Ten years ago, a young lad from Liverpool made a name for himself at a major international tournament. Nonplussed by the reputation of supposedly more illustrious opponents and unfazed by the pressure of the European Championships, Wayne Rooney dazzled at Euro 2004.
At 18 years old he was naturally a little rough around the edges and prone to the odd lapse. But he was enthralling to watch, taking players on, making plenty happen and scoring goals for fun. Thinking back through all the major tournaments since, it was probably the last time that watching England play was a such consistently exciting spectacle.
Since that Rooney of 2004, England have been without a player who has that kind of mercurial edge. But they could potentially have one in Ross Barkley.
In England’s warm-up game against Ecuador, the 20-year-old from Wavertree showcased qualities comparable to Rooney’s a decade ago. He drove forward with menace, glided past opponents and was irrepressible in his attempts to conjure openings in the final third. A wonderful nutmeg on the turn was the highlight of his display, helping to set up England’s second goal.
Barkley lost the ball on a few occasions, as is expected of any attacking player, but he performed pretty well all in all. He had better games for Everton last season and he had worse. So it was especially peculiar when Roy Hodgson came out and publicly criticised the midfielder’s profligacy with the ball in the post-match press conference in Miami:
“I’m not prepared to address your obsession with Ross Barkley.
“If he’s going to be the player we want him to be, he has to make better decisions of when he turns with the ball.
“That’s not a criticism, but there were other performances out there today.”
It’s very rare in the game for a manager to castigate players in front of the media these days. Even more so when they’ve put in a rather decent performance. There were defintiely plenty in England shirts that warranted that kind of public disparagement more so than Barkley.
Perhaps Hodgson is indulging in some mind games, trying to spur the youngster on to bigger and better things ahead of the tournament? Maybe he’s trying to quell the hype after a strong performance? But the England boss is not typically one to indulge in those sorts of exploits. He’s a straightforward, safety-first boss by nature.
And you suspect Hodgson’s conservative make-up is why he may have singled out the Everton man after last night’s game. In short, the attributes of Barkley and the principles of Hodgson don’t really make for a happy marriage.
Nonetheless, the national set-up should be encouraging a talent as precocious as the 20-year-old, not stifling him. The catalyst for his rapid rise this season has been the facilitation of an environment at Everton where Roberto Martinez has urged him to play with risk and ingenuity. There’s an underpinning notion too, that if he’s allowed to make the errors that puncture any youngster’s game, he’ll grow as a player.
Anyway, as a No.10 in international soccer, it’s absolutely imperative to take chances on the ball. You quite simply have to. Games at this level are going to be tight and space is going to be at a premium, so players have to risk losing possession if they’re to ultimately create genuine openings.
In 2004, Sven-Goran Eriksson let a raw Rooney off the leash and it paid off. If Hodgson was to do the same with Barkley—although he’s admittedly a little shy of the level Rooney was at ten years ago—then there’s no doubt he’d make a bright, positive impression. But after the England manager’s recent remarks, you suspect the Everton man will be an impact sub at best.
That swagger Rooney once had has gradually drifted from his game and although he remains a fine player that has won a plethora of honours, he never quite fulfilled the stratospheric potential he showcased a decade ago. You’d take that Rooney, over this Rooney every time.
For young players like Barkley, not to mention the likes of Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw, it’d be a real shame to see that dynamic, capricious nature ushered from from their make up. After all, it can only be a good thing for the national side have youthful, talented figures playing with vigour and vibrancy.