Gareth Barry: The Midas man who 'put belief back into my head'

Villa's reborn captain is indebted to the O'Neill effect. Ronald Atkin hears the Barry for England lobby again
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The Independent Football

The FA selection committee's bigwigs excepted, the world and his wife are agreed that Martin O'Neill is in possession of unchallengeable credentials when it comes to man-management. So Gareth Barry is entitled to feel chuffed that one of the new Aston Villa manager's first acts was to hand him the captain's armband.

It was a typical O'Neill gesture, an underlining statement of confidence to follow his achievement in persuading Barry to turn away from Villa's exit door and sign a new contract which will keep the club's most loyal servant on the books for a further four years.

So the 25-year-old who, in a decade at Villa Park since joining straight from school, has watched the club, in his own words, "slowly going backwards", has spotted a bright light at the end of that dismal tunnel. He is not alone. With the input of resources from the fledgling ownership of the American tycoon Randy Lerner and O'Neill's energy and charisma, heads are held high again. There is, says a delighted Barry, a buzz around the place.

"You notice it at the training ground," he said, settling for a chat after autographing a couple of dozen claret-and-blue shirts laid out on trestle tables in the lounge at Villa's Bodymoor Heath centre. "Driving in, you are looking forward to it more now. You can always tell by what it's like in the dressing room and the corridors; it is livelier, more jokes, more banter.

"Since the takeover and the arrival of the new manager there is a more relaxed atmosphere. Certainly there is more excitement, something to look forward to since we made such a good start to the season."

That start, a draw at Arsenal followed by a couple of home wins, will be under the most rigorous examination at Upton Park this afternoon against West Ham and their Argentinian newcomers. "This was always going to be a big game because both teams have started well," said Barry. "Now, obviously, with the signings West Ham have made people will be watching with even more interest. Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano are world-class and we will be getting the first of them, but how they will react to the Premiership only time will tell. Hopefully for our sakes, it will take them a while to settle in. But their involvement is not going to change us thinking we can get a result. Our confidence is sky-high."

So the O'Neill mantra has taken swift effect, notably on Villa's new captain. "It is not as if he has had the most talented squads wherever he has managed, but he has always succeeded in getting the very best out of them," Barry said. "He is inspiring in that way, and also the way he motivates people. He can turn an average player into a good player, and a good one into world-class."

So it was when O'Neill needed to change Barry's mind about moving on. "I just felt my career was standing still," he said. "There had been talk about a takeover going on for so long. Not just me, a lot of the players were taking it with a pinch of salt. This sort of talk has been going on ever since I came here in 1997. I had stayed loyal for a long time, so for me to ask to go was a big step."

Barry's decision came in the wake of the departure of David O'Leary, the fourth manager under whom he had worked, after Brian Little, who signed him, John Gregory and Graham Taylor. "I asked the club to let me know if offers were coming in for me, but they suggested I wait for the new manager before I made a final decision." That practised sniffer of smoke signals Harry Redknapp had already made an enquiry on behalf of Portsmouth, but Barry hung on, and is happy he did.

"Martin O'Neill did a lot of good talking and put a lot of belief back into my head. He spoke very highly of me, told me he could improve my game, make me a better player for a better club. That suddenly made me change my mind."

Barry is not the first footballer to discover that "he is very clever with the way he puts his words". The decision to sign a new contract, said Barry, "made up for the whole summer, which had been two months of speculation, not just about me but the whole club". The appointment as captain was, he added, "a nice surprise, making this an exciting time for me".

"I am delighted about that," continued Barry, who had filled in on occasion for the previous captain, Olof Mellberg. "To be given the job at the age of 25 is one thing, to be successful is another. I welcome the responsibility. It's another extra lift, an honour to be leading the team out every week, and can inspire you to the next level. I keep myself to myself off the pitch, but on it you try to lead, to give instructions, so I am certainly a different character then."

