An ode to Gareth Barry

Image credit: Dagur Brynjólfsson

An Ode to Gareth Barry

He may not be the finest craftsman of the beautiful game, but Gareth Barry will now forever be football royalty. Fellow William Parker school pupil Alfie Denness charts the unheralded 36 year old’s rise, right from where it all began…

After starting in West Bromwich Albion’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal earlier this season, Gareth Barry has now featured in 633 Premier League matches, leaving him with the highest number of appearances in Premier League history. It is perhaps appropriate that, after the game, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger presented Barry with a signed shirt commemorating his achievement. Wenger and Barry, whose first Premier League outings came in 1996 and 1998 respectively, have been constants of the English football scene throughout the lives of most of the current cohort of Cambridge undergraduates. Many of the freshers arriving this year will not even have been born when Barry made his debut, coming on as a 49th minute substitute for Aston Villa’s 3-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday on 2 May 1998. 

The midfielder has combined this impressive longevity at the highest level of English football with a gradually earned reputation as a model pro; down-to-earth and unflashy, calm and assured both on and off the pitch. With ever-spiralling transfer fees and commercialisation rampant in modern football, there is perhaps more than just the name ‘Gareth’ that makes Barry seem like a player from another, increasingly distant, time. 

Barry and I have one interesting thing in common: we went to the same secondary school and both played for the William Parker School football team. I remember there was a framed photo of Barry from his early years at Aston Villa hanging in the corridor next to the school hall, as befitting his status as comfortably William Parker’s most famous alumnus. 

Barry’s football career since then has rather outshone mine, however. After a brief youth spell at Brighton and Hove Albion, Barry signed for Aston Villa, spending over a decade at the club. While he became club captain and would be rewarded with a testimonial to mark his ten years at Villa Park in 2007, the fact that the only silverware he won while at the club was the 2001 Intertoto Cup (a competition sadly no longer with us) may have been behind his move to Manchester City in 2009. 

While some Villa fans resented Barry’s desire to leave the club, he could perhaps console himself after winning his first and only Premier League title in 2012. After he began to struggle to make Man City’s starting line-up, Barry enjoyed something of a career renaissance at Everton, finding some of his best form as a tough but intelligent defensive midfielder at Goodison Park. Barry now finds himself at West Brom and, as a team currently managed by Tony Pulis, they are surely in absolutely no danger of relegation, and Barry should be able to build on his tally for as long as he can keep performing at the highest level. 

In achieving the 633-appearance landmark, Barry overtook Manchester United’s Ryan Gigs, and some social media commentators have suggested that, despite his achievement, Barry could never become a ‘legend’ in the same way a player like Giggs is. While the Welshman may have won thirteen Premier League medals to Barry’s one, and his explosive runs and crosses may have produced more stand-out moments than Barry’s workmanlike midfield displays, this should not be used to denigrate the 36-year old’s success in the game. While rarely grabbing headlines, Barry would surely have been among the first names on the team sheet for many of the managers he played under, the sort of player that every manager needs. Indeed, for almost six years between 2004 and 2010, Barry went on a run of 207 appearances without being a substitute.  

Barry’s total still leaves him quite a long way behind the legendary England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who made 849 top flight appearances spanning almost 30 years, and indeed Giggs made 40 appearances for Manchester United before 1992 and the creation of the Premier League. There is an argument to be made that the focus on Barry’s achievement cements the myth that English football is just 25 years old, and that the Premier League, with the enormous sums of money in advertising and TV revenue its formation helped bring into the game, is the be-all and end-all. However, it is perhaps worth risking this to celebrate the career of one of modern football’s less fashionable but most enduring players. An inspiration to those who believe giving 110% and putting a shift in for the team are the mark of a good performance, may Barry continue to quietly influence matches with his measured passing and firm tackling for many seasons to come.

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