In an interview that originally appeared in Everton’s matchday programme, Earl Barrett discusses the unheralded striker who opened his eyes to the demands of professional football, the racism which dogged his formative years in the game and the abrupt and painful end to his high-achieving career.
Earl Barrett suppressed his terror and made a pledge.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” says Barrett, “but I thought, ‘Nothing is going to stop me making this work’.”
Not being “thrown around like a rag doll by a strapping Scottish striker called Lewis Muirhead”.
Nor the overt racism Barrett felt powerless to challenge.
Signing for Manchester City aged 15, says Barrett, “was the biggest thing that was ever going to happen to me”.
Barrett applied a single-minded approach to fulfilling his internal vow and embarking on a 16-year career which brought major honours, England recognition and the better part of 500 professional matches.
Indeed, there is a sense of the institutionalisation which can grip professional sportspeople when Barrett talks about the desolation which overwhelmed him following his premature retirement at 31.
“I liken it to being in a room all your life,” he says. “After 16 years you open the door and you’re thinking, ‘What’s this?’ “I didn’t prepare for the end.”
Barrett needed “six to eight months to acclimatise”. “It is sad, really,” he says, “but I stayed indoors and didn’t do anything. “Not a thing. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Conversely, repeatedly being bulldozed by Muirhead sharpened the young Barrett’s focus. Spotted by City scout Len Davies playing for Royton Youth Club in Greater Manchester,
Barrett was not immediately comfortable in a professional environment. “No, I wasn’t,” he says.
“I’d only played school and Sunday league football. “We had a forward called Lewis Muirhead and he roughed me up something rotten.
“I was cheesed off but it made me think, ‘This cannot keep happening, I need to step up and start throwing my weight around’.
“I hope he reads this and understands what he did for me.”
Barrett would gauge his progress in the simplest terms, chalking up a small victory if, for example, he remained on his feet in confrontation with Muirhead.
“I’d get up and go and face that battle again and again, until the outcome changed,” says Barrett.
That commitment to self-advancement has survived until today and was responsible for the 52-year-old’s decision in 2016 to leave a job with Stoke City’s academy for a coaching position in Texas.
Way before he had designs on crossing the pond, however, Barrett was seizing the chance of a loan with Fourth Division Chester City and their “crazy dude” manager Harry McNally.
“I was getting stronger physically and mentally and never injured, so playing lots of youth team and reserve games,” says Barrett.
“I thought, ‘I need something else, something bigger’.”
Bigger for Barrett was first-team football and that never changed. It was the same when he initially dropped to the second tier with Sheffield United from Everton in 1998.
“If you are not playing and there is somewhere else you can play first-team football – go to that place,” says Barrett.
Barrett’s spell with Chester ended in promotion and a recall for his Manchester City debut in May 1986.
“I was nervous as hell,” says Barrett of the build-up to facing Luton Town at Maine Road.
“But the transition from reserves, to first-team football in the Fourth Division, then the First Division, felt seamless.
“Going to Chester taught me football was about winning games and fine-tuned my attitude.”
The following season nevertheless left Barrett “a little bit confused” as he watched younger players bypass him in City’s pecking order.
Reserve football, meantime, added up to a diet of regular games in cavernous and sparsely-populated stadiums.
Any poisonous bile spat out, then, would reach the field undiluted.
“There would be 200-odd people watching and anything shouted would echo round the ground,” says Barrett.
“In one away match there were bananas thrown on the field and monkey chants.
“I have no idea of the score.
“What I remember is looking round the changing room and thinking, ‘Is anyone going to talk about what just happened?’
“You try to read your environment. My interpretation was, ‘If I say anything, I will be thrown out the game’.
“I compartmentalised it. Nothing in the world would have deterred me from playing professional football.
“Later in my career, I reached a position where I could say something and I worked with Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card.”
Time with Oldham Athletic, Aston Villa and Everton gave Barrett his voice.
Joe Royle took Barrett to Oldham in November 1987 after initially enquiring if City could spare a defender on loan.
Informed Barrett was available to buy, Royle did his research and agreed to pay £35,000.
Characteristically, Barrett was unconcerned about dropping a division. He did, though, harbour fears over “not knowing anybody and being out of my comfort zone”.
It later dawned on Barrett that senior defender Kenny Clements might have had an ulterior motive for advising his colleague to move.
Regardless, Clements’s counsel persuaded Barrett to make “the best decision of my career”.
In more than four years at Boundary Park, Barrett experienced promotion to the top-flight and two notable cup runs – to the 1989 FA Cup semi-final and following season’s League Cup final.
Did he have an inkling, then, of what Royle was creating when he joined? “Did I heck,” laughs Barrett.
“I’d love to say I researched all the players – but I went to play.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
Barrett crowned Oldham’s Second Division championship winning season with a first senior England appearance against New Zealand in summer 1991.
When he played twice more for England two years later – in the USA, against Brazil and Germany – Barrett was an Aston Villa player.
Ron Atkinson forked out £1.7m for Barrett in February 1992 and the following season Villa finished Premier League runners-up to Manchester United.
“I knew I had a shelf life at Oldham,” says Barrett. “I was getting in the England squad and, again, it was that feeling of, ‘I need to do more’.
“It was a moment in time with Oldham which will probably never be repeated.
“Our attitude, whoever we were playing, was, ‘We’ll win, we’re Oldham’.
“There is no regret [about not winning a cup].
“It was a joy to be in those games.”
Falling away in the title race with Villa by contrast still smarts.
