Everton end their 2013-14 campaign at Hull on Sunday, bringing the curtain down on Roberto Martinez's impressive first season, boosted by the return of Gareth Barry. Ineligible last weekend against his parent club Manchester City, Barry was sorely missed -- as he was in the reverse fixture -- with Everton slipping to defeat in both.
Signed on deadline day, the reaction to this season-long loan deal was decidedly mixed at best. Many supporters swiftly recalled the infamous, rather embarrassing Mesut Ozil incident at the 2010 World Cup or Rafa Benitez's misguided attempt to replace Xabi Alonso with Barry at Liverpool.
There was little time for Barry to settle, however. With Marouane Fellaini sold to Manchester United and Darron Gibson out injured for the season, there was instant pressure on him and James McCarthy, his fellow deadline-day arrival, to form a partnership in central midfield.
Game by game, though, Barry quickly erased any lingering doubts while cementing his place in Martinez's first 11. This quest for acceptance began with a defining debut at home to Chelsea in September. Following a Tim Howard error and with the visitors' Samuel Eto'o primed for a simple tap-in and an early lead, Barry hurtled back toward his own goal to make the unlikeliest of goal-line clearances. Evertonians instantly warmed to the midfielder borrowed from the Etihad.
Barry continued in this fashion and marked arguably his most complete performance of the season with a fine goal. Norwich were the beaten opponents in January, with Barry crashing an effort from distance into the far corner and controlling the midfield almost single-handedly.
By February, with the squad increasingly stretched as injuries mounted up, Barry seemed to be holding it together on his own. Despite advancing years, the England international -- Roy Hodgson could do worse than take Barry to Brazil -- has remained a constant presence.
When the club's end of season award ceremony took place earlier in the week, Barry was unfortunate to miss out on player of the season. Seamus Coleman, also in the PFA Team of the Year, is a worthy winner but Barry had an equally valid claim, serving up first-rate displays on a weekly basis. Nonetheless, that the midfield man was a viable candidate is testament to his impact on this team.
Further proof of the high esteem in which Barry is held arrived in the January transfer window. Interested in a loan move for Jack Rodwell, attempting to return the player to his former club, Martinez was prepared to sign Barry on a permanent deal to facilitate the move. Only City's failure to land their own targets prevented it.
Speaking to City's ESPN writer Simon Curtis when Barry signed, his words and predictions remain accurate, even as this season reaches its final hurdle. His assertion that Barry was "a diamond who does a seamless, excellent job" rings unerringly true at this stage. And few would quibble with: "You have yourself a gem, despite his slightly tatty international reputation. He is as good as gold."
Able to dictate the play, increasing or decreasing the pace when necessary, Barry attempts and completes the most passes per game in the current squad. He is the starting point for attacks and the one who lifts the team when performances dip below expected levels. He is the captain without the armband. Add this to a sound positional play, obvious leadership qualities and more; it easy to see why Barry has become such a vital component of Martinez's Everton.
Out of contract this summer, though, this Sunday may be the last time Barry appears in the royal blue of Everton. Whether Barry stays -- one can only hope -- or departs, he will do so with the praise of the Goodison faithful ringing in his ears.