Gareth Barry is nicely warmed up by the time we broach the touchier subjects from his Aston Villa career.
In Part One of our exclusive chat with Barry for our Claret & Blue podcast and YouTube channel which you can read here, the former Villa hero spoke about his first team breakthrough, nights out with Lee Hendrie and his FA Cup final heartbreak.
But in this, Part Two, we get stuck into the Martin O’Neill years, the messy transfer saga, ill-advised interview, gauntlet of boos and eventual redemption.
The previous instalment celebrating Barry’s rise to prominence signed off with him admitting: “I had some tougher years ahead of me…”
Those tougher times started when he fell out of favour with John Gregory, the boss who had given him his big break.
It was only when Gregory left to be replaced by Graham Taylor in early 2002 that Barry got his act together, albeit in a Villa squad that was no longer challenging for honours.
“Initially, when John Gregory went, I’d sort of fallen out with him,” he admits. “He’d dropped me from the team for two or three months because we had a disagreement. I think that was the moment when he told me I needed to get my shorts dirtier. That was probably where the yellow cards come from, actually! He was saying I was trying to concentrate on playing with the ball too much from defence, rather than making tackles, so I was out of the team.
“John ended up leaving and Graham came in. He was great for me, personally, because he told me I’d be back in the team before I knew it. One or two games after his reign, he brought me back in the fold. He was a great man, it was just unfortunate that season that the squad probably wasn’t good enough to finish any higher than we did. Unfortunately, it was a tough year for the team and for Graham.”
Villa went on to finish 16th in the Premier League in 2002-03, a long way from they had been used to for most of the previous decade under Gregory, Brian Little and Ron Atkinson.
The lowlights of Taylor’s difficult second spell included Birmingham City doing the double over them at St Andrew’s and Villa Park.
Barry admits Villa underestimated their fierce rivals upon their Premier League return particularly during the “horrible” Enckelman evening on enemy territory.
“It was my first real experience of losing a game and not wanting to show my face around Birmingham,” he winces.
“A lot of my friends are Bluenoses and you obviously get the messages before. I remember the atmosphere at St Andrew’s in that first game where the Enckelman incident happened, it was electric. I’d never felt anything like it, you could feel the hatred between the fans, it was a red-hot atmosphere.
“We probably took them for granted, we felt Aston Villa are the Premier League team, you’ve just come up from the Championship, but looking back then, they had a great battling squad that had experienced pros, who knew how to win a game of football for Steve Bruce. We unfortunately came up short, and it was a horrible and sickening moment.”
Before long Barry was having to impress another manager, David O’Leary, and initially the signs were encouraging as the former Leeds United boss brought in new methods to whip the players into shape. There was even some local revenge as a winner from Kevin Phillps sparked an arm -aving celebration from O’Leary at St Andrew’s.
“Initially, it was really good,” explains Barry. “He came in with Roy Aitken and Steve MacGregor, who was his fitness coach. It was the first time I saw football changing to be more about fitness. We were doing runs during the season to try and make us fitter and there was a professional change around Aston Villa because you needed to be fit to be in that squad, you couldn’t just rely on your ability.
“I really enjoyed it, we played some great football. I think our first win against Birmingham came when David was manager, so going back to that, that was a sweet moment when Kevin Phillips scored. Eventually, we had a bad season under David too, but there was some very good football in between.”
O’Leary it was who gave Barry the captaincy. It was a privilege for the adopted Brummie. So much so that his emotions got the better of him the first time he was trusted with the armband. At the worst possible time, O’Leary’s first game in charge, Barry’s trademark composure went missing when he aimed an expletive-ridden blast at an official in a defeat at Portsmouth on the opening day of the 2003-04 season.
“I was probably 23,” recalls Barry. “He made me captain, we went 2-0 down, I won a penalty and then scored it and then the adrenaline was high. Five minutes later, I’ve said something to the linesman and I’ve been sent off, so that was my first time being captain at the start of the game, and it wasn’t a great start to being captain at a football club, but again, a learning curve for my future.”
Berating a lino seems like a very un-Gareth Barry thing to do, especially considering the calm persona he is known for. Are there any other aspects of life when you lose your cool, when the pasta boils over or there’s a spider in the bath, we ask him, prompting a chuckle.
“Err yeah, there’s plenty of stories in this house where they say I lose my cool a bit, on a football pitch I can probably relax more!
