“It’s not going to happen,” says Gareth Barry, casually, in a way which suggests that all his introspection on the subject has now gone. The waiting and hoping for a telephone call went on for too long. The player whose fitness became as much of a national fixation before the last World Cup as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney’s metatarsals had been to previous England campaigns, declares that he has given up all hope of playing for England again.
“There have been injuries and even this time, when Michael Carrick’s got one, someone else comes in,” he reflects. “You could say I’m the perfect age, experience, a similar type of player, so it might have been me. But [Roy Hodgson] seems to be going with the younger players.”
The man who only three years ago was provoking pre-South Africa headlines such as “Barry preying on Fabio’s mind” and “Not a prayer without crocked Barry” is remarkably sanguine about being consigned to the country’s past. His only mild sense of indignation surfaces at the end of this interview, when tape recorders are being turned off and an apology is being made to him for bringing up the subject of Mesut Özil powering past him to score for Germany in Bloemfontein in 2010, triggering a public inquisition into Barry’s ability after England’s 4-1 defeat. That was a career “low point” he admits, “and the thing is, if it happens again [against Özil] then the same [criticism] will happen. But if someone is quicker than you then they are going to run away from you! Does that make you a bad player?”
Football can certainly paint players in that very black-and-white way sometimes and Barry has been a victim. His qualities do not always scream out and neither does he, so he has passed by on the quiet side in the course of two very fine past seasons for Manchester City. When the 32-year-old quickly proved such a supreme presence in the midfield at Everton, for whom he is cast into today’s Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, some expressed surprise and questioned why City allowed him to leave on loan. But wiser heads expected nothing less.
“You get calmness, great passes, ball retention, vision,” says one of those who was privy to Barry becoming a City player in 2009, a year after the prospect of a Liverpool move fizzled out. And though it bears no relevance to his football contribution, some City insiders who knew him across four years at the Etihad describe a sense of devastation when it became clear that he was moving on. “Desperately sad,” is how one describes the emotion on transfer deadline day in September.
All part of football, reflects Barry. But one of his anecdotes tells just how much he yearned to be in Manuel Pellegrini’s plans this season. On a mild pre-season training day in July, the session he was about to complete at City’s Carrington base had kindled a genuine belief that this new manager might just fancy him, after all. It was as he prepared to leave the training pitch Barry clocked that the Chilean was approaching and his heart leapt a little. “I thought he was going to say, ‘If you keep training like that you will get your chance,’” Barry recalls. “But he said: ‘It’s still not going to happen. There are a lot of midfielders ahead of you.’ That was probably the lowest for me. I went into the dressing room thinking that now I had to start looking for another club.”
Since Roberto Martinez felt so differently about him, Barry finds himself in the city where, in the summer of 2008, he also displayed that uncanny knack of creating a media obsession. Rafael Benitez’s desire to bring Barry to Liverpool and Martin O’Neill’s determination that he should not leave Aston Villa put him in the extraordinary position of being public enemy No 1 at both clubs during that pre-season. Villa fans, whose indignation was fuelled by O’Neill’s bitter insistence on resisting Benitez’s advances, dished out plenty of abuse to him in pre-season friendlies at Walsall and Odense. Then Barry tuned in to Liverpool’s own warm-up game against Lazio at Anfield and heard their supporters singing, “You can stick your Gareth Barry up your arse.” It did not entirely help his cause that the hugely appreciated Xabi Alonso publicly declared that Benitez’s eagerness to buy Barry led him to decide he must leave Anfield.
The memory of watching that Lazio game remains vivid, Barry says. “The fans made it obvious they weren’t keen on me coming in to replace him. He was a fantastic player and I can understand it. He made those comments about me which maybe didn’t help in terms of the Liverpool fans. But there was nothing I could have done about it.”
As it was, when he came very close to signing, Benitez actually indicated to Barry that Alonso would also be staying. “He was talking of me coming in and maybe not always playing in central midfield, but maybe playing slightly left - and even left-back. That was when in my mind I was thinking maybe not to join Liverpool anyway,” he says. “In the end, they didn’t have the funds. It came to that. I think Villa wanted £18m and Liverpool bid something like £16m. In the end when funds were available, they went on Robbie Keane [from Tottenham.]”
Little wonder Barry did not choose Anfield when Liverpool came back in for him the following summer and Steven Gerrard was in his ear about it, during England’s interminably long World Cup trip to Kazakhstan. The two players shared an agent, Struan Marshall, and had shared an interconnecting lounge between adjoining rooms while at Euro 2000, where they got to know each other. “He was keen on me joining [Liverpool] but you don’t put friendships above what you think is right for you,” Barry says.
His observations on the friendship he shares with Gerrard are revealing. The Liverpudlian, who is nine months his senior, is by no means an extrovert off the pitch but even he seemed loud in the company of Barry when they began their England journeys together, 13 years ago. “We were the same sort of age but, being a Scouser, he was a bit more forward, he led the conversations, but he’s always been confident,” Barry says. “I remember him saying then that his ambition was to win 50 to 100 caps and always backed himself to the max.”
That Gerrard ebullience never really rubbed off on him, Barry admits. “I don’t think it did. It was probably our characters. From a young age I remember people saying to me [‘be louder’]. I remember John Gregory [at Aston Villa] saying that I need to get my shorts dirtier – and do this and do that – but it’s just my character, really.”
Martinez has discovered that his loan signing does not require noise to affect a game. It was Barry’s last-ditch block on Samuel Eto’o in the 1-0 win over Chelsea in September which re-alerted the world –and Match of the Day – to him, with Barry’s ability to watch the Cameroonian’s position so key to his ability to get down and make that tackle so quickly. Less appreciated is Barry’s ability to help young players out on the field. Seamus Coleman, among others, has looked less anxious at times than in the David Moyes era. “I think Gareth is quite unique in his profile as a footballer,” Martinez says.
Barry is not going to pretend that this Merseyside derby has the same significance as an all-Manchester occasion would, had he still been at the Etihad: “Both clubs have to be challenging right at the top to experience that feeling, so at this minute probably not.”
But you feel that he enters today’s cauldron as a man restored, in so many ways. After the bitterness felt towards him for so long by Villa fans – a hard response, considering the 12 years he devoted to the club – the Holte End sang his name again for the first time when he returned to the stadium with Everton, last month. You could tell from the look in his eyes, when he went to take a corner and the chant struck up, just how much that meant. Martinez has rekindled the midfielder’s self-belief, too. “It shows I am doing the right things here,” he says. “It’s fantastic for my confidence when people are saying good things.”
There have been no talks with Everton about making the loan permanent, he says. “In terms of talking about it with Everton: no. There have been no discussions. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about what happens after this season, because it is something you have to worry about.” A neat encapsulation what an insecure place football can be when you’re a few years past 30 and the telephone calls stop coming.