EXCITING EVERTON TEENAGER CAN BE A DYNAMIC FORCE IN KIEV
Not since Wayne Rooney was unleashed on Turkey in a European qualifier at Sunderland 10 years ago has the arrival of a young England player from north of Hertfordshire promised so much.
With a 31-minute cameo against Moldova last Friday that shimmered with youthful vigour and explosiveness, Ross Barkley demonstrated why he has been talked about in reverential tones at Everton since bounding through the age-group levels for club and country with almost unnatural ease.
One driving run, in which he seized upon an immaculate Steven Gerrard pass, turned inside his marker, drove forward and rocketed a long-range shot narrowly wide of the post was almost eerily reminiscent of a young Rooney.
The similarities between the pair at the same age are obvious in terms of background, physique, prodigiousness and even playing role.
Like Rooney, Barkley was born and raised in Merseyside, joined the Everton academy before he had started secondary school and had a meteoric rise through the ranks that culminated in a senior debut before he had regularly started shaving.
The gun player when England won the Uefa European Under-17 tournament in 2010, his apprenticeship has not quite been as straightforward as that of Rooney. Eighteen months of injuries, including a double leg fracture, a double hernia and a broken metatarsal, stunted Barkley’s development but loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United last season toughened him up mentally and physically.
David Moyes, who knows a thing or two about when to unleash a promising teenager, considered the 19-year-old to have progressed enough to hand him half a dozen run-outs at the back end of last season before the baton for nurturing this latest Goodison wunderkind was placed in the hands of Roberto Martinez.
Barkley’s first competitive appearance under his new manager, on the opening Premier League weekend, was marked by a man-of-the-match display and his first senior goal, a stunning left-foot shot in the 2-2 draw at Norwich City.
Three consecutive first-team starts followed before Barkley was called up to England’s senior squad and given his first taste of international football as a second-half replacement for Jack Wilshere, with victory already secured and the pressure valve on the players released.
It was a smart piece of timing by Roy Hodgson, whose selections against Moldova were universally vindicated. For the considerably trickier assignment against Ukraine in Kiev on Tuesday night, the England manager's decision-making must be equally savvy to navigate England smoothly to Brazil next summer.
|"The safe choice would be James Milner, as reliable as tinned tomato soup on a cold winter’s day but about as exciting, too."|
With the in-form Lambert now seemingly nailed on to spearhead the attack ahead of a central midfield trio of Wilshere, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Hodgson has several options on the left to counterpoint the pace of Theo Walcott on the right.
The safe choice would be James Milner, as reliable as tinned tomato soup on a cold winter’s day but about as exciting, too. Ashley Young has a fine recent international record but he has hardly dazzled for his club over the last 12 months.
The left-field options for the left flank are Andros Townsend, a skilful wide player but on the fringes of Tottenham's team, and the powerful Barkley.
For Martinez, the attacking midfielder reminds him of the former Germany skipper Michael Ballack. “When Ballack was younger, nobody knew what his best position was; could he be a sitting midfielder, an attacking midfielder or play up front? Ross is that impressive,” observed the new Everton boss. “He takes in information, which for a young lad is incredible. He can use both feet, he can switch the play, he has a range of passing and can receive the ball in any area. He has a great shot and incredible energy."
England Under-20s coach Peter Taylor added: “The only thing I tried to do with him for the Under-20s in the summer was keep him away from our goal and as high up the pitch as possible. The No.10, floating forward role is his best. You don’t want him picking the ball up off the back four because the distance is too great to the other goal. Get him 30 to 40 yards out and he has the pace and strength to beat people.”
The Ukraine match would be the ideal opportunity for Hodgson to shed his conservative skin and go for the jugular in a manner that would surprise the hosts.
They will know little or nothing of the Everton teenager, which makes him dangerous. He would be slightly out of position on the left but has the capacity to carry the ball forward at pace and commit defenders in a manner that is beyond the more prosaic Milner. Moreover, the best players are adaptable and can be a force anywhere on the pitch.
One solution to cover for Milner’s defensive attributes would be to axe Lampard and select Michael Carrick alongside Gerrard, with Wilshere just in front of the experienced central midfield pair.
Hodgson should unleash England’s newest lion from his cage. Barkley is ready and primed for the international jungle.
KYLE SHOULD NOT WALK THE PLANK
Newly-qualified experts in the substance nitrous oxide abound after pictures emerged in a Sunday newspaper of Kyle Walker inhaling it from a balloon while on a night out in June.
Partially lost in the predictable outcry about footballer misbehaviour is that the drug itself is legal – although the supply of it is not – and that the England international was on his summer holiday when the incident took place.
Walker should not be castigated for his actions, which were ill-advised but hardly critical. He has demonstrated accountability by releasing a statement through his club Tottenham to apologise for his “poor judgement” and will now turn his attention to preparing for Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier in Kiev, a match he will start in the continued absence of Glen Johnson.
The FA have elected to stand by him on the issue and rightly so: "Inhaling Nitrous Oxide is not illegal, but we recognise the associated dangers," a statement read.
"Kyle has accepted this mistake. He will not face any action under the England Player Code of Conduct."
Assuming this was a one-off incident and there is not sustained use of the drug from the player, it would be senseless and counter-productive for Walker not to play against Ukraine.
The issue of England internationals – and high-profile footballers as a whole – being role models is a hazy and abstract one, whatever the contents of the England player’s charter drawn up by the FA last October.
If over-zealous partying affects Walker’s football down the line, the physical demands of the modern game mean he will surely pay the price.
For now, the FA are right to limit Walker's punishment to a slap on the wrists, while his role in instigating a broader, and welcome, public debate about the harm that nitrous oxide can cause will further the point.
AMATEURISH WALES FA HAVE GOT MANAGER THEY DESERVE
Wales have lurched back into depressingly familiar territory following the disbanding of the coaching set-up formed so thoughtfully by the late Gary Speed.
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|21/2||England are 21/2 with BetVictor to beat Ukraine 2-1
In mitigation, Chris Coleman can point to the absence of the injured Gareth Bale against Macedonia, as well as a fiendishly difficult qualifying group that features Belgium, Croatia and Serbia.
But quite what the Football Association of Wales is doing agreeing a new two-year contract with the out-of-his-depth Coleman is not quite clear.
His record is mediocre – three wins from 11 matches with the same group of players that Speed led to four victories in his last five games in charge – while the playing style created by the previous regime has been disbanded.
Given the playing resources available, this is a pity but not really a surprise. The writing was on the wall once the FAW ignored the players who wanted Speed's highly-rated former No.2 Raymond Verheijen in charge and continued its ‘jobs for the boys’ policy by handing the role to a ex-international so disorganised he forgot to take his passport with him to the airport ahead of a pivotal fixture.
Wales' amateurish ruling body have got the manager they deserve.