Sitting at the back of the Gwladys Street stand, the traditional home of Everton’s hardcore support, it was impossible to avoid the waves of frustration breaking all round the grand old ground as The Blues dominated Hull City, but seemed reluctant to try a shot on goal. Worse still, the consistent refusal to obey an inner voice that was screaming “Can we not knock it?” especially as Steve Bruce had plainly settled for leaving Sylvain Distin as the spare man – which merely illustrated why this very fine defender has no caps for France. M. Distin is no passer of a football. But the big man is learning, and so are the Goodison faithful – but it’s going to take time.
At the heart of The Roberto Martinez Project – as progressive as the rock it’s name suggests – is Ross Barkley, local boy, England player, and lifelong Evertonian. Even with all that in his favour (and Bluenoses never forget that he hasn’t worn a “Once a Blue” T-shirt) there were rumbles of discontent as the fabled Barkley balance engineered a yard of space in and around the box and… he passed.
This, then, is a true believer in the doctrine of tiki-taka, of the One True Way that has delivered so much to Spain’s national team and Barcelona, of The Roberto Martinez Project. I wondered at half-time (and I was not alone) whether I agreed with Barkley and his boss.
I do. And what sealed it was the thought of who Ross Barkley might become, because, though I had thought of him growing into a latter-day Gazza, The Project will turn him into another player, a player so beautiful, so successful, so awe-inspiring that we have to give the teenage Scouser the opportunity to see how close he can come to the real thing. Because Ross Barkley might, just might, become England’s Andres Iniesta.
Wait! Before such blasphemy invites a Spanish Inquisition, I am not claiming that Barkley is as good as the Barcelona wizard – but he could become a version of him. The ball will be retained at almost any cost (certainly at the price of passing to a man under pressure – usually a cardinal sin) and each possession will be assessed with shooting for goal just one option among many, and not the default whenever a clear sighting of the target arises. Patterns will be created, the ball recycled cries of “Shoot FFS!” will rent the air.
But I shall believe in the young man in the Number 20 shirt and the young man in the dugout, because, if you could watch one man play every week of the last six years or so, would it not have been Iniesta? To see the man run with the ball, pass the ball, retain the ball, has been a consistent joy, even as the light has dimmed a little both in his club’s and national team’s play. If he is the template, that’ll do for me.