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Apr 28, 2008

Gaz Baz in demand

Overnight sensations are rarely that. Often they are worthy performers suddenly catapulted into the spotlight, the equivalent of actors who have trod the boards for 20 years before Hollywood comes calling.

Aston Villa, with its historic grandeur, is hardly a provincial theatre but, for those whose interest goes little beyond the big four and the national team, Gareth Barry has only really come to prominence in the last seven months. Now there is a squabble for his services between football's answer to the major studios.

With the twin temptations of silverware and Champions League football being dangled in front of him and talk that he will be among the recipients of Fabio Capello's much-travelled armband, the rise of Gaz Baz, as he is known to some at Villa Park, seems sudden, swift and sharp.

Not that Barry had exactly been obscure for the previous decade. As a first choice for an established Premier League club and one of the game's traditional giants, he is one of a comparatively small group to have amassed 300 top-flight appearances since the division's inception in 1992. But recent months have propelled him into the limelight. His seamless integration into the England team has suggested a player with the temperament, maturity and adaptability to adjust to more glamorous surroundings.

There are suggestions that it will take the most lucrative contract in Villa's history to keep Barry in the Second City. Manager Martin O'Neill, talkative though he remains, has attempted to take the Fifth Amendment on the subject of bids for Barry. Transfer talk surrounding him over the years has tended to involve Newcastle and Blackburn - Graeme Souness was a known admirer - which hardly represented a major step forward from Villa. A move this summer might.

Yet reasons abound for his new-found popularity. Left-footed central midfielders are a rarity, especially those with his passing range. Players of his consistency, who can exert a quiet influence over the vast majority of their games, do not materialise often. Leadership and set-piece expertise are among his assets and both help account for Villa's progress this season.

The view is that he is a player of the right calibre, but at the moment there is no suitable vacancy for Barry at the big four. Examine each situation and it is hard to see where he might be deployed, other than from the bench.

Of the sides who can anticipate Champions League football next season, only Manchester United do not figure among his supposed suitors. While Arsenal wait for Mathieu Flamini's contract talks to be resolved, there is no doubt that the Frenchman is Arsene Wenger's preferred option as Cesc Fabregas' accomplice in the heart of midfield. Moreover, Barry's age (27) and probable fee (£12million) could count against him; the cynics would say that his nationality would, too.

Barry's friendship with Steven Gerrard - not to mention a burgeoning alliance for England - is cited as a reason to exchange Aston Villa for Anfield. He ranks on Rafa Benitez's wish-list and there is no doubt that the Spaniard admires gifted technicians with a sense of tactical discipline. But with Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso in residence and the promising Lucas Leiva - subject of some of Benitez's most complimentary comments - in reserve, is he really required?

The same question could be posed at Stamford Bridge. Claude Makelele may be winding down, but unless one of the quartet of Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel departs - and only the Englishman, with one year remaining on his current deal, is even rumoured to be on his way - he could join the ranks of the highly-remunerated replacements. There is a living warning to anyone considering a contract from Chelsea and he lurks in the reserves. Barry is a better player than Steve Sidwell, but that does not necessarily mean his fate would be different.

One reason he is in demand is a tag he has fought hard to escape. Versatility is a boon to managers, but not necessarily to players. Barry is now an integral part of the Villa side, either anchoring the midfield or with a more attacking brief, but establishing himself there has been a lengthy process. Would-be buyers may see a high-quality player in four positions, from his emergence at centre-back to his later use on the left of the defence and then, after Graham Taylor pronounced him too good a footballer to operate in the back four, on the wing; that he could be capable of adjusting to each in a big match would be a selling point, but it scarcely seems to meet Barry's vision of himself.

Ask others who have spent years trying to convince a wider audience what their best position is. Men such as Flamini and Jamie Carragher eventually succeeded, but the alternative is life as a glorified John O'Shea, a multi-purpose squad player with plenty of medals but no regular role, substitute apart.

There is an option, however. Barry could play a pivotal role in an emerging, attacking side, one capable of scoring 17 goals in its last four games, generously funded by a respected owner and lent charismatic leadership by an astute manager. Maybe Gareth Barry's long wait for silverware and Champions League football could be ended if he remains the captain and driving force of Aston Villa.

It might not be Hollywood, but he would still top the bill. And that should be preferable to a brief mention in the credits in the big four's next production.


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