Euro 2016 Qualifier: Barkley a hype or hope?

English football just cannot help itself.

Young, talented players are no longer just promising prospects. They are one decent game away from joining their nation's immortals, one dazzling dribble from a £60 million ($122m) move to Manchester City.

A handful of international caps are now a shortcut to superstardom and a few accolades are enough to give rise to the Great White Hope.

Ross Barkley is at risk of being pulled from a pedestal he never wanted to stand on in the first place.

As he prepares for only his 10th England cap against Slovenia tomorrow morning (Singapore time), the Everton midfielder is having greatness thrust upon him without so much as a fancy flick or a driving run from the centre circle.

The Premier League's endless, insatiable demand for hyperbole has been supplied by the ludicrous comparisons thrown in Barkley's direction.

In recent days, the 20-year-old has been mentioned in the same sentence as Paul Gascoigne not by a lazy hack looking for a cheap headline, but by the manager of his national team.

Barkley's dynamism and his muscular ability to leave markers trailing do share faint echoes of the most naturally talented English footballer of his generation (and arguably the generation after that), but there is no more than a passing resemblance at this stage.

POTENTIAL

Barkley and Gascoigne are united in their youthful potential. But Gascoigne delivered, if only briefly, before reaching for the self-destruct button.

At the age of 23, Gascoigne achieved infamy in Turin, but also came close to immortality at Italia 90.

He was more than a Cruyff turn and a reliable free-kick taker. He was an instinctive leader in a nightclub bouncer's body.

Blessed with the upper-body strength of a boxer and the dainty toes of a ballerina, Gascogine was the first of the modern English footballers. Barkley is barely a facsimile of the fallen giant.

The Everton man has also represented the Three Lions at a World Cup, but barely registered in an abject side.

The failings of his fumbling comrades were not Barkley's fault, but he rarely tried to steer his own course, changing the direction of a game as Gascoigne once did for England, Tottenham and Lazio.

Of course, Barkley has done nothing wrong here. He is a victim of England's incessant demand for success and its deluded opinion of both its national game and its professional league.

After an erratic start to the season, the Toffees are 10th in a Premier League bedeviled by inconsistency where, apart from Chelsea, the financial powerhouses remain paupers on the European stage and mired in their domestic mediocrity.

Since recovering from a knee injury, Barkley has made just five appearances in all competitions for an Everton side struggling to reassert their identity after a terrific campaign last season.

Despite being part of England's most unsuccessful World Cup campaign since 1958, Barkley started only one game and came on in two others, as a hapless Hodgson desperately sought to salvage a little dignity.

The midfielder hardly took the Brazilian tournament by the scruff of the neck and silenced the samba with one devastating display after another. He was adequate in a distinctly unexceptional squad.

And that's fine. He made his international debut only a year earlier and was completing his apprenticeship in reserve football a year or so before that.

His professional development exceeds expectations, but he is not yet an exceptional footballer.

Like swallows and summers, one season doesn't make a superstar, even one that yields six goals in 34 Premier League appearances as a midfielder.

PROGRESS

Barkley's progress has been commendable, but commendable doesn't cut it in the deluded cocoon of English football. He must be something more.

He's a world-beater in waiting, the navigator to Euro 2016 glory, the new Gazza, the new Wayne Rooney, the next £60m target for Manchester City and the next bright young thing to shine in the constellation called Barcelona (that last one came from Xavi Hernandez, who really should know better even if he was asked a loaded question).

In recent days, Barkley has been showered in both praise and pressure, none of it was his own doing; none of it was particularly desired.

As he continually points out, he can only go out and play. But that won't be enough now. He may progress, but a fickle audience demands perfection.

Barkley bears the weight of a nation's perennial failure; the latest young talent tasked with the impossible job of ending all those years of hurt.

The flimsiest of pedestals is already in place. It might as well be a trapdoor.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 15, 2014.
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