, anyone, who could kick the ball with his left foot. Instead chance has beckoned in almost bizarre circumstances.

If Frank Lampard or Owen Hargreaves had been fit; if Paul Scholes had not retired from international football; if Steve McClaren had preferred Michael Carrick or followed Sven and preferred centre-backs in midfield; so many ifs had to go his way last month for him to play for his country that Barry made a lottery win seem relatively likely. His numbers came up and, like Mullery before him, he looks increasingly secure in the white of England.

Against Israel and Russia last month he was a revelation, yesterday he was alongside Steven Gerrard in central midfield in the 3-0 defeat of Estonia, bringing balance where before there had been bewilderment. Instead of why can't world-class players Lampard and Gerrard play together, the query now is how can England leave Barry out? It is a debate that will resume in the build-up to Wednesday's match against Russia and the answer may well be a revision of the 4-4-2 line-up to accommodate Lampard's inclusion. The Aston Villa midfield player's place at the centre of England's team is surely secure.

What has Barry brought? He is not the quickest and his tackling is powder puff when set in the context of Stiles or even Mullery, but he provides other qualities. But England at last have a player in the front six whose natural inclination is to use his left foot. More importantly, he has quickly assumed an understanding with Gerrard so that one (usually Barry) can hold while the other ranges forward. Lampard is an articulate player and Gerrard is not thick either but they might as well be talking gibberish to each other because they were either both too far forward or both too deep. Maybe they were trying too hard because they could have been attached by a rope.

The cord of discord was cut yesterday leaving Lampard on the sidelines for 70 minutes during which time the Chelsea midfielder had a grandstand seat to watch the Barry-Gerrard axis purr against the hapless Estonians. He was on the bench, Barry was in his armchair, quietly collecting the ball from his back four and coaxing the men in front of him with his intelligent passing. This allowed Gerrard to become almost a third striker, paradoxically giving his central midfield partner the freedom to do what Lampard does best, arriving late to supplement attacks.

Occasionally Barry would ease himself out of the Chesterfield and break into a trot, usually to great effect. At no time more so than with England's first goal, when the focus fell on another promising partnership, Micah Richards and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right. Richards provided the pass, Wright-Phillips the goal but the move was instigated by Barry's 30-yard dash to the right to gain possession and provide an extra man.

This week Barry recalled what his club manager told him 14 months ago. "If you stay here with me," Martin O'Neill said, "you'll improve as a player and you'll eventually get your England call-up again." O'Neill moved Barry to central midfield and his player is now an England regular seven years after gaining his first cap.

What is the future for Lampard? It might be as an impact substitute, allowing Gerrard to play flat out (does he play at anything else?) for an hour. The Chelsea man had a mixed reception from the Wembley crowd when he came on as a substitute for Michael Owen and there was more than a hint of derision when he misplaced a pass towards the end. Almost on cue, the voice on the public address system boomed: "Man of the match is Gareth Barry." Lampard instead of Barry? Fat chance, as Mullery would say.

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