Barry Bannan has heard a lot of people ask over the years whether, at 5ft 7in, he is big enough to make it as a professional footballer in the Premier League and his simple answer is that he has been learning to compensate for his height all his life.
As the youngest of four brothers, he recalls the times when his siblings Thomas, Paul and Arthur would interrupt one of his dribbles with the ball by picking him up and chucking him behind them. Even then it was the only way to stop this football prodigy who, from Coatbridge, on the eastern outskirts of Glasgow, is the latest young talent to come out of Aston Villa's academy.
The courage and determination that has seen Bannan, 21, establish himself at Villa put him in good stead at Loftus Road last Sunday when he scored his first Premier League goal for the club from the penalty spot. In the absence of Darren Bent, there were other more experienced players who could have taken the penalty but the difference was that Bannan, a cultured left-footed midfielder, picked up the ball and told them he was ready.
When we meet at Villa's training ground two days later, Bannan recalls the moment with pride. As a child he was always the star of the teams he played in and took everything – penalties, free-kicks and corners. He jokes that getting used to being demoted since coming into the team at Villa, who play Wigan today, has not been easy. "It was instinctive, I wanted to take it," he says. "I was closest to the ball – well, actually, I had the ball – and he [referee Michael Oliver] pointed to the spot."
Did his team-mates try to talk him out of it? "Not really. Gabby [Agbonlahor] and Stan [Petrov] just said, 'Are you sure?' and I said 'Yeah'. That was it. They never tried getting it off me. They just wanted to make sure I was confident." Bannan is confident in a nice, understated way. He comes across as a wise old soul who, like so many of his generation in football, has had to bide his time for his chance, including three loan spells at Derby County, Blackpool and Leeds. Even before that, he and his family made the big decision to leave their home in Scotland and move to Birmingham so that he could join Villa's academy at 14.
Perhaps most significantly, Bannan rejected Celtic, his childhood team, with whom he had trained as a teenager. It came down to a simple incident one night when, having trained, the club sent him home still in his kit and wringing wet. The Bannan family began to wonder if their club were beginning to take their son for granted.
Surely though it is every young Celtic fan's dream to play for that club? "I think they played on that as well because I support them which helps," Bannan says. "But it wasn't right." He had signed schoolboy forms with Celtic that night but his parents asked for them back and he continued playing for his Sunday team, Lenzie Youth.
It was with Lenzie and their manager Ian Stevenson, who also coached Villa's youth team manager, Tony McAndrew, that Bannan truly developed. He was spotted by Villa's scout George Grace and invited to a trial. His parents, James and Kathleen, had strong family ties to Harborne, in Birmingham, and so, when Bannan was invited to sign, the family decided to move south.
Celtic redoubled their efforts to bring Bannan back but his mind was made up. "It was hard to move down and I was homesick at first," he says. "I went to St Edmund Campion school in Erdington and, although it was tough at the start, I met a few good friends and since then I never looked back. Now I probably wouldn't move back [to Scotland]. I would live in Birmingham forever. I wouldn't go back home [to Scotland], I've fallen in love with Birmingham, the city."
Villa is where the future is even if Scotland is still nominally "home" and it is his experiences playing for Lenzie that were formative for Bannan. "Because I was one of the better players in my team I would get other players man-marking me," he says. "Or I would get the biggest player in the other team – even if he was a striker – following me around just to kick me. We used to play on ash pitches and I'd be getting kicked. My dad used to say before the game 'Just watch yourself'. I think I have a good awareness of when a tackle is coming in and I know how to ride challenges. I never really got badly injured. People try to intimidate you but it is all part and parcel of the game.
"I have been brought up in a tough area, well, not tough but not the best. I was brought up in a council flat so obviously I was not going to be a soft person. When I was younger if I went past any of my three older brothers with the ball they would pick me up and it would break my temper. My dad said that was good because it makes you more determined. My upbringing has helped me."
Bannan knows that, as with his brothers, he has to be one step ahead. His touch and passing range allied with his stature has inevitably meant that he has been compared to the current Barcelona stars by the likes of Darren Fletcher and Gérard Houllier. If he is going to be Coatbridge's answer to Xavi he will need a bit more time, but the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta have given Bannan a template to work from.
