It’s been reported that Manchester City are looking Everton’s Ross Barkley as a potential target to fill the homegrown player requirements under which all English clubs have to operate. The fact that this is the headlining reason for City’s interest, when his talent as a player is, at best, only given equal billing, is depressing to say the least. City have been the focus of no small amount of criticism for the way they have brought in copious amounts of foreign talent, to the perceived neglect of English footballers. Often though, these critics are fuelled by a ruddy-faced, good-old-days mindset, and whose view of non-British footballers is tinted by a vaguely xenophobic perspective. Consequently, these nationalistic protestations are considered rowdy background noise, the gruntings of a few reactionary simpletons. Still, the stories of Adam Johnson, Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair and Micah Richards, don’t inspire any hopeful feelings about the prospect of Barkley moving to Manchester City.
Along with James Milner, the life of an Englishman on the blue side of Manchester, excluding Joe Hart, is one that rarely goes hand-in-hand with a place in the starting line up. Barkley is certainly -though only on the evidence of last season’s breakout- a better player than the ones listed above at the moment. But let’s not forget that Rodwell was nearly as highly touted when he came to City from Everton. His stagnation at the Etihad was hallmarked by injury, but the suspicion is that had he stayed healthy, he would have played semi-regularly at best, what with Yaya Toure to compete with. He left for Sunderland this season, following his compatriot Adam Johnson, who had made the trip two seasons prior.
Johnson was another English player who, after appearing 43 times in the 2010/11 season for the Citizens, saw the arrival of Samir Nasri the following season severely reduce his involvement. In that next season, Johnson found life as a substitute rather unbecoming, and he joined Martin O’Neil at Sunderland in August, 2012. He has since, particularly under Gus Poyet, and particularly against his old club, been fairly effective for the Black Cats.
City English stories get worse. The summer departure of Micah Richards was one that was, firstly, refreshing in its Italian flavour, and secondly, tinged with dewy-eyed sadness as the last City academy player was forced to look for football elsewhere. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Richards opened up with sunny good-humour about the way his career in Manchester degenerated.
The lowest moment was against Watford [in the FA Cup in January this year]. At half-time we were losing two-nil. I really don’t want to pass the blame to other players but everyone could see I wasn’t the problem. But Pellegrini brought me and [Jack] Rodwell off at half-time. I thought: ‘I’m becoming a scapegoat here.’ I’ve not always played well for City, but I’d never been the scapegoat, coming off at half-time when in my head I thought I was having a decent game. It was weird, unnatural, it had never happened to me before and it felt like no matter what I did it wasn’t good enough any more. That was a turning point.
The strapping young right back was nominated for the club’s player of the year award in the 2012 title-winning season, having already broken Rio Ferdinand’s record as the youngest defender to be capped by England, and seemingly was primed to become a rampaging force on the right had side for City for seasons to come. An injury allowed Pablo Zabaleta to ensure, deservedly, that this destiny would not eventuate, and Richards quietly slipped down the pecking order as the Argentine stalwart established himself in the position. Richards would then spend a couple of seasons as a sort of mournful, hulking bystander, only in the squad because of his valuable nationality, and the subject of countless “whatever happened to…” sentences. He was bristling with potential at the end of that first modern-era title winning year, a shining light that represented City’s pre-Mansour years, a nurtured, not purchased, talent. He made 9 appearances for the first team over the next two seasons.
Scott Sinclair’s City career was so short-lived, it barely merits a paragraph. He scored 27 goals for Swansea City in the Championship, then 8 for them in the Premier League the next year. He was one of their fleet of electric wingers, lightning quick, a real handful. His transfer to City came garnished with a heavily raised eyebrow, a strange decision for Roberto Mancini and the club to make. Intuitively, this wasn’t a good move for Sinclair. 11 appearances later, Sinclair is on loan at West Bromich Albion, and a whole year and a half of his professional life has been spent in stasis.
This weekend against Chelsea, James Milner showed that, along with his own uber-fit, relentless brand of versatility, he is an incredibly enterprising, creative attacker. He almost left the club in the summer. Milner has spent the last few seasons pigeon-holed into the role of utility man, when he no doubt believes he deserves a less workmanlike role. His performance against Bayern Munich last season should have shown that he is much more than just a man-marking specialist, or player only to be used as an injection of energy off the bench. He was, like Richards was this year, offered a contract extension, and one assumes his nationality was a large contributing reason for the offer. Gareth Barry left City sick of not starting, and has since reinvigorated his career at Everton. Milner should perhaps think about doing the same.
It’s these stories that make onlookers fearful of City’s interest in Barkley. Barkley muscled his way into the frontal-lobe thinking of every Premier league fan last season, flourishing under Roberto Martinez, bustling forwards from midfield and scoring some incredible goals. Like Rodwell was, he’s being touted as ‘the successor to Yaya Toure’, and though Toure’s play has fallen away considerably in the early part of this season, that may have something to do with the recent death of his brother, more than being sign of the 31 year old’s irrevocable decline. City just spent £12 million on Porto’s Fernando as a midfield reinforcement, and Fernandinho and Toure have a fully established partnership in the centre. Barkley could also play further forward, but ideally it would be in a central position and this would mean competing with David Silva, a doomed endeavour if ever there was one.
As it stands, Barkley is two months into a brand new four year contract worth £60,000 a week at Everton. He is also crocked, sidelined by a knee injury. His young career, after being much touted as a junior player, is only just blossoming into life. At 20 years old, he already seems a perfect blend of muscularity, swerve and arrogance, and few would argue that it’s under the utterly lovely Martinez that he would best spend the next few years, at least. At Everton he has an assured starting spot when fit, and is surrounded by creativity and quality, a handsome team that the club have spent lavishly, by Everton’s standards, to assemble. He is an English jewel, and Everton is a humble crown that has been smithed specifically to cradle him. He may well usurp Toure, or Silva at City, but when the Etihad hierarchy are licking their lips as much about his passport as they are his passing, alarm bells are rightfully sounding.