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“He's young, but he'll be one of the best players of the game we'll ever see in this country."
That was the bold statement made by Martin Keown shortly after Ross Barkley’s first-team debut back in August 2011.
Keown isn’t the sort of person who throws such comments around flippantly, so in a time when youth is more sought after than ever in the English game, Evertonians may be surprised to have seen so little of such a widely-regarded young prospect.
You need to look hard to find a superlative that hasn’t been used to describe Barkley before. He was called up to the England Under-16 team when he was just 14, he has played at every Three Lions academy level up to the Under-21s. In fact, on the international scene Barkley has continually played above his years, while his rise to the top at domestic level has been slow and careful.
It’s been a hard pill to swallow for David Moyes and the Everton staff in recent years to witness some of the Club’s biggest hopefuls denied development time by injury, ultimately stopping them from fulfilling their potential.
James Vaughan is still the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer, but a long line of set-backs early in his career hampered his progress and eventually led down the path of a move to Norwich. Jack Rodwell enjoyed caps in the England setup during his time at Everton, playing and travelling heavily, and, possibly as a result, recurring hamstring injuries proved a frustration before his move to Manchester City in the summer.
The evidence of how exposure to a high amount of professional games early in a player’s career can put a strain on their fitness does not stop at Everton. In a recent blog Michael Owen discussed how he believes his exposure to first-team football at an early age caused his ongoing fitness problems.
Before his 24th birthday, Ryan Giggs, now 39, played just 112 domestic and international games, while Paul Scholes, 38, played 123; this compared with Owen, who played 316 games before he was 24, and who now, at 33, has endured nearly a decade of persistent injury problems.
It shows the need for a player to be developed at his own rate - and this appears to be how David Moyes is treating the development of Barkley.
There is, of course, one player who defies this theory. Wayne Rooney played a staggering 380 professional games before his 24th birthday and it has been hard for Moyes to play down comparisons between Rooney and Barkley.
Any temptation the Everton manager may have had to speed up the development of his newest starlet, as he did with a young Rooney, was eradicated late in 2010 however, when, at just 16, Barkley suffered a brutal fractured leg on Under-19 international duty.
It was another warning to Moyes about the dangers of large amounts of playing, whether that be domestically or internationally, and Barkley has been allowed to develop at a steady rate ever since.
He has performed consistently in the reserve team and this season’s new Under-21 league, however it was his recent loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday that was the most fruitful for the young midfielder.
After signing in September, he took some time to settle into his midfield role in the physical Championship, but Barkley’s creative presence and freedom to get into the box saw him become a vital part of a struggling Wednesday side and his initial one-month loan was extended until November, ultimately providing four goals in 13 appearances and the Championship player of the month award for October.
November’s midfield injuries were perhaps behind that deal not being extended again, but what he learned at Sheffield Wednesday in a short time was an important part of his long-term development and will have taught him plenty about first-team football.
It's all part of a patient approach that one day might pay dividends.
- The Patient Approach 16 2 02/01/2013
- An Eventful Start 9 0 06/11/2012
- A Sign Of Things To Come 18 0 21/08/2012