Manchester City last night completed the first coup of the summer transfer window with the swift, surprising capture of Aston Villa's captain, Gareth Barry, for £12m, to signal the start of a spending spree on a squad capable of challenging the Premier League's big four.
Barry, 28, has spent his entire senior career at Villa, playing more than 400 games for them since joining as a 16-year-old trainee in 1997 from Brighton. He has been tempted to Eastlands by a five-year contract worth £80,000-a-week and by the guarantee he will feature at the heart of midfield in a new-look side to be assembled by Mark Hughes with the club's Middle East riches.
City have been linked to a range of high-profile players in recent months, Manchester United's Carlos Tevez and Blackburn's Roque Santa Cruz among them as well as Barry, although Barry was arguably the least likely to join. He had stated a preference for Champions League football when coveted by Liverpool for so long and had yearned for a move to Anfield last summer. The £18m price tag at that time put Liverpool off.
City cannot offer European football of any kind in the immediate future but have sold Barry on the notion that they will be Premier League contenders soon. Villa have cashed in now because Barry's contract at Villa Park was due to expire next year, when he would have been able to walk away for nothing.
The signing of Barry suggests an urgency by Hughes to hit hard and early in the summer scramble for talent and his attentions are now likely to turn to Tevez, whose uncertain future at Manchester United should become clearer within days.
Either United will take up their first option on his permanent signature, for around £25m, or the Argentine striker will be told he is free to leave Old Trafford, and Hughes will discuss a switch to the Blue side of the city.
It seemed that Villa were attempting to begin an auction for Barry yesterday morning when they took the highly unusual step of publicly confirming he was in talks with City. But when news came that he was undergoing a medical, City moved closer to a coup that will baffle some Villa fans and leave Liverpool, including their captain, Steven Gerrard, wondering what might have been.
Barry, who along with Gerrard is in the England squad that flies to Kazakhstan today on World Cup duty, was strongly linked to Liverpool last summer before being forced to stay put at Villa.
Gerrard had fuelled talk of another bid by Liverpool by describing Barry as the kind "top player" Liverpool need. But either Liverpool's manager, Rafa Benitez, had already decided not to chase Barry again, or he has been caught cold by yesterday's deal.
Benitez is now in hands-on control of transfer dealings following the sidelining of Liverpool's outgoing chief executive, Rick Parry, who used to do that job. But Benitez went on holiday last Thursday and is still thought to be abroad. "He's probably choking on his paella at the news about Barry and City," said one source. Another source suggested Benitez would not be too concerned at missing out on Barry, especially if he can retain the services of Xabi Alonso.
After completing the deal, Barry said: "It didn't take much persuasion from Mark Hughes, they are heading in the direction I want to go. There is great potential here, and I'm sure there will be a few more additions to the squad this summer."
Hughes added: "Gareth is widely acknowledged as one of the top midfielders in the Premier League, and that is a recommendation in itself. When players of his quality become available then you have to be in the market for them, so we are absolutely delighted that we have been able to conclude this deal. It's clear to everybody that being at City is going to be exciting in the future, and Gareth sees that. I was looking to get a number of deals done as soon as possible, and we have had a great start with Gareth joining us."
Barry's attempt to leave Villa for Anfield last summer led to one of the year's messiest (non)-transfer sagas with Villa's manager Martin O'Neill accusing Benitez of being "disingenuous" in their discussions.
Barry was recently offered a contract to stay at Villa and become the best-paid player in their history – on around £70,000-a-week – while O'Neill had said that nothing would be decided until Barry completes his current engagements with England, who play Kazakhstan on Saturday and Andorra next Wednesday.
Gerrard had made it clear that players such as Barry are of interest to Liverpool. "He is a top player and top players improve your team and your squad," he said, speaking before news of Barry's deal was known.
Caps & cups: Barry by numbers
29 England caps
1 Trophies Barry has won in his career (Intertoto Cup 2001)
6 England managers who have picked Barry, including Fabio Capello. The others were Kevin Keegan, Howard Wilkinson, Peter Taylor, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren
9 Most league goals in a season (2007-08)
439 Villa appearances
12 Points Manchester City were behind Aston Villa last season
22 Points that Manchester City were from a Champions League place, one of Barry's stated reasons for a move
18 What Barry would have cost in millions of pounds last summer
13 In the last 13 games in which Barry scored, Aston Villa did not lose