"I would say most of the time I have been the smallest player on the pitch," says Bannan, who was yesterday voted player of the month by the Villa fans. "I used to play a few years above me when I was younger at school and that probably helped my progress. When you come up against people who are older, stronger and quicker than you, your good attributes have to be better.
"Nowadays, in the Premier League and at international level, I just say to myself that if I can play the way I can, I will never get involved in any physical battles. If my touch and awareness are quick enough then it gets me out of tricky positions. I am confident in myself that if my game is on top form it will be good enough.
"They [Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi] have proved to everyone that height doesn't matter. If you look at Spain and Barcelona, probably the two best teams at club and international level, there are not many players in their midfield who are 6ft. For me they are the perfect people to watch and you have Paul Scholes and Jack Wilshere, who is one of the best players in the league."
It was Martin O'Neill who gave Bannan his debut but it was Houllier last season who really gave the player the confidence that he belonged. Just as he once summoned a teenage Steven Gerrard from Liverpool's reserves, Houllier called Bannan into his office within a week of taking the Villa job. Bannan says: "He told me, 'People have questioned your height but if you go out and play I don't have a problem with you. If you are good enough you can play for me'."
Another major influence on his career has been Ian Holloway, who was Bannan's manager when he was on loan at Blackpool in their famous promotion season from the Championship. So much so that when Villa played Blackpool last season, Bannan sought out Holloway afterwards to thank him for what he had done.
"Holloway has played a big part in my career," Bannan says. "He was so good on one-to-one talks. He really brought different things into my game. When we played them last season I spoke to him and thanked him. He said, 'No, it's all your hard work, you don't have to thank me'. He was brilliant."
After today's game, Bannan will join up with the Scotland squad for the biggest test yet of his young career. The Scots still have a chance of qualifying for Euro 2012 via the play-offs in November but they must hope the Czech Republic drop points and that they can get something from games against Liechtenstein a week today and against the world champions Spain in Alicante on 11 October.
"I love watching Spain's players," Bannan says. "They are the best in the world, probably my idols, and just to be playing on the same pitch as them, competing against them and seeing how far you have to go until you can call yourself a proper player – it'll be unbelievable. Hopefully I will be picked."
Bannan's favourite is Iniesta, currently injured, yet despite having already qualified, the likelihood is that Vicente del Bosque will still play a strong team. The world will be watching and, as for those in Barcelona, you would like to think that when their eyes alight on the slight, blond-haired lad with the sweet left foot, they may recognise something of themselves in him.
Proof the very best players can come in small packages
*Barry Bannan, all 5ft 7in, of him, seeks to follow a distinguished line of smaller players who reached the heights.
Xavi and Andres Iniesta (5ft 7in)
Universally recognised as two of the best players in the game today, the pair have never been hindered by height. The Barcelona midfielders have won the World Cup, European Championship, several Spanish titles and three Champions League medals.
Lionel Messi (5ft 7in)
As a child, the Barcelona forward was told he would never make the grade due to a growth hormone deficiency. Some 200 goals later, he has more than proved those critics wrong, even winning comparisons with the next player on our list.
Diego Maradona (5ft 6in)
The greatest little player of them all. Won a World Cup almost by himself, scoring arguably both the best and most controversial goals the game has seen when Argentina beat England.
Shaun Wright-Phillips (5ft 5in)
Cruelly made to look even shorter when lining up with Peter Crouch for England, the winger is enjoying life at QPR.
Aaron Lennon (5ft 5in)
Nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year three seasons in a row, the Spurs winger is the smallest player currently playing in the Premier League.
Alan Wright (5ft 4in)
The "Mighty Atom" played 265 times for Aston Villa at full-back – and once strained his knee reaching for the accelerator pedal of his new Ferrari.
Diego Buonanotte (5ft 3in)
The Argentinian midfielder, once one of the world's most exciting prospects, is rebuilding his career in Malaga after serious injury in a 2009 car crash.
Sammy Lee (5ft 2in)
Being small in stature did not stop midfielder Lee winning three league titles and two European Cups with Liverpool.
My Other Life
I have just moved into a house with my girlfriend Lauren and we have bought a dog, which is only 14 weeks old. She's a Staffordshire bull terrier, we've called her Sox. She's taking up a bit of my time.Reuse content