'A Manager's Dream'
John Gregory recalls the day he launched Gareth Barry's career.
It’s Saturday 2 May 1998 and the Premier League season is reaching its climax as clubs up and down the country battle it out for precious points. Some team’s fates are already sealed but others are entering a pivotal final fortnight.
Four years after their previous flirtation with danger, Everton are in the midst of a relegation scrap. It would ultimately end in top flight survival, of course, but it’s still a tough time to be Blue.
However, for one would-be Evertonian, it’s a day he will never forget.
Over in Yorkshire, Aston Villa are in action at Hillsborough. The Villans still have an outside chance of qualifying for Europe but after slipping up the previous week to struggling Bolton Wanderers, their continental chances are hanging by a thread. They need six points from their last two matches to earn a place in the following season’s UEFA Cup. Victory over the Owls is a must.
All is going well and Villa race into a 2-0 lead after quick-fire goals from Dwight Yorke and Lee Hendrie but they suffer a setback when stalwart Ian Taylor is forced from the field at the beginning of the second half through injury.
It’s the period when just five substitutes can be named on the bench. Villa have plenty of strikers in reserve but the only other outfield option is a rookie 17-year-old. Gareth Barry is about to commence his top-flight career.
The midfielder is thrust into the action and Villa win the game 3-1. He is handed his first start the following week against newly-crowned champions Arsenal and it’s the same outcome. Arsene Wenger’s side - containing future World Cup winners Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira – are defeated 1-0 and Villa pip West Ham United to the last European qualification berth by the solitary point.
Fast-forward 15 years and the same player is still mixing it with the best
This Monday, Barry could join an elite group if he becomes only the 11th player to make 500 Premier League appearances.
Former Villa manager John Gregory has been recalling to evertonfc.com the day he launched Barry’s career and explaining why he believes the summer signing is one of the most undervalued performers in the country.
“Gareth was 17 years old and had been training with the first team for a few weeks,” explains the 59-year-old. “He seemed totally comfortable in the surroundings and nothing seemed to fluster him at all. He didn’t look out of place and everything came so naturally to him.
“He was obviously strong on his left foot but he was such a great passer as well. For a 17-year-old, he had tremendous composure and was exactly the same then as he is today. It’s rare in football to see someone who never has an angry face – but that’s Gareth.
“We went to Sheffield Wednesday and Ian Taylor did a hamstring and he definitely had to come off. I remember looking at the bench and I had Stan Collymore, Savo Milosevic and Darren Byfield – all strikers – and a goalkeeper. Gareth was the other sub and I just looked at him and said ‘fancy going on in the centre of midfield?’ He smiled and replied ‘yes, no worries’.
“He stripped off his tracksuit, ran on to the pitch and just got on with it. He did not look out of place whatsoever and it was a seamless transition. He didn’t upset the rhythm of the team and we went on to win the game 3-1. He was brilliant for such a young kid.
“Nothing has changed today. I still look at him now and see this fresh-faced teenager who goes about his job and gets on with it with no fuss. What Everton fans see now is what I saw when he was 17 years old.”
Gregory, who had taken the reins at Villa Park two months prior to Barry’s debut, worked with the midfielder for four years before leaving his position in January 2002.
Barry remained a Villan until the summer of 2009 when he secured a £12million switch to Manchester City. He won the FA Cup in his second season at Eastlands and became a Champion in his third.
This success came as no surprise to Gregory.
He said: “You knew he would play at the top for a long, long time and as it turned out he was a regular for nine years at Villa. You can clearly see him playing for another three or four years if he has still got the buzz and appetite because he looks after himself so well.
“In my Villa team, Gareth ended up going into a back three playing alongside Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate. They all complemented each other so much and there were times when you would actually think Gareth was the senior player.
“Roberto Mancini at Manchester City adored Gareth for his attitude and the way that he trained. I know everyone at Villa Park are still massive admirers of him and I was a little bit disappointed they didn’t grab him on loan from Manchester City. He would have helped a lot of the youngsters who are there at the moment.
“Because he does everything so efficiently, he is one of those players which the average fan doesn’t really notice. He just goes about his business in such a consistent manner. He very rarely gets booked and I can’t ever remember him getting sent off in his life. He never has a flare up with opposition players and is just a great guy to have in the team.
“For the first time, the Everton fans will have watched him against Chelsea with a critical eye now that he is one of theirs – but they would have looked at his performance and not found anything to criticise him about!”
That display that was the talk of the Gwladys Street as the masses departed Goodison beaming with what they had seen from their new number 18 on his Everton debut.
Gregory insists Toffees fans can look forward to many more performances of that calibre – hopefully for longer than the duration of this season.
“Everton will not miss Marouane Fellaini and Phil Neville - who I thought was such a big player for the team – now they have Gareth,” declared the former Derby County boss. “He has slotted in there and I think he is the perfect player for Roberto to have.
“Roberto will have wanted a no-nonsense player. He doesn’t have to look after Gareth – he won’t have to find out where he is tonight. He will know he is at home with his feet up getting ready for training tomorrow morning.
“He’s very versatile as well. If anything happens, he can play at left-back, central defence and anywhere across central midfield. He is perfectly suited to the system Roberto is trying to implement as he can play two-touch football. He is a manager’s dream.”
Tickets for next Monday's visit of Newcastle United - potentially Barry's 500th Premier League appearance - are now on general sale. To buy, click here or call 0871 663 1878.
Alternatively, visit the Park End Box Office at Goodison Park, Everton Two in Liverpool One or TicketQuarter in Queen Square.
For information and to book Corporate Hospitality online, click here.