You never want to be ‘the next’ anything. It never ends well: it just sets expectations too high, invited comparisons that don’t necessarily fit, and more often than not are based on the most arbitrary factors. Short and/or South American? You’re the next Lionel Messi. Fast and French? You’re the next Thierry Henry. It’s desperately unfair for all involved.
So it was hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Ross Barkley six months ago, when the only ways in which he was living up to the hype that he might be ‘the next Paul Gascoigne’ were that he had suffered with injuries and was disappointingly left out of a World Cup squad.
Barkley played just 208 minutes for Chelsea last season, mostly through injury, but also seemingly out of a lack of faith from former Chelsea manager Antonio Conte.
Despite being desperately in need of minutes to recover from a hamstring injury that kept Barkley out from August to January and then again from February to April, the midfielder was named as an unused substitute in seven of Chelsea’s last eight games of the season, appearing only in a 3-0 dead-rubber defeat to Newcastle.
Even without that lack of support from his club, it is highly unlikely Gareth Southgate would have entertained the prospect of including Barkley in his World Cup squad. Barkley had not been involved in an England squad since March 2017, and had not made an international appearance since May 2016.
Now, there is seemingly no stopping him. Ross Barkley has accomplished more the last three weeks than he had in the previous two years. After scoring his first Chelsea goal in a 3-0 win against Southampton, Barkley started for England against both Croatia and Spain, setting up Raheem Sterling’s second goal with a wonderful pass in the second of those appearances. After coming back from international duty, Barkley came off the bench to score a vital 96th-minute equaliser in the 2-2 draw against Manchester United.
Barkley has successfully got Maurizio Sarri’s attention to the extent that he discarded midweek hat-trick hero Ruben Loftus-Cheek to restore Barkley to the starting lineup against Burnley. He did not let his manager down.
Burnley started brightly against Chelsea, but Barkley was instrumental in shutting down that early pressure, providing a superb outlet on the counter-attack that inevitably led to a sumptuous assist from just outside the box. His final pass for Alvaro Morata’s opener midway through the first half could not have been more perfectly timed or perfectly weighted for the Spaniard’s first-time finish.
When Barkley again picked up the ball in a similar position 12 minutes into the second half, James Tarkowski was determined not to give him the space to pick his pass once again – only for Barkley to fire a left-footed shot through the defender’s legs and into the far bottom corner, leaving Tarkowski looking disbelievingly at his own limbs. That’s now one goal in every one of Barkley’s last three Premier League appearances.
Such moments are exactly what made us all so excited about Barkley in the first place and led to him earning his first full England cap when he was just 19, inviting those ultimately hugely inaccurate Gascoigne comparisons. Now, with his 25th birthday just a few weeks away, he might finally be ready to shake that off once and for all and show that he was always destined not to be the next anything – simply to be the first Ross Barkley.
Steven Chicken – he is on Twitter