“I’m quite a calm person. One of my strengths as a footballer was taking early pictures on the pitch, never switching off. Being aware of your surroundings and who is around you.
“You’ve mentioned times where I can bring the ball down and that comes with confidence as well. But it’s probably down to my nature and how I read the game. I’ve been told many times about my pace so you try and make up for it in other areas, reading the game was certainly something that came naturally to me.”
So let’s move on to the O’Neill era. Again the regrets resurfaced.
Not least with the enigmatic manager’s decision to sacrifice Villa’s 2009 UEFA Cup mission in what would prove to be a futile push for the Champions League.
Without prompting Barry speaks candidly – perhaps more candidly than any senior pro from that squad has done before – about his lingering frustrations from that European surrender.
Indeed it is us asking Barry about a glorious night against Ajax earlier in the run, when he scored the winner in front of a heaving Holte End, that sets off his train of thought.
O’Neill, you will remember (how could you forget?!) infamously sent a weakened team without Barry and Co to compete in an away leg at CSKA Moscow in February. Villa Lite crashed out of the competition and subsequently their strong top four push also fizzled out.
“That atmosphere, that night against Ajax, European night, Villa Park – you can’t beat it,” he beams. “To score the winning goal against such a big club, when I look back at the team Ajax had then, so many big names went on to have big careers, but unfortunately, that leads onto the end of that European campaign. We didn’t take a strong enough team to Moscow, did we? That would certainly be a standout moment, but a sad one when you look at a great squad that gave up a chance of competing further in a European competition.
“At the time, I can’t exactly say where we were in the league, but I can only imagine that we were flying in the top four, and I sort of understood his reasonings at the time,” he recalls. “He wanted us fresh, we were winning regularly, he wanted us to focus on the league, but certainly looking back now, with the squad we had there, it was probably an opportunity missed. I’ve always felt that teams should go for trophies, whether it’s the League Cup. Looking back now, I would’ve loved to have seen a team there that was capable of going through.”
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The idea reformed in Barry’s mind that he might have to leave his beloved Villa to fulfil his dream of winning trophies.
“Certainly the last two years it was entering my head,” he admits. “I was getting to my late 20s, I didn’t want to go through a career without winning a trophy. It’s obviously my biggest regret that I didn’t do that at Aston Villa. Not just in my head, but people around me as well, trying to get into my head-zone to tell me that I have a better chance of winning a trophy elsewhere. So, it would’ve been the last two years at Villa where I started thinking about it.”
Months before Moscow was the Liverpool saga, of course. Rafa Benitez wanted him in the summer of 2008, but not enough to meet Villa’s valuation. Barry, by then a 27-year-old with 10 years of Premier League service on the clock, was naive in transfer terms. With Villa and O’Neill holding out for the best possible deal, Barry, the master of extricating himself from tight situations on the pitch, again lost that customary calm.
“There was interest from Liverpool in the press,” he explains. “Martin O’Neill knew about it. He was quite clever, I remember, he put me up in front of the press – these are the games that go on in football. I didn’t know what was coming, the first question was what my thoughts were on Liverpool, the Champions League.
“Me, who’d never experienced a transfer really, I sort of said the right things as you would, and that was it really. So, I go away, finish the season and there’s bids now coming in from Liverpool. I’m speaking to Martin, I’m asking if the club was going to accept the offer, and to be fair to Martin, he said if the money’s right then I could go, but it’s got to be a certain amount. Liverpool couldn’t afford what Villa wanted, and to me, I was like, ‘Fair enough, if they can’t afford me then I’m gonna carry on playing’.”
There was tooing and froing about a fee in the region of £20 million, around £17 million cash with Reds defender Steve Finnan as a makeweight, but it never quite happened. Liverpool claimed they couldn’t afford it, although they subsequently signed Robbie Keane from Tottenham Hotspur for £20 million, and Barry grew tired of waiting on Benitez, in any event.
Especially after a conversation with the Spaniard left him far from convinced. “Martin said ‘Look, give me a year and then you can leave for a certain fee’. The whole Liverpool thing, it hurt me that they couldn’t stump up the money the season before. Then a couple of phone calls with Rafa (Benitez) and he’s talking about playing me the odd game at left midfield, left back and you know my head started to change. I’m thinking I’m not giving up the Villa captaincy, playing regularly to go and do that. I don’t care if it’s Champions League, I don’t want to be a bit part of nothing.”
