If being facetious, one might claim that the next few years of Ross Barkley’s career are now entirely predictable. Having joined Chelsea, he will – when fit – become a useful back-up player and a valuable deputy to the other (better) attacking-midfielders in Antonio Conte’s squad. He’ll score some vaguely memorable goals, collect some medals, and start defaulting back into the England team on account of having a higher profile.
And then, Act II, in which Chelsea spend heavily on a more talented player and Barkley, in two or three years’ time, is loaned to a mid-level, Everton-ish team until his contract expires.
It’s such an easy script to write. Barkley is the Scott Parker, Jack Rodwell, and Scott Sinclair of 2018: another landfill English player who has been tempted towards the big club bright lights but who, predictably, will be dazzled by their intensity.
It’s all rather pious though, isn’t it?
The familiar line in this situation is to question the player’s ambition and to remind him of his Corinthian obligations. Ross Barkley should want to play every week, to improve through that involvement, and be willing to accept a weekly wage proportionate to his role.
This needn’t become accusatory: we’ve all used that argument at one point or another and most of us have flogged a player we dislike for eschewing that implied responsibility. However, it’s important to recognise that the concept of a football career seems to be evolving. Against the wishes of most – and almost anyone with a soul – a player’s lifespan in the game is characterised by what he’s able to achieve. Or, at least, the awards which appear on his Wikipedia page.
Beyond that, a career is also a harvest. In literal terms, that means collecting as large a basic wage as possible and performing on a stage which provides the greatest access to commercial opportunities.
It’s also, probably more than anything else, determined by strategy – be it one designed by the player himself or, most likely, a savvy representative.
Ross Barkley’s star is fading. Even at just 24, he is already being spoken of as an illusory talent. He is no Paul Gascoigne, no second Wayne Rooney either. This, then, might be considered the last chance he had to parlay that diminishing potential into a move of real consequence. The final opportunity to use the “yes, but with the right coaching and better players around him” rationale to float up the foodchain.
One of the clichés which remains in perma-rotation is that certain clubs are too big to turn down – and that remains as true today as it ever was. Football constantly restocks itself with desirable talent, wunderkinds and next big things and so, particularly for a player of Barkley’s profile, the chance which he has recently taken probably was a once-in-a-career opportunity.
His contractual situation makes that especially true. Had he been under the protection of an extra two or three years, Everton would rightly have demanded a premium fee. And, recognising better value elsewhere, Chelsea – or any other club within their financial bracket and possessing their allure – would have declined to meet it. Viewed from that perspective, this was really the moment that the stars aligned for him; £15m is an incidental fee in 2018 and one his new club were absolutely right to pay.
For him personally, it will also add a layer of protection. Whatever happens from this point onwards, he will benefit from top-four gloss. If he doesn’t break into the first-team at Stamford Bridge then, at whatever point his next move occurs, his value will be protected by the theory of prohibitive competition. There will still be a club who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can be the ones to solve the riddle and who will pay generously for the privilege. Who believe that whatever the player doesn’t manage to do at Stamford Bridge is a consequence of his environment. Mohamed Salah, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku; there are enough examples of that in the past to make it more than credible.
So – yes – this move will make Barkley wealthier, it will also allow him to be coached by a superior technical staff and it will also give him access to the Champions League, but it will also enhance and protect his reputation in a way that very few others would have done.
Within that context, it’s very difficult to argue against.