On the cusp of a major leap forward for Everton, Ross Barkley, the diamond of the club’s academy, has decided to jump ship. Leading his new-look, newly rich boyhood club into the top four does not, unfortunately, represent the “new challenge” he is looking for, and so Barkley will be sold “100%” according to Ronald Koeman. It’s a sad day for many Evertonians; an indifferent day for many others.

“I knew what it meant to me when Wayne Rooney left. We were all down. I know how the fans felt. Now I want to help us push on. Signing a new contract is a dream. I’ve played for Everton most of my life. This is a big thing for me. It didn’t take any persuading. As soon as I got told about it I wanted to sign”.

Four years on, Barkley couldn’t be more removed from those comments. It’s tempting to slip into cynicism, both at the authenticity of those sentiments then, and at their absence now, but something has gone badly wrong here, and it’s not immediately apparent what that is.

Everton's Ross Barkley scores one of his finest goals to date away at Newcastle in February, 2014.

To attempt to navigate the quagmire of conjecture about Barkley, that 2014 contract signing is a good place to start. On the back of Everton’s thrilling fifth-place finish, and their Premier League record points total, Roberto Martinez, Romelu Lukaku, John Stones and later James McCarthy were given new five-year deals. Barkley, the other star of Everton’s new, youthful approach, only agreed to four.

Was this an early hint of scepticism towards Barkley within the Everton hierarchy? Probably not, given Martinez was pulling the strings, and Bill Kenwright was in charge of the money. Offering five-year contracts to all except a key player from the academy? That seems unlikely. The variable here is surely Barkley. Was this his own scepticism towards Everton surfacing for the first time? Months after his breakthrough season, was he already looking beyond Goodison Park?

Excitement and exasperation

Barkley has only lived up to that early promise in two spells since. Between August 2015 and January 2016, he scored six and assisted seven in 19 games. From January to April, 2017, he scored one and assisted six in eight games, and generally dictated play as Everton’s form rivalled the league’s best. There has been a regular hint of excitement and invention, but equally there has been exasperation and occasional bewilderment.

A fortnight on from the contract signing, Gareth Barry injured Barkley’s medial ligament in training. When he returned two months later, Martinez’s top four challengers had plummeted to 17th. Neither player nor club has fully recovered. As distance grew between the fans and the team, Barkley, the symbol of supporters’ connection to the team, suddenly became the personification of Martinez’s flaws. Recklessly attacking, defensively deficient, naive, soft, prone to unnecessary risk. As Everton’s swagger had defined Barkley’s breakthrough season, the Toffees’ aimless indulgence characterised his follow-up.

Everton's Ross Barkley receives instruction from Ronald Koeman as Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino looks on.

Enter stage left Ronald Koeman, the legendary player and respected coach who immediately warned Barkley “he [needed] to improve“. After a goal and an assist in the first two league games, Barkley was made captain against Yeovil. Koeman: “It means a lot to him, an Evertonian young boy who starts in the academy“. He scored a second free-kick of the season, then followed up with an influential display at home to Stoke. In the next game away at Sunderland, Barkley was subbed at half-time.

Productivity had masked underlying problems, but he adapted well to Koeman’s methods. A closer look at games after he was dropped last season shows he responded well every time, which runs contrary to popular consensus. Only once in the five times he returned to the side did he fail to score or assist, and even then, he scored a week later. Many believe Barkley needs to be mollycoddled yet here he was disproving that, and somehow it went unnoticed.

Changing perceptions

After a poor spell over Christmas, and a fine one from New Year on, Barkley’s unsigned contract loomed large. Everton players don’t generally let contracts run down, surely a local lad wasn’t about to buck the trend? Koeman began issuing ultimatums and pressurising publicly. At first, it appeared he was forcing the player out of the club, but given he had already learned of his desire to go, Koeman may have been trying to keep him.

Ross Barkley celebrates his goal against Burnley by standing on the edge of the Gwladys Street.

The revelation Barkley categorically wants to leave Everton alters perception significantly. Koeman has been proven right to alienate a player who alienated himself – of course he expressed his frustration. Barkley cuts a different figure too. Kissing the badge, climbing into the Gwladys Street, appearing in new promotional material as he rejects the club in secret and says nothing in public. Confusion or manipulation? It remains a mystery.

He has valid reasons to leave of course. It’s reasonable to have expected a better contract offer. Since 2013, Barkley’s contribution to the side was eclipsed only by Romelu Lukaku. Plus, anyone would prefer to work under a boss who wasn’t, at best, completely indifferent towards their progress. Also, the appalling abuse he routinely receives from sections of Evertonians is enough to drive anyone away.

But none of those explanations will sit comfortably with fans who have bought into the boyhood Blue narrative Barkley has played up to consistently. These are obstacles to overcome in order to attain legendary status, tests of character that must be passed. Instead, Barkley is taking the easy way out in a manner that minimises Everton’s benefit, and favours whichever club he joins. You can’t talk about what it was like when Rooney left, then force Everton into a cheap sale. You can’t market what it means to be an Evertonian then subject fans to months of uncertainty before abandoning them.

That September night at home to Yeovil when he captained Everton for the first time, Barkley celebrated his goal by revealing a message underneath his shirt. ‘R.I.P SID BENSON’. Benson was the former coach who spotted Barkley and brought him to Everton, whose wistful recollection is now tinged with bitter irony: “Ross was such a big Evertonian, we had no reason to worry. ‘I just want to play for Everton, Sid’ – that’s all he would ever say“.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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