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Regrettably, and it is clear by Barry’s demeanour now, that he genuinely regrets it, during the transfer wrangle the Villa skipper was badly advised by his then agent to try to force the issue. Against the wishes of his parents, he gave an explosive interview to the News of the World , in which he blasted O’Neill and Villa and made it abundantly clear he wanted out.
Another un-Gareth Barry thing to do?
“I got advised to do an interview, and I was told if I did something like that, trying to rock the boat, you’ll end up getting yourself out,” he says. “I remember speaking to my parents, asking them: ‘What do you think?’, and I remember my parents saying no, it didn’t sound good. I was sticking up for my agent, saying he was experienced in this role, and maybe they didn’t know what they were talking about. I ended up doing that interview which got me some bad headlines and definitely one thing I regret doing.
“Looking back now, I think why the hell did I do that? But I was in a transfer saga, my first ever experience, my head was frazzled because I don’t deal with all the media attention too well – it’s something I’d rather not have. It all gets blown up.”
Then the phone rang, while he was in a summer holiday in Portugal with his family. Unsurprisingly, it was a rather agitated Irishman on the other end of the line.
“He’s not too happy,” recalls Barry in a masterclass of understatement. “The phone call came through and straight away, I knew what it was about. To be fair to Martin, he just wanted to know if it was me who said all these things because he was probably finding it hard to believe that I said these things. He probably thought the quotes were from my agent and not me, but I wasn’t going to throw anyone under the bus, I’d said these things and I was telling him it was time for me to leave.”
Barry got on with the rest of his holiday only to return home to a rather official looking letter on the doormat of his Warwickshire home. It came on Aston Villa headed notepaper and included the news that he had been fined two weeks wages and banned from stepping foot on any club property, Villa Park or Bodymoor Heath for a fortnight. He trained alone away and tried to get his head right, but it was not until O’Neill summoned him back in to explain that he was available for selection again that he was able to settle. “I spoke to Martin, he was good, he said, ‘Do what you do best, playing football’, and as soon as he said that, I was fine.”
The episode ended in him eventually dumping his agent and asking his childhood pal Michael Standing to represent him instead.
There was still the matter of an unimpressed claret and blue faithful to win over. Hell hath no fury like a fanbase scorned and Barry was subjected to jeers from Villa supporters who turned out for a pre-season friendly at Walsall.
“There were a few boos,” he says. “I was so experienced in terms of football, but in terms of transfers, I was inexperienced. There was still a learning curve, getting booed by my own fans. I remember taking a touch out of the air and turning after someone played a diagonal pass and I could feel the claps coming back straight away. I knew I needed to get my head down and give 100 per cent – that’s all that football fans want from their players, so it didn’t bother me at all really.
“I think they appreciated that. They’d have seen other players sulk over the years who hadn’t got their way, they’ve spat their dummy out, they weren’t gonna give 100 per cent That was never in my character and was never going to happen. Martin gave the captaincy to Martin Laursen, I fully understood, but Martin ended up suffering an injury and O’Neill gave it back to me. I ended up playing some of the best football of my career in that season.”
Even those yet to forgive and forget more than a decade on acknowledge that Barry was the ultimate professional last season and there was no doubt that his allegiances were firmly with the club where he made his name. Alas, the realist within him knew that his search for silverware was best served elsewhere, the ‘fast train’ of Manchester City who emerged as much more serious suitors than Liverpool had been.
“From nowhere if you like, Man City got in touch and started speaking about players they were interested signing – and even back then was hard to believe – but they put the names down in front of me and said they were definitely going after these and they painted this picture that ‘This is a fast train, if you don’t get on it you’re going to regret it’. Something about Man City appealed to me a bit more than Liverpool at the time. Liverpool had won the Champions League not so long ago and Man City hadn’t won a trophy for a number of years but I decided to go down that route rather than the other one.”
Such was Barry’s affection for Villa fans that he wrote an open letter to fans in the Birmingham Mail, which you can read in full here:
To the Villa fans
After all the speculation over the last 12 months, I want the chance to explain my decision to the Aston Villa fans.
Firstly, I want to thank them for the incredible support I have received over the last 12 years. This football club has been a huge part of my life. I joined a 16-year-old boy and 12 years later I am moving on as a 28-year-old man with a wife and two children.
