Niall Quinn ruined it for everyone really. In years gone by the testimonial game was a good opportunity for a footballer who didn’t earn a huge amount more than the man or woman in the street to top up the retirement pot a little. But then when players started to earn rather more inflated salaries it became a little more difficult to justify being given a fond, cash-laden farewell, and in 2002 Quinn decided to donate the proceeds from his valedictory match to various children’s charities. From that point any footballer who wanted a testimonial couldn’t really get away with trousering the cash, because they already had plenty of it.
That’s the perception, anyway. Of course Premier League footballers can probably scrape by after they retire, still able to afford all the pink snakeskin boots and solid gold statues of themselves they desire, without an evening’s gate receipts to help them. For players below that level, it’s a different story.
You’d have to be of a particularly bastardy constitution to begrudge Shaun Barker a testimonial. A central defender you might describe as ‘no nonsense’, Barker started his career with Rotherham before moving to Blackpool then Derby, for whom he became captain in 2011. In March 2012, he suffered one of the more horrific injuries a player could on a football pitch, rupturing pretty much everything in his knee that could be ruptured.
“Everything that held the top half of my leg to the bottom half just snapped in two and I was pretty much held together by the skin alone,” he said in an interview with a charming, handsome and erudite journalist last year. He hasn’t played first-team football since.
In January this year Derby – who released him at the end of his contract in 2015 – granted him a testimonial game, which will take place on Thursday evening at the iPro Stadium, between the current Derby team and a Barker invitational XI featuring a selection of former Rams players. Igor Stimac, Seth Johnson, Marco Gabbiadini, Danny Higginbotham and Horacio Carbonari will be there, among others.
“I thought there was something missing after I wasn’t able to play for Derby again last year, after training and recovering for three years,” Barker says now. “And the fans seemed to share that – there was a bit of a surge of people on Twitter trying to get me to play one last time, petitions, that sort of thing. It was a humbling moment I suppose, and this gives me the opportunity for me – and the club – to say farewell. The idea was for obviously me to play one more time, but I think it’s a good chance to celebrate the club as a whole, and some of the players that have been here in the past.”
There will be various other events around the game (there was a Q&A last week in Derby, and others are planned for later in the year), which fits with Barker’s seemingly quite restless nature. During the time he’s spent away from football he’s variously been involved in a football-themed clothing company that provides surprisingly ‘not shit’ garments sold in club shops, he’s dabbled in music promotion and DJing, as well as starting his own charity, the Shaun Barker Foundation. That was set up in 2014 and designed to help various causes around Derby (more details here), and will benefit from the testimonial game and surrounding events.
The question of money in this scenario is clearly quite an awkward one for Barker, who stresses that he will be making a donation to and trying to raise awareness for the Foundation. But surely few could would object to a few quid going to a man who suffered such a horrendous injury aged 29 and was thus robbed of what, for a Football League central defender, could well have been his prime years.
“Players that have played in the Championship, League One and below aren’t blessed with the sort of money that Premier League players have,” he says. “People presume that you’ve made millions, you’ve got your mortgage paid off and you’ve got nothing else to worry about, but that’s not the case. I earned decent money… but when I retire, I’ll be working straight away to pay the bills.”
There is obviously a temptation to think that, as he hasn’t played for four years, the testimonial will clearly be a goodbye for Barker, one last lap around the pitch before succumbing to the inevitable. Not according to him, though, as despite his problems Barker is still optimistic of finding a club in the summer.
One of the problems Barker has had is that since leaving Derby he’s been without the sort of support a player recovering from such a serious injury really needs. An irritating heel problem suffered last summer has been a persistent niggle ever since, meaning he hasn’t even been able to go on trial anywhere to convince a club he’s worth taking a gamble on.
“If I was at a club I’d have the facilities to recover and the knowledge of a physio to tell me what I can and can’t do, but while you’re on your own it’s been guesswork…. It’s been a case of keeping myself as fit as possible, then hopefully have a pre-season in the summer and prove I can still play. If I can’t do that then I’ll have to hold my hands up and say it’s too late, but I believe I can do well enough.”
Barker admits that if he isn’t fit enough to find a club this summer then he’ll have to knock it all on the head. If that’s the case, then a game at his old ground, in front of his old fans, with his old pals, won’t be a bad way to say goodbye. They’re not just for the money, testimonials.