I'm not really a photo-centric blogger, which many have told me can be murder in the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of internet web logs. So because I know some people like pretty pictures with their words, I will direct you now to the photo accompanying my bio down on the lower right-hand side of the blog. That little football nerd on the left is me; the (relative) giant on my right is one Gareth Barry. This photo was taken back in the summer of 2007 following Villa's 4-2 victory over Toronto FC, a pre-season friendly which effectively ruined Toronto FC's season by way of injuries to both Danny Dichio and Marvel Wynne. More important for me was the bizarre circumstance that led to me, my intrepid girlfriend, and Aston Villa's entire starting eleven milling around the back of BMO Field like a middle school soccer team out late on a weeknight, and my subsequent encounter with Villa skipper Gareth Barry.
But before we get to that, let me fill you in on the week's events in football. Liverpool, aching and in chaos at the end of a trophy-less season, have distracted the press and their fans by leaking details over an offer to Villa for Barry which basically amounts to Peter Crouch, Scott Carson, John Arn'-ot going-to-use-my-right-foot-no-matter-what-the-cost Riise, and a burlap sack with 10 million pounds written on it. The thrust of the move outside of Barry's peerless skills in midfield seems to be that he and Gerrard are 'good friends,' which may or or may not actually pay dividends on the pitch based on the evidence of some recent England performances. Whatever the reason, Barry's remarks to the media that he has to 'look at himself and be selfish' are essentially holding Villa ransom to get fifth place and a ticket to Europe next year lest GB moves into a red shirt and a higher tax bracket. Seeing as Villa lost today to Wigan and Everton now need only a point from their next two games to secure fifth spot, the exit sign for Gareth Barry is burning brighter than ever.
So then back to my brief encounter. Barry, in a strange former colony more renowned for its maple syrup than its football, walked out from Toronto's BMO Field and beamed at the small but passionate Canadian Villa supporters who had come to see him off. He shook every hand, he answered the most inane questions (Fanny-packed suburbanite wearing a Blue Jays shirt: "Where are you from?" Smiling Barry: "Hastings"), and he politely and earnestly posed for photographs, including my own. He was more than a star midfielder; he was Aston Villa-personified, the skipper, leader, and spokesperson for the team that WSC once called 'football's original aristocrats.'
So the news this week, coming right at the moment when the team needs to pull together to prove itself a power at home and abroad, was hard to take. To me, Gareth Barry's impending exit means more than the loss of a key-midfielder; it means the loss of the moral centre of the club, the loss of a leader, and the further loss of integrity, loyalty and all the other dying values that the neoliberal money-managers politely ask we not expect from the millionaires whose checks are provided through the spent-earnings of fans who will only love one club their entire life. In football, when you leave a team this way, for money and silverware on the cheap, you never walk alone.
I've always believed, perhaps naively, that if football is never at its core about anything more than money it's not worth playing, watching, loving, supporting. Gareth Barry's decision whether or not to leave the club that developed him into a skilled player, made him a leader, gave him fame and extraordinary wealth, and whose fans protected him from scorn after a bad performance here and there whether at home or for England, is expected to come shortly after the end of the season. While at the end of the day he's just one player, a decision to leave for the reasons on offer will only make the road to competitive irrelevancy, soulless commercialism, and crass self-serving ideology in the world of football that much smoother. However, like the wonderful Matt Le Tissier before him, Barry also has the power to reject the worldview of the mindless technocrats who see nothing outside of what brings immediate capital gain, the sort of people who will ruin anything of actual value in return for fleeting baubles under the excuse that it 'makes us all richer.' If he chose the latter path, it might bring hope that more of us faced with a variation on this question every day of our lives could do the same.