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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Gareth Barry and Darren Fletcher: the Premier League elder statesmen

Darren Fletcher (left) and Gareth Barry (right) are two of the Premier League's most battle-tested veterans.

When Darren Fletcher unexpectedly departed West Bromwich Albion this summer for Stoke City, West Brom manager Tony Pulis had an ideal replacement in mind. In Gareth Barry, 36, three years Fletcher's senior, Pulis signed just about the only player who might replicate his dependability and experience in central midfield.  

"There was a big void when we lost Fletch, and Gareth will fill that void," Pulis said after Barry was signed last week. Between them, two of the Premier League's most enduring figures have seen so much come and go. Both have played in the highest echelons, Fletcher as a trusted lieutenant in multiple Sir Alex Ferguson-inspired Manchester United triumphs and Barry as a member of the Manchester City team that helped establish that club's power. But now they are asked to supply stability to clubs of lesser ambitions.   

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Should Barry line up in midfield against Fletcher in Sunday's meeting of the Midlands rivals, he will be two matches short of matching Ryan Giggs' all-time Premier League record of 632 Premier League appearances. He is the last current player to have played Premier League football in the 20th century, having first appeared on May 2, 1998 against Sheffield Wednesday as a flop-haired defender for Aston Villa. The completion of his one-season Baggies contract will see him celebrate two decades of top-flight football in England. 

As if to remind that all trends will eventually repeat themselves, Barry began his journey as the left-sided man of a defensive trio, a formation fashionable at the time, before becoming a left-back, left-midfielder and the central midfielder he has been for the last decade or so. 

Wayne Rooney's international retirement this week finally closed off the era of England's "Golden Generation", the mid-2000s class of which the outgoing captain was a junior member, and Barry mostly watched from the sidelines. Sven-Goran Eriksson was a manager who tried, in vain, despite repeated failures, to forge a partnership from Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, when both might have preferred to have the steadiness and unselfishness of Barry alongside them. 

Barry's 53-match England career spanned from May 2000, when making his debut alongside the likes of Alan Shearer and Tony Adams against Ukraine, to in May 2012 suffering the groin injury in Norway that kept him from playing in the following month's Euro finals.   

Where Eriksson never saw enough in Barry, a string of club managers have made him a mainstay, from John Gregory in those early years at Villa, to Roberto Mancini at Manchester City and Roberto Martinez at Everton. And Rafa Benitez, taking on the advice of Steven Gerrard, a teammate and friend of Barry since their days at England youth level, went to war with his club's hierarchy and Aston Villa in the summer of 2008 in an attempt to sign him. Benitez was even prepared to sacrifice Xabi Alonso to get his man.  

Gareth Barry has remarkably survived 20 years in the top flight, despite being one of the league's most physical players.

Though Fletcher has played exclusively as a midfielder throughout his career ever since making a breakthrough in 2003 at Manchester United, he shares with Barry the all-round capabilities that midfielders of their vintage were required to possess. The idea of a purely defensive-minded midfielder or players whose sole job is to be a playmaker with few defensive responsibilities were alien concepts in those days. Teammates Roy Keane, Nicky Butt and even Paul Scholes acted as box-to-box players. None of them should be compared to single-function modern players like Nemanja Matic or Granit Xhaka.

Since then, Fletcher, like Barry, has used innate football intelligence to adapt to the game's developments and supply a reliability managers like Pulis and Baggies boss Mark Hughes wish to work with. 

A prodigy whose rise was halted by a couple of untimely injuries and was talked of at one point as a potential successor to David Beckham on the right-hand side of midfield, Fletcher, in his early years at United, usually undertook the menial job of midfield fetching and carrying. Building up strength and his anticipation of tackles to complement his passing gifts, he eventually became a vital, senior professional for Ferguson, only for his career to be interrupted by ulcerative colitis, a condition that robbed him of what might have been his peak years from 2011 to 2013.     

When, on the advice of Ferguson, to whom Fletcher remains close, Pulis signed him in February 2015, West Brom benefitted from a player whose dedication to a profession he might have lost was absolute. Granted the captaincy from his first appearance, he started 86 consecutive games, before making a decision that surprised Pulis and many others to join Stoke. 

Last Saturday, as Stoke pulled off a famous 1-0 victory over Arsenal, it was Fletcher keeping his team's shape in midfield, a leader of a rearguard action that denied the Gunners' 77.3 percent dominance of possession.  And up at Burnley, as West Brom enjoyed just 32 percent of the ball, Barry the debutant fulfilled much the same function, shielding a defence that was being piled under pressure.  

Both men exert a wisdom gained from so long in the Premier League. 

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

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