Wednesday 22 November 2017

Michael Owen: Barkley has ice in his head to extinguish the fire in Liverpool hearts

Michael Owen

My dad supported Liverpool and played for Everton. I supported Everton and played for Liverpool. Between us we had Merseyside derbies covered. Should blue beat red at Goodison Park today then the two clubs will be locked together in the table on 23 points.

Everton are one of the success stories of modern times. All across the Premier League you find examples of clubs being bought by billionaire owners, clubs with new stadiums and huge new revenue streams. Surely Everton are next on the list to be bought.

Their stadium is an asset in terms of the atmosphere it generates, but also a handicap in its age and lack of facilities. The dressing-rooms are largely unchanged and there are hardly any corporate boxes. It is not a money-making machine in the style of so many clubs.

Yet Everton have punched above their weight for a decade, for which David Moyes takes most of the credit. Roberto Martinez is maintaining that tradition. Everton's record of finding good players (and selling a few for top dollar) is extraordinary. Their academy also functions well.

It is everything a youth system should be and the fans are rightly proud of what the club have achieved without a huge input from a wealthy owner. In photographs of me as a small boy, one shows me wearing a Celtic jersey but in all the others I'm in an Everton kit.

Most lads support the team their dad followed or the one that's in the family. My dad was not a front-rank Everton player. He played only twice for the first team during the era of Kendall, Harvey, Royle, Ball – some of the club's greatest players. But he spent his youth there from 1966-70 and did manage to make the first-team line-up as a striker.

Eventually the lack of opportunities drove him to Bradford City and beyond. It was enough for me growing up to be able to say my dad once played for Everton. It was a good boast for the schoolyard and it made me want to emulate him.

I spent a bit of time at Bellefield, the training ground at the time, when Everton wanted to sign me as a boy. And though they were my team, my dad was not the sort to call the club office and announce: "It's Terry Owen, ex-player, here, can you arrange some tickets for the game?" Trips to Goodison were a special treat. Week to week we tended to stand on the terraces of Chester City.

Liverpool have been the dominant club on Merseyside in recent decades but these days Everton almost never look like losing at home. They are unbeaten in 14 Premier League games at Goodison Park in 2013 and have not conceded in five and a half hours.

Equally, Liverpool are unbeaten in all but one of the last 13 Merseyside derbies. The last Everton victory was in 2010. Even leaving aside all those intense visits with Liverpool, the trips there with Newcastle, Manchester United or Stoke were so hard I would almost rather have been at Stamford Bridge or the Emirates. It is such a tough place to come away from with a win.

People look at the stadium and underestimate the quality of Everton's players. Last year, with Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines, they had two who would make any Premier League starting XI, so it would be a mammoth win if Liverpool managed to pull it off today.

I like Ross Barkley, Everton's 19-year-old starlet, and admire the youth set-up at Everton. It is one of those academies where you would be happy to see your own son. You are given a chance there, and if you display talent you will be given a chance in your best position, rather than being shunted out to the wing.

I have studied Barkley a couple of times this season and Martinez has granted him the superstar's role, floating in behind the striker. That is a huge endorsement and a sign that the manager is bold enough to display his faith in homegrown talent.

A youngster breaking through at Chelsea or Manchester City is much less likely to be given his head in his preferred role. To have a team built around you at such a young age is quite a gift. Barkley has two good feet and real venom in his shots. He's not the finished article yet, but he has some raw ability.

He is one of the exciting players to take England through the next five or 10 years. It helps him to have Romelu Lukaku playing centre forward in that formation, playing the Didier Drogba role. It is one of the mysteries of this season that Chelsea let Lukaku go on loan, but everyone at Everton is glad they did.

Gareth Barry, meanwhile, has helped fill the role left by Fellaini, whose direct style suited Everton perfectly in the Moyes years. Under Martinez, who has tinkered with the formation, the emphasis is more on passing. Fellaini is a fine player who fits a physical game and has no problem with the ball being in the air.

To receive such a big fee for Fellaini was good business, given that Everton held on to Baines: a wonderful left-back who scores and creates goals, is fast, can pass and has a good football brain.

The sale of Fellaini strengthened the first-team budget, and Barry's wages are money well spent. He is an old hand in there, gets the team playing and passing, and sniffs out danger – the ideal player when you have bombing full-backs, Lukaku up front, and Barkley playing free. That calming influence is just what Martinez needs in midfield.

Merseyside derbies generate incredible passion in the city. Five days before the game you will pull up at traffic lights and people will beep at you and clench their fists behind car windows. That transmits itself to the players. We would be deluged by phone calls from friends telling us what to do in the game and firing us up, as if we needed reminding.

The emphasis starts to focus itself on not letting the fans down. If you get caught up in it, that's when the red cards start appearing. You enter a different emotional world. I was lucky not to be sent off for lunging at David Weir in one Merseyside derby but escaped with a yellow card.

The manager always tells you: "I know you're all revved up for it, but remember – fire in the heart, ice in the head."

You do have to remind yourself of that before you kick-off. Otherwise it really will kick off. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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