For true football fans, great matches and great players act like milestones in our lives. Whereas the non-football populace will talk wistfully about their kids first day at school, for us it’ll be a promotion, tournament win or great player we once had. With this in mind, many Villa fans would have taken a moment of reflection when we heard Gareth Barry had finally retired.
When you’ve seen a player from such a young age, you talk about the events in their career like you’d speak about your own kids achievements. Fans over 40 will remember Villa signing Gareth together with striker Matthew Standing in January 1998. They’d been in Brighton’s youth set up, but the club were in League Two and struggling. Doug Ellis quibbled about the transfer fee so a tribunal was required to settle on £1 million. It might seem absurd to us now but Villa (Doug) complained about this, and to be fair it did appear the FA had a rare charitable moment. Youth players in the late 90’s did not usually cost anywhere near what we paid. Brighton were in financial trouble and it seemed the FA might be trying to help, whilst simultaneously punishing Villa (Doug) for being tight fisted.
Gareth made his debut aged just 17 and 3 months against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on 2 May 1998. He replaced the injured Ian Taylor after 49 minutes and helped an in-form Villa team win the game 3-1. With Taylor still out a week later, manager John Gregory decider to give Gareth his first full start in our final game against Champions Arsenal.
This was no dead rubber, Villa needed a win to stand a chance of Uefa Cup qualification. Young Barry was thrown in at the deep end.
His performance? Think about when you first saw Grealish, that grace on the ball, real natural talent. It was the same with Barry. He didn’t look out of place for a second. This against a midfield of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, who would win the World Cup with France just 2 months later.
Villa won the game and qualified for Europe, but all I remember is telling my mates in the pub they’d better remember the name Gareth Barry, as he was going to be some player. It’s fair to say I might have reminded them of this moment once or twice since.
In 1998-99, Barry became a first team regular, playing 32 games, most of them before his 18th birthday. Other than an injury hit 2001-02, Barry never played less than 30 games a season for Villa from 1998 until he left in 2009. He scored his first goal against Nottingham Forest in April 1999, and got a second two weeks later against Charlton. Never a big goal-getter, he nevertheless bagged 52 for Villa in his 12 years with us, including a career best 9 goals in 2007-08.
There were some exciting times at Villa Park. The FA Cup final in 2000, a Uefa Cup tie against Ajax, top six finishes in the league. Gareth also had a decent international career, making his debut against Ukraine in 2000 and playing over 30 times for England whilst with us. But Gareth Barry wanted to play in the Champions League, and that rarely looked likely at Villa Park.
After a sixth place finish in 2007-08, Liverpool’s Rafa Benitez tabled a bid thought to be around £15 million plus Steve Finnan, which was angrily rejected by Martin O’Neill. After a second higher bid was also rejected, Gareth fell out with O’Neill and was stripped of the Villa captaincy. Nevertheless, he returned to the team in the new season, and was ever present in our league campaign, scoring 5 goals. His last game as a Villa player was a 1-0 victory against Newcastle at Villa Park on 24 May 2009.
A few weeks later, Villa accepted a £12 million bid from newly minted Manchester City for Gareth. He’d played 441 times for Villa, the 8th highest in our history. After leaving he wrote an open letter to Villa fans in the Birmingham Mail, thanking them for their support over the previous 12 years. Somehow it seemed a shame that Gareth was going to City rather than one of the true behemoths of World football, but at least we had that extra season.
Gareth managed to achieve his ambitions at City, winning one FA Cup and one League Championship. He also played in the Champions League, although this must have seemed hollow as City were eliminated in the group stages twice while he was there. He also continued to be selected for England, playing three times in the 2010 World Cup. He missed Euro 2012 through injury, but still ended with 53 caps, including 4 as captain.
In 2014 he was sent on loan to Everton, where he helped them finish fifth in 2013-14. He signed permanently for the toffees that summer and spent three seasons at Goodison Park.
It would have been lovely had Gareth returned to Villa for his career swansong. Instead, he headed for the Hawthorns in August 2017, opting to stay in the Premier League. He had a good reason. In September he broke Ryan Giggs’ Premier League appearance record, and his total record of 653 games will take some beating.
Albion were relegated in 2018, which meant Gareth would face Villa the following season. He played in the 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns in November, and his last game at Villa Park was Albion’s 2-0 win on 16th February 2019. He received warm applause from the vast majority of Villa fans despite the scoreline, which is not something that usually happens to visiting players from West Bromwich Albion.
A knee injury and resulting operation restricted his appearances soon after and he thankfully missed the play off games against us. His age was now a barrier to recovery, and Gareth made just 3 appearances in the 2019-20 season, his last ever in an FA Cup tie against Newcastle on 3rd March, just before lockdown.
So what next for Gareth Barry? If he’s done his coaching badges, there are few players with a better temperament for management. Who knows, if John Terry moves on in the future it’d be fantastic to see Gareth Barry back at Villa Park, giving young players the benefit of his fabulous career.
Whatever he does, to the Villa family he’ll always be one of our legends.