A lot of things have changed in that time, players, management and a chairman, but every season bar none, whether we have been bottom half, mid-table or challenging for Europe, the support myself and the team have received has been fantastic.
My one huge regret is that during my time at this club we have not brought the fans the success they deserve and I obviously have to take my share of responsibility that we have not been good enough to win trophies.
I feel the club is in the best position it has been in during my time here, I think we have a group of very good young players, we have a fantastic chairman who is here for the good of the club and one of the best managers in the game.
Obviously people will ask why I am leaving if I feel like that. I have honestly been very undecided what to do, the manager and the whole club have bent over backwards to try and persuade me to stay and made me a fantastic offer, which I am extremely grateful for.
But after changing my mind lots of times I came to the decision that the time was right for me and for the club to part company.
I need a new challenge, I have a massive fear of going stale and falling into a comfort zone. I believe the deal is a good one for the club, I am sure the manager will use the money well to strengthen the team and the club will go from strength to strength.
I am also excited now about my new challenge, a lot of people will question my decision to join Manchester City. They were the club prepared to meet the valuation, which for a 28-year-old, with a year left on his contract, I think shows how much they wanted me.
Once I had spoken to Mark Hughes there was nowhere else I wanted to go. I was also desperate to avoid any long drawn-out saga.
I feel I am joining a club that will seriously challenge to win major honours, people might doubt that, but I am convinced with the plans the club has short term and long term, and the backing the manager will receive from the owners, that we will be a major force.
Also the World Cup has always been a major part of my thinking and I feel at Man City I will get the chance to play regularly in my best position and play a big part in a successful side. Time will tell if I am right or not, but those are my reasons.
I have grown bored of all the speculation surrounding me over the last 12 months and I am sure all the fans have as well.
I am glad I never left last summer because I would have left under a huge cloud. This year I feel things are different. I havent used an agent, I have discussed things with my best friend but ultimately made my own choices and I think the situation has been handled properly by everybody involved and, once again, I have to thank the manager and the club for that.
I genuinely wish the club all the best for the future and want to thank everyone who has helped and supported me during my time here.
For the rest of my life Aston Villa will be the first result I look for. Thanks for everything.
“I just wanted to let them know my thoughts and thank them for the previous 12 years,” he explains. “It wasn’t an easy decision, I just wanted to let them know and put things to bed. I think it went down well in some parts, but some football fans don’t want their best players to leave and the majority probably didn’t take it too well.”
Some of us took it better than others. Over time most Villa fans have grown to recognise it for the gesture it was – a fine player with genuine affection for the club trying to explain why he had to go (FA Cup and Premier League winners medals with City would later go on and do the explaining for him.
Let’s allow him to finish off with his feelings about two conflicting returns to Villa Park. One when he had to face taunts of ‘Judas’ and see fake banknotes with his face on with Manchester City and another where he was clapped off the field in the colours of local rivals West Bromwich Albion.
Barry was booed from the moment he got off the away team’s bus in that October 2009 1-1 draw at Villa Park, his misery compounded when City old boy outjumped him to put Villa in front.
“I know it wasn’t a majority, but it only takes one photo to paint a picture sometimes,” says Barry of the mocking banknotes and the wider hostility towards him.
“But yeah, obviously it does hurt. On the other side I took it as, if it hurt the club that much then it shows what they thought of me, so I didn’t always put a negative spin on that. That first game was probably one of the toughest I played in, my head was probably thinking of other things and not the game that day. No one likes being criticised, but, that was my first time back.”
Those painful memories finally faded away in February last year when Barry finally got the Villa Park send off he deserved. It wasn’t a testimonial or the move back to Villa mooted seemingly every summer since he left the Etihad Stadium for good in 2014. In fact it came during a dreadful Championship defeat for Villa against Albion. It didn’t matter, the healing process was complete as Villa Park took to its feet to give Gareth Barry a standing ovation when he was substituted in the closing stages.
“I’ll think of the last time I played at Villa Park in front of the fans where I was playing for a rival team in West Brom, we’ve won the game 2-0 but when I’ve come off I’ve got a standing ovation from the fans,” he adds with a smile. “That’s what I’ll leave in my head when I think of myself and Villa fans.”
Us too GB, thanks for the memories, and thanks for the pleasure of joining us on our Claret & Blue podcast to relive the highs and lows of a modern-day Aston Villa legend.
Missed Part One of our big Gareth Barry exclusive? You can read it here.