Everton favourite commits the ultimate sin with Red ambition
30th June 2000
In this post-Bosman age of the FA Premiership, with Sky's millions pouring into the top flight, an unprecedented interest in the game for modern times, and player salaries breaking new records each season, loyalty has become a one-way street. The genuine football fan, who would never dream of changing allegiances from one club to another, often gives his all for little or no reward while the average player is paid massive amounts of money to do what is effectively their hobby week, in week out.
The more unrealistic supporter may demand loyalty and the romantic may expect it, but the majority are resigned to the fact that the "heroes" in which they instill so much hope and trust, and whose wages they fund, do not remotely share the same devotion towards the club or the team.
However, loyalty in football does exist and can be found in the likes of Goodison legend Dave Watson, Nottingham Forest stalwart Stuart Pearce, Arsenal's Tony Adams etc. And when the players do display a marked enthusiasm and passion for a particular club, perhaps it is not unrealistic for the fans to believe that some loyalty exists. Nick Barmby, for example... or so you would have thought.
The news that Barmby would rather ply his trade in the red of Liverpool than continue playing under the Everton crest he has kissed so often in celebration on the pitch has come as a hammer blow to the Everton community. The fact that their player of the season has rejected a new contract at Goodison was hard enough to believe in itself; coming to terms with the fact that a royal Blue idol has been taken by the Dark Side is not going to be easy.
Barmby has often been an ambassador for Everton Football Club, perhaps no more so than just a month ago when he learned of his call-up to Kevin Keegan's Euro2000 squad. On that occasion, he acknowledged the part that his manager, Walter Smith, and club chairman, Bill Kenwright, had played in his return to the international scene. More importantly, he pledged that he would go to the tournament to represent Everton.
So often the Everton player to be interviewed in sporting magazines and feature in post-match interviews, Barmby has in many ways epitomised Everton in his four years with the club. And following his best season yet in a blue shirt, the Goodison faithful had taken the 26 year-old to their hearts in a big way. Barmby was an integral part of Everton's future and yet, all the while it seems, his heart wasn't in it.
Barmby arrived at Goodison Park from Middlesbrough in October 1996 following a miserable spell with Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough. Before that he had suprisingly left Tottenham where he made his name and became an England regular at age 22. However, the arrival of Juninho at The Riverside stadium heralded the beginning of Barmby's loss of form and lack of first-team appearances. Rumours of his wife's infidelity with a member of Robson's management team abounded and Barmby's availability was made known, at which point Joe Royle stepped in to make the midfielder Everton's record signing at £5.75m.
After a quiet start, he began to find his feet at Goodison and was rediscovering his form when Royle's plan began to fall apart in the winter of 1996-97. The rise to prominence of Duncan Ferguson coincided with three years of struggle against relegation during which time the team resorted to the long-ball to Ferguson strategy in an effort to grind out enough points to stay in the top division. It meant that Barmby and the midfield were often reduced to the role of spectators as the ball flew over their heads from defence.
Barmby retained enormous potential and he began to fulfil that potential under Walter Smith as Everton's playing style was revolutionised under the Scot and his assistant, Archie Knox. This past season was his best yet for the Blues and the expectation was that he would sign a new deal this summer and see out the best of his playing days at the club he appeared to love so much.
Indeed, the indications towards the end of the season were that he was ready to sign on the dotted line straight away. Then came the bombshell as he departed for Euro2000 that he had rejected the club's initial offer of £24,000 per week.
Hope abounded that Barmby's financial demands would eventually be accommodated by way of compromise by both parties and that the club could get back to the business of rebuilding the squad. However, growing rumours suggested that he didn't want to stay at Everton any longer with Chelsea and Liverpool apparently showing an interest.
On the evening of 29th June, 2000 the story broke. Nick Barmby, a self-confessed admirer of Everton FC, its fans and traditions, wanted to play for Liverpool, arch rivals from across Stanley Park.
The shockwaves that are reverberating around the Blue two-thirds of Merseyside have been so much the greater because the last first-team player to move from Blue to Red across Stanley Park was Dave Hickson 40 years ago. There have been a few players who have made the reverse trip in that time - Peter Beardsley being perhaps the most memorable - which speaks volumes for how players feel about what it means to be an Evertonian. Playing for Liverpool simply isn't the done thing.
Barmby goes completely against the grain of that tacit tradition and it is the manner of his impending departure that leaves such a bad taste in the mouth. This is not a player who, like Gary Speed for instance, had a public falling-out with the manager, nor was he off form or playing irregularly for the first team. Barmby had Goodison at his feet and was publicly saying that he was going to Euro2000 to represent Everton.
Such an act of treachery was unthinkable just a few weeks ago and the passage of events raises questions over how Barmby came to the decision that Anfield was the place for him. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he made his choice after consorting with Reds past and present in the England squad. And let it not be forgotten that the decision to move from Tottenham to Middlesbrough was rumoured to have been made at the insistance of his homesick wife who missed the North of England.
In fact, such a bold decision seems to be at odds with Barmby's character which has always betrayed a shy and retiring yet honest soul hiding beneath boyish looks. He always portrayed a love for all things Blue. What or who changed his mind?
Barmby effectively holds the aces. He has a year to run on his contract and can leave Goodison in the summer of 2001 for nothing. If Everton are hoping to get any decent return on his departure, they would have to sell him now, which plays right into Barmby's hands. It is highly possible that around £5m would be enough to persuade the club to let him go and get an uncommitted player off the books.
On the other hand, Walter Smith is a man not to be crossed – as Don Hutchison has learned – and he could well dig his heels in and relegate Barmby to the reserves until the club's asking price is met or his contract runs out. The consequences for Barmby's career would be far-reaching, particularly where his international hopes are concerned.
What is clear is that the affection with which Nick Barmby was held by the Everton fans has evaporated overnight and he is in for a torrid time from the Blue-orientated locals. He has gone from the darling of Goodison to the most hated figure connected to the club since Peter Johnson. Let us hope for his sake it will be worth the trouble.