Somewhere along the way, Ross Barkley’s ascent to superstardom took a detour.
He made his debut for Everton at 18 and was named Man of the Match. He represented England at every youth level and earned his first senior cap when he was 19. He has 22 England appearances and played in the 2014 World Cup. He was hailed as The Next Big Thing in English football.
But that hot start cooled off. While he became a workhorse for Everton, typically playing between thirty-five and forty times a season, averaging roughly seven goals every campaign and showing flashes of attacking flair, he never established himself as an elite midfielder.
And then, last season, the bottom fell out. With chronic hamstring issues, he played but four senior-level games; and even the £15m that Chelsea eventually paid in January were thought by more than a few (except the mayor of Liverpool) to be a waste of money. At best, it was a bargain-bin, Marko Marin-esque purchase. It had to be humbling for a player for whom such great things were projected.
Is £15m a bargain for Ross Barkley?— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) January 5, 2018
The stats show he is one of England's top creative midfielders - and Chelsea could profit from his peak years: https://t.co/LvVEBMGibd | @p_smith86 pic.twitter.com/LFQHhYeheW
It hasn’t killed his fire, though. Over the years many pejoratives have been thrown his way, including observations that he’s slow to catch on tactically. But no-one has ever accused him of not working hard. Or of not being ambitious.
Ross Barkley exclusive interview: 'I believe in my ability...there is a lot of success to come' https://t.co/bJ7jGX1QtT— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) August 24, 2018
“I believe I can hit the 20 goals a season mark. It’s a lot, but it’s achievable. You see Lamps do it and Stevie [Gerrard] and [Paul] Scholes. It’s just starting in training first, scoring goals there and practising every day.”
It’s not just Lampard’s goals that Barkley wants to match. It’s the professionalism with which Lamps approached his career, his legendary work ethic, his determination to extract the most from his god-given talent.
“He’s someone to look at with the success he achieved for the club and for himself. I’ve played with Frank and I saw what he was like around England, and how much of a top professional he was.
”He was an idol of mine from when I was a young lad, watching Champions League games and seeing the goals he scored. If I could achieve half of what he did here, then that would be a success.”
Some might say that Barkley is being unrealistic. Is he, though? How else do you improve, if not by setting yourself high standards? And how else do you improve, if not by working at it?
To that end, Barkley is one of those players for whom the end of Maurizio Sarri’s second training session of the day is merely the signal for one more piece of work; shooting practice. Every little bit helps, especially with strong competition for minutes in the Chelsea midfield these days.
“I like to stay out after training and do some finishing and practice my free kicks and things, and Gianfranco stays out with me.
”He helps out a lot, telling me little things that used to work for him. He’s still got it.”
Lampard and Zola.
If a man’s going to have role models, he could do worse than those two. A lot worse.