In appreciation of Ashley Barnes, the Premier League's most underrated player
Players like Barnes are a dying breed, we must cherish them
The term 'underrated' gets thrown around a lot in football discourse. Usually it is attributed to defensive midfielders, whose donkey work is overlooked by neutrals, Michael Carrick being the most obvious example. For years he was heralded as Manchester United's unsung hero for his metronomic passing that held a flimsy midfield together. But it got to the point where he was so underrated that he became... appropriately rated.
However, some players are truly deserving of the title, and none more so than Ashley Barnes, the perfect combination of the old school and the new.
As Premier League football returned this weekend, it was as if it had never been away, as Burnley trounced Southampton 3-0 at the wet and windy fortress Turf Moor, with Barnes scoring two of the most quintessentially Burnley goals ever scored. As he has done throughout his journey from non-league to the Europa League, Barnes smelt blood, as Saints defender Jannick Vestergaard misjudged the flight of an aimless hoof, and he pounced. The ball bounced and two touches later it was in the back of the net. There are few other strikers outside the top six who could pull off such a finish.
In an era of diminutive, creative number 10s, or sometimes no number 10 at all, Barnes is a throwback to the old fashioned second striker in Sean Dyche's four-four-fucking-two formation. Tireless off the ball and efficient on it, he epitomises this Burnley side.
Despite incomings, from Andre Gray to Jon Walters, Peter Crouch and now Jay Rodriguez, he has remained a constant in Burnley's front line ever since their promotion in 2014 - and subsequent relegation a year later. He provides the energy, solidity, graft and guile necessary for a team of Burnley's style and stature to survive in such a cut-throat league. A powerful yet nimble dribbler, and a battering ram in the air, he possesses a skillset that is becoming increasingly rare at the top level. He's the Bath Benzema. The Burnley Bergkamp.
Playing in a team so often praised for their defensive solidity and compactness, it is easy to forget how much talent their squad possesses. Look at the bicycle kick Barnes scored against West Brom last season. Then watch it again. It's fucking outstanding.
Barnes is not the most glamorous of players and that's fine - he is all the more charming for it. This is a man who played non-league football while he was still at school, giving most of his income to his parents. This is a man who drives seven of his teammates to training in a minibus they all chipped in for. This is a man of the people who made it to the top the hard way, and on that journey developed a sharp edge that often comes to the fore in the heat of the moment. Here are some examples.
He once received a red card for attempting to trip up a referee. After being hammered by fans and the press for his actions which led to a seven match ban, he reacted by bagging a brace on his return, earning himself the man of the match award.
After he landed a high tackle on Nemanja Matić, Jose Mourinho criticised Barnes' recklessness, which the striker said he "found hilarious." Nothing but respect.
When confronted by Cardiff City's Joe Bennett last season, rather than landing one on his nose, Barnes gave the defender a peck on the nose. How do you respond to that? You don't. You just have to sit back and appreciate a masterful piece of shithousery.
But don't confuse this edge with arrogance. He is streetwise, but retains a humility that is seldom seen in those who have been nurtured at Premier League academies. It is this desire to keep improving that has seen him overcome obstacle after obstacle and a severe knee injury to reach top flight football.
He is a reminder of a time gone by, when everyone played 4-4-2 and shirts were baggy. We should cherish players of this mould; they are a dying breed.