When a 20-year-old John Barnes slalomed through Brazil’s stunned defence in 1984 before tucking the ball under Selecao goalkeeper Roberto Costa, it should have been the start of a beautiful relationship between the winger and the England national team. But that magic moment at the Maracana became an albatross around Barnes’ neck and, though he managed 79 matches in all for the Three Lions over the next 11 years, he never quite sparkled as brightly as on that day in Rio de Janeiro.
Two decades later and another fleet-footed winger has become the subject of excited chatter across the workplaces of England. Living in the social media age ensures that European Championship squad announcements are not quite the edge-of-your-seat events they once were, but Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain’s inclusion in England’s final 23 was nonetheless a fairly surprising footnote in an otherwise prosaic list.
Comparisons were immediately drawn with Arsenal team-mate Theo Walcott, who earned a shock call-up from Sven Goran Eriksson for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Like Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s international recognition has come only a matter of months after signing for the Gunners from Southampton. Unlike Walcott, though, ‘the Ox’ has actually played in Arsene Wenger’s first team prior to his England selection – making a real impression with precocious showings against Manchester United and AC Milan among others. While Walcott’s inclusion in 2006 was met with incredulity, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s has been one to encourage an England fanbase that is currently somewhat sceptical about the abilities of the national team.
With Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry out of Euro 2012 with injuries, Oxlade-Chamberlain has snuck up the midfield pecking order and supporters will be expecting to see him utilised as an impact sub at the very least in Poland and Ukraine. But as someone who burst onto the global football stage at a young age himself, Barnes is all too wary of the pitfalls that can await a young talent that everyone wants a piece of. There is even a risk that Oxlade-Chamberlain could be subjected to the same sort of racist abuse that Barnes suffered in his early years at this summer’s tournament, though unlike Barnes it will not be from his own fans. (Members of far right group the National Front cruelly denied the existence of his spectacular strike against Brazil in the aftermath of the game in 1984, claiming that the final score was 1-0 instead of 2-0).
Oxlade-Chamberlain faces other challenges too; balancing expectation and actual football development should be the priority. The media commitments are already rolling in, too, with Disney among the brands attempting to capitalise on the articulate, highly marketable teenager. Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley is an example that he should probably seek to avoid in that regard - a player whose personal image is more prominent on advertisements than in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Pressure from all sides is part and parcel of being a modern footballer and despite suffering difficult experiences of his own, Barnes believes life is much harder for emerging players in 2012 than in his own era – and believes the hype must around Oxlade-Chamberlain needs to subside.
“[Coming through as a young player] is a bit different now because of the media attention that is obviously apparent for young players,” Barnes tells ESPN. “I came in and played for England when I was 19 and after I had my first cap I was a regular but there wasn’t the media attention or expectancy on me all the time.
“My advice to him is the same for everyone else: don’t get carried away. We saw Theo Walcott go to the 2006 World Cup as a young player and so much pressure was put on him that people would argue that he hasn’t really fulfilled that potential. Theo is also there now as an older player, so we shouldn’t look to put pressure on Oxlade-Chamberlain to perform, let him go and enjoy it - if he plays, he plays if he doesn’t he doesn’t. I’m not getting excited or carried away about his inclusion and I don’t think we should be. He’s a fantastic talent, he’s one for the future so let’s not put too much pressure on him.
“I have been impressed with what I’ve seen but he’s not played that much. He had a great game against AC Milan but that’s one game. If Arsene Wenger was so impressed he would have been in the Arsenal team every single game - he’s one for the future for Arsenal and England but I’m not going to put any pressure on him by saying how amazed I’ve been with him for Arsenal because he has only played now and again – he’s a fantastic talent, but one for the future.”
England’s squad for the Euros certainly appears designed with the future in mind. It has an average age of 26 (brought down by the with withdrawals of Lampard and Barry), which is the same figure as when Barnes was part of Bobby Robson’s squad at his first major finals, the 1986 World Cup. Despite Hodgson picking younger players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck, however, Barnes feels that the changing of the Three Lions’ guard should have already happened.
“We’ve been a bit top-heavy on experience at the last two or three tournaments by picking the same old players. Now some young players have come, but unfortunately they haven’t been given that much experience because we’ve stayed with the old guard for so long. I’d have liked to see the young players given more experience in the last year or two coming into this tournament because they are going to be very inexperienced at this tournament.
“I think it [integrating the young players] should have been done for the past 18 months - for the qualifiers and the friendly matches after the Euros, I think we should start to see the emergence of some of the younger players, definitely. They’ve got potential, but I think we’ll probably see the best of the young players in the 2014 World Cup with two years of experience.”
As well as keeping a close eye on England’s talented prospects, Barnes has also, unsurprisingly, been monitoring the fortunes of Stewart Downing, who is following in his footsteps for club and country. And while many have wondered what the Liverpool winger has done to be Hodgson’s first-choice aside from having a left foot, Barnes is expecting Downing to prove the critics wrong this month.
“I don’t think Downing’s inclusion is controversial. He has put in more crosses and has created chances [for Liverpool] but they haven’t been taken,” Barnes explains when the winger’s infamous ‘no league goals or assists’ statistic from last season is mentioned. “At times, because he hasn’t played with Andy Carroll, a lot crosses have gone begging, but if you’re looking a wide man who is going to get down the line and put crosses in and who works hard up and down the line tracking back, then you have to look at Stewart Downing. I’d have taken him.”
That Downing will command a starting berth this month exemplifies for many England fans why there is a negligible level of optimism heading into the tournament. Finding a supporter, pundit, or former player willing to take a punt on Hodgson’s side for glory on July 1 is nigh on impossible at present, and Barnes’ assessment of his nation’s chances is similarly realistic, with a place in the last eight viewed as an acceptable ambition.
“I think England can do well. Without Wayne Rooney it’s going to be difficult and hopefully by the time he’s back for the third game we are still in with a chance of coming through. I’d hope for us to go all the way but if they get to the quarter-finals I think that would be okay; getting through the group would mean success if you ask me.”
Coca-Cola, official partner of UEFA EURO 2012, has teamed up with Special Olympics GB to give eight Special Olympics Unified Football® athletes the chance to lead out the England team as official flag bearers. To find out more about Special Olympics GB and Unified Sports, where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities come together to compete on the same team, go to www.specialolympicsgb.org.uk.