“We did not deal with the pressure how we should have, we panicked a little bit,” says Barrett.
He stands up the story former teammate Ian Marshall told in these pages of how Oldham’s plastic pitch scorched Barrett’s legs.
“My first game – silly idiot me, I wanted to show everyone how tough and aggressive I was… I slid into every tackle,” says Barrett.
“The sides of my thighs and knees were red raw.
“They never had a chance to heal, because I’d always do it again.
“It took a long time to get rid of those scars.”
The mental scars Villa sustained losing the title to United were salved with League Cup final victory over the same team in 1994 – an occasion which “helped loads” when Barrett was cup-tied for Everton’s FA Cup success 12 months later.
In hindsight, Barrett views the football he played for Villa as the finest of his career.
His first goal for the club, an audacious hooked strike across Everton goalkeeper Jason Kearton from near the right touchline at Villa Park, was indicative of a man feeling a million dollars.
“When you are playing well, you do things automatically,” says Barrett. “You have a picture of what you want to do, then you execute it.”
Villa’s form tailed off alarmingly in Barrett’s final season leading to Atkinson’s dismissal.
History repeated itself for Barrett when Royle left Everton in March 1997 after the Blues dipped following an exceptional start to the season.
Barrett is at a loss to explain either slide.
“It’s like a boulder rolling downhill,” he says.
“Once you stop it, you can take a deep breath and build from that point.
“We couldn’t stop the boulders.”
Barrett was close to joining Everton one month before completing his transfer from Villa in January 1995.
Atkinson’s replacement, Brian Little, had bought Gary Charles to play right-back and expressed his surprise when Barrett came back from Goodison without striking a deal.
“That was that,” says Barrett. “The time was right to go.
“I’d have gone to be with Joe Royle because of how much I respected him and it just happened to be another very big club I was joining.”
Barrett concedes missing Everton’s Cup ties complicated his opening months from a footballing perspective.
“But,” he insists, “I wasn’t at my wits’ end, I enjoyed what was happening for the guys.
“And the Cup games were unbelievable, just so good.”
Barrett was sent off on his Everton debut at Newcastle.
He sighs as he relates how he “petulantly” kicked away the ball to receive his second booking after the incorrect award of a corner.
“What a good start,” he jokes.
Barrett’s tones are weightier when he recalls his first full season with Everton in 1995/96.
He’d had to contend with the complexities of usurping the popular Matt Jackson – “The fans were indifferent about it but I kept that attitude of not allowing anything to stop me… the best person comes to the fore” – and was established in the team when a knee injury finished his season in mid-October.
“Mentally, that really was tough,” says Barrett. “And when you think you’re close to fitness and break down again… that sends you on a real downer.”
Barrett played 36 Premier League games in Everton’s perplexing 1996/97 campaign and despite Royle’s exit remained “optimistic about the future”.
Out of favour under Howard Kendall, though, and concluding “things aren’t going to go great for me”, after talking with Royle’s successor, Barrett joined Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday following his loan with Steel City rivals United in the second half of 1997/98.
Barrett’s time with a “hit and miss” team – featuring the likes of mercurial Italians Paolo Di Canio and Benito Carbone – ended in the most innocuous of circumstances.
He can recall every stage of the “freak” episode at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium in October 1998 which ultimately ended his career.
“I was on the corner of the 18-yard box and facing my own goal,” starts Barrett.
“The ball came over my right shoulder. I pirouetted to boot it away but felt something in my left knee.”
Barrett completed the game, not realising the severity of the injury, and reported for training on Monday.
Disappearing inside after experiencing pain performing simple passing drills was, says Barrett, “the beginning of the end”.
He had damaged articular cartilage – which sits at the end of bones – and after more than one year trying to resist the inevitable called it quits.
Barrett’s subsequent mental slump, he suspects, was the result of being utterly unprepared to leave the “room” he entered 16 years earlier.
He had been on the cusp of pursuing work as a joiner back then – “My dad drummed into my brother and I to get a trade when we were leaving school” – when City opened the door to “a different world”.
Somewhat counter-intuitively returning to education after playing had a restorative effect.
“Don’t be silly,” laughed Barrett, when asked if he retained focus at school as football intervened.
“I was the quiet guy in the corner, got on with my work, not particularly academically gifted but okay.”
That approach to his studies changed over five years acquiring a diploma then degree in sport science – a period which “really built my confidence”.
Barrett subsequently gained his UEFA A Licence and in 2009 completed the University of Warwick’s Certificate in Football Management.
It was through fellow student and current England assistant manager Steve Holland that Barrett alighted on his role with Stoke City, which lasted until he felt a seven-year itch in 2016.
“Stoke is great club but I was not going anywhere,” says Barrett. “I wasn’t in a position of any real standing.
“I had to change that picture.”
Barrett redrew his life entirely, turning long-held thoughts of moving to the States with wife Keely into reality and accepting a post as director of coaching at Houston’s Rise Soccer Club.
“I feel more comfortable in the game over here,” says Barrett. “Maybe because I am in a position which allows me to make decisions.”
Barrett concedes he could one day have another decision to make over whether to return home to advance his career.
Not any time soon, though. He’s happy where he is but occasionally casts his mind back to “a great time in my life, which I am really proud of”.
He’ll have the occasional dream he’s back playing, too. But who for?
“I don’t know,” says Barrett. “I am just on a field kicking the ball around.”
Through a combination of determination and tenacity, Earl Barrett lived that dream.