Ross Barkley is no longer the baby of the bunch at Everton. In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, the Everton midfielder discusses his love for boxing, the rise of Tom Davies, taking on more responsibility and why he would never sign for Liverpool.
"It was a Victory Shield game for the England Under-16 side," recalls Ross Barkley. "He was probably the best player on the pitch at the time. I put a tweet out saying that the lad Tom Davies looks a player." Fast forward three years, and the pair are not only first-team colleagues but also undefeated in their six Premier League starts together for Everton.
It is an indication not only of Davies' rise but also of Barkley's senior status. It is four years since his England debut, and three since he went to the World Cup. At 23, he is now embracing the responsibility that comes with the No 10 role at Goodison Park and he even captained the side in their 4-0 win over Yeovil in the EFL Cup earlier in the season.
While he won't be urging Davies to have a haircut, he is happy - as Everton's previous boy wonder - to offer more constructive career guidance. "I have just told him to keep doing what he's doing," he says. "I haven't given him much advice other than to say that I'm here if he wants to ask me anything, because a couple of years ago I was in his shoes.
Tom has been great since the start of the season. He’s playing really well and with plenty of confidence. You can see all the fans are loving him. He’s putting in good performances and long may it continue.
"Obviously I'm a little bit older now and over the years, I've got a lot of games under my belt in the first team. So I'm feeling more responsibility. I've become more vocal in the changing room and on the pitch. I understand now the different games and the different approaches that you need to take at different times, with different styles of play.
"I've got a defensive responsibility as well as trying to get goals and assists. I'm trying to do that. You can never stop learning in football and I'm always trying to take little things on board that other players do. I've added a bit more composure on the ball and defensively got a bit cuter and improved in one-on-ones. I'm trying to play a more mature game."
But the sense of mischief remains. Barkley's impromptu decision to celebrate his goal against Bournemouth last month even before he had stroked the ball into the net was not only enjoyable for the fans but also a clue that the player himself is relishing his football. "I just try to enjoy every minute on the pitch," he says.
But would he dare do it at Anfield when Everton are the visitors next month? He is not the sort to feel the pressure there or anywhere else. "To me, it's not any different," he adds. "The crowd maybe boosts the home side but I don't really get affected by it, you know. I don't worry if anyone says anything to me, I just focus on getting the job done on the pitch."
It is going well. After some tough love from Ronald Koeman earlier in the campaign, Barkley is now earning the manager's praise. He currently has more assists than any other Everton player - a feat he has not achieved before - and that's no fluke. He has created 37 chances from open play this season, also a team high, and already only six shy of last season's total.
Barkley is getting better and so are Everton. At the turn of the year, they were 16 points adrift of neighbours Liverpool but they go into the weekend with only five points separating them from their rivals. "Five points? There isn't much in that," says Barkley. "As an Everton fan, that's one of my goals, to finish above Liverpool this season."
I would never cross the line to go to the other side.
Indeed, he laughs when it is put to him that former Liverpool captain Phil Thompson reluctantly acknowledged this week that he would take the England international at Anfield. "You've got to take positives from it," says Barkley. "He must really believe that I'm a good player! But that would never happen. I would never cross the line to go to the other side."
He adds: "They're not in the best of form and don't look too confident at the minute, whereas we are on a strong run. All the lads are looking forward to the derby because we haven't won there for a while and we've got a really good team spirit right now. Hopefully we can do the job."
Next up though it's Super Sunday, a trip to Tottenham and a game so important it could deny Barkley the chance to catch his friend Tony Bellew take on David Haye this Saturday night. Barkley even helped get Bellew his role in Creed through a contact, but admits there are no guarantees they will be allowed to watch this fight in the team hotel.
"If we don't have it on in the hotel, we'll have to record it and watch it on the way back," he says. "Tony's been in and around the club and working hard in training. He looks positive and strong. I spoke to him a couple of days ago when he was in the changing room and the training ground. Hopefully he can get the job done too."
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Barkley might be a boxing fan but he is happy in his own role. "You're on your own going into the ring," he adds. "When you're a Premier League player, it's about teamwork." And Barkley has become that team player at Everton. A captain and a leader. A vocal presence and a supportive figure for the team's youngsters. It seems Ross Barkley is all grown up.
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