World Cup 2014: Ross Barkley hype grows, despite Roy Hodgson's attempts to calm expectations
Midfielder's marauding runs remind Lampard of the young Rooney but England manager wants to keep the pressure off
This time last year, Ross Barkley was preparing for another World Cup for England – the Under-20s edition staged in Turkey. And, as has become the custom for the Football Association, it was another disaster for the English. That time they failed even to beat Iraq, the kind of scoreline that felt like it belonged to a set of results read out on The Day Today. Alas, it was true.
The squad was cobbled together from the players who were not part of the Under-21 European Championship debacle in Israel and those whom the clubs would spare. John Stones and Jon Flanagan were also on the trip, as were James Ward-Prowse and Harry Kane, although, without wishing to be cruel, you could hear the barrel being scraped in other positions. Peter Taylor's team finished bottom of their group and did not win a game.
Barkley, then just 19, did his best and he was easily the standout player for England. It was notable that his best moments came when he simply carried the ball forward and got defences turning, a tactic at the time that felt like it was born out of desperation to make something – anything – happen. The England Under-20s team too often looked out of their depth in comparison to more technically accomplished, coherent opponents.
Yet 12 months on, and the boy from the Wavertree district of Liverpool is doing exactly the same as he prepares for a senior World Cup in Brazil. He created Rickie Lambert's goal against Ecuador on Wednesday night with one of those belligerent, aggressive runs from his own half that catch defenders in two minds. If it was redolent of one thing, it was the confidence of Wayne Rooney, 10 years earlier at Euro 2004, red-faced and full of running in the midst of a Portuguese summer.
That comparison appealed to Frank Lampard who was in the same Euro 2004 team as Rooney and has seen a few young players come through with England since. "There's a lot of similarities in there, in their build, where they come from and where they play. You can't deny that. Again, it's that fearlessness of youth. I see the similarities. Great ability on the ball, taking out, running at people with the ball and that's what you want to see."
The FA has kept Barkley back from the spotlight since the squad began their World Cup preparations and he is sufficiently shy to avoid even a casual conversation with the press on his way out to the team bus, post-match. He has spoken about his young life in the past and it is a reassuring story of dedication and sacrifice of a boy from a single-parent family who had to take two buses to reach Everton's training ground.
Ross Barkley drew faint praise from Roy Hodgson (EPA)
There is a balance to be struck between the kind of optimism that naturally attaches itself to a young English footballer emerging at just the right time for a World Cup, and past lessons of false dawns and unsustainable expectation. If Barkley is as good as many hope he will be, he can look forward to a whole career's worth of that cocktail of fame, adulation and pressure. For now Hodgson is trying every way possible to take the pressure off.
His criticism of the player after the Ecuador game was a little heavy-handed but it served a purpose. In the constant search for a saviour for English football, the last thing Barkley needs is to take the mantle straight off Rooney's shoulders. As a young footballer he has plenty of great games to come. He has plenty of bad ones too before he reaches maturity – it is always the way. Let us remind ourselves that Wednesday was his only his fifth cap for England, and his first start.
It was only right that Hodgson batted back a comparison made between Barkley and Paul Gascoigne that was offered rather prematurely after Wednesday's game. "He's a talented boy and I'm not criticising him," Hodgson said. "I'm just making certain that people don't get too carried away.
"Unfortunately, we know also it's too easy to concentrate on the good things. You would need to watch the game again for 90 minutes through my eyes and see the performance as a whole and not just see the cameo moments where he did brilliantly. That's the point I'm making.
"I suppose what I'm trying to do is deflect tomorrow's newspapers from just being about Ross Barkley. That's what I'm trying to do." There are many things a modern England manager can control, with his nutritionists, video analysts, psychiatrists and perspiration experts but, unfortunately, tomorrow's newspapers remain one aspect of the job that the FA is yet to crack.
"I've seen so many times in the past what [building up a young player] can lead to," Hodgson said. "Not just us; all countries are the same. When an exciting talent comes on the scene we are very, very quick to build him up and turn a blind eye to some of his failings because we love so much the positive part of it."
Barkley's manager at Everton, Roberto Martinez, acknowledged as much when he said that he thought Hodgson was just trying to "protect" the player with his remarks. "At the moment Ross is perfectly suited to playing in the No 10 role, but in time he will develop into the complete midfielder," Martinez said. "Nothing fazes him, but the World Cup is a massive event and Ross needs protection. We just need to calm things down a bit and don't expect too much from him."
Life is about to change for Barkley, especially if he is named in the side to face Italy a week Saturday, which is a possibility, if by no means a certainty. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain injured and Raheem Sterling suspended for this Saturday's game, the focus switches to him. His career has accelerated over the last 12 months but nothing makes the curve steepen like a World Cup finals.
How he handles it will be impossible to tell. There is no preparation for a life-changing event such as this.
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