Is his a popular appointment with the team? "I hope so, though I haven't asked anybody whether they are happy or not. I certainly feel comfortable about it. There are a lot of young players in the dressing room coming through, just as I did, so hopefully they will be looking up to me, while the experienced players know I have played a lot of games."

This afternoon's will be his 318th for Villa. Born in Hastings, hardly acknowledged as a hotbed of football ("Kevin Ball is the only other one from there," he said), Barry was on schoolboy forms with Brighton, but when they wanted to move him on to the YTS scheme he opted to accept an approach from Villa. Less than a year later, 2 May 1998, he made his full debut in a 1-0 win against Arsenal.

As a natural left-footer, Barry likes the left side of his preferred midfield position, though initially he found himself playing on the left of a back three with Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu. "That was a strange one," he concedes, "but it was when we were playing 5-3-2, so it suited my game and improved me a lot. But I certainly enjoy going forward more than defending."

That same year, 1998, came Barry's England Under-21 debut. He went on to make 27 starts for the Under-21s, a record he shares with Jamie Carragher, and joined the England squad for Euro 2000 without being selected. His full England debut, in September 2000, was in a 1-1 draw with France in Paris. However, when Villa's new manager, John Gregory, demoted him from the first team, Barry also fell out of England contention.

The return of Graham Taylor as Villa manager restored Barry to the first team, and he was rewarded with games for Kevin Keegan's England, but the total dried up at eight (five of them as substitute) with the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson. The failure of Eriksson to consider Barry for the left-sided role being filled by right-footed players remains what one website calls "the great mystery of all time in football". The debate has raged since 2003, with Villa supporters forming a "Barry for England" movement, and he has long ago learned to fend off discussion about his England prospects with a smile and a shrug.

"Under Gregory I was out of the Villa team for six months. That was right after I had been involved in the England squad, so it was a strange situation. Maybe that was what cost me my chance with England, but it was more to do with Eriksson replacing Keegan than anything that was happening at the club.

"There has been talk for a while now about me getting back into the England team. You just have to be patient, do the job for your club, and anything else is a bonus. But it would be nice to break into the squad. I know the starting 11 is very good, but being able to show Steve McClaren what I can do is something I want to aim for. I am still young, with a lot of experience, so that can work for me."

O'Neill certainly thinks so, declaring: "If Gareth maintains the form we've seen so far, irrespective of how Aston Villa do, international football beckons again." Would an England recall, then, be the highlight of his season? A firm shake of the head. "Most players would prefer success at their club, certainly me. I have to put that as my number one aim. I have stayed loyal, been made captain, put Villa ahead of everything. So any success here is going to be the highlight.

"When I first broke into the team I was 16, and Villa was certainly a big club then. We were playing European football and regularly finishing in the top eight. Then, after things went backwards, we are turning the corner, though it is still early days. Sixth has been my highest in the League, in David O'Leary's first season.

"You can't get carried away in a League like this, where there are so many good players and so much money is being floated around. Getting into the top four I would regard as massive over-achievement, but certainly the top six is in range, given the way we have started. The momentum is with us right now, though it doesn't do to be overconfident. But we have our own new man, Stilian Petrov, coming in against West Ham, so it will be an intriguing game."

One which Captain Barry, proudly flourishing his armband, will be doing his very best to turn into victory for Villa.

LIFE & TIMES: From left field to team leader

NAME: Gareth Barry.

BORN: 23 February 1981, Hastings, Sussex.

VITAL STATS: 6ft, 12st 6lb.

POSITION: Defender, left-sided midfielder.

CLUB CAREER: Joined Aston Villa from Brighton in 1997. Debut 1998. FA Cup runners-up 2000. 317 appearances, 27 goals; appointed captain by Martin O'Neill, August 2006.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: England Under-16 captain, Under-18 captain; 27 starts for England Under-21 - holds appearance record jointly with Jamie Carragher. Senior debut v Ukraine, May 2000. Travelled to Euro 2000 but did not play. Eight caps.