When Joe Royle made Middlesbrough’s clever young inside forward Nick Barmby Everton’s record signing in October 1996 he was buying a player not just of unquestioned potential, but a man of experience too. A member of the England squad, Barmby had, at the age of 22, already partnered the likes of Gary Lineker, Jurgen Klinsmann, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham in a career of tremendous promise. Royle’s £5.75million signing had often been likened to Kenny Dalglish and Peter Beardsley, whom he replaced in the England team. Even Pele suggested that Barmby was destined for greatness while watching him at the previous summer’s European Championship Finals.
Indeed, few watching Barmby’s performance against Southampton, less than a fortnight after his Goodison arrival, could have disagreed with the Brazilian. Everton’s new signing scored one goal, made four others, and after the 7-1 demolition was complete walked away with the man-of-the-match champagne. Alas, Barmby’s Everton career was to be more fizz than of any real vintage.
Born in Hull, Barmby was an early graduate of the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall, joining Tottenham Hotspur on his graduation and forcing his way into the first team by the time he was 18. He would make more than 100 appearances for Spurs, but after losing his place in the 1994/95 season, joined Middlesbrough in a £5.25million deal. He stayed on Teesside for a year, earning an international call-up, but once more lost his place, to Juninho, the diminutive and brilliant Brazilian, and when he asked for a transfer Royle came in.
Short and adroit, though never particularly quick, Barmby was a technically gifted player with a powerful, accurate finish and an eye for a defence-splitting pass. He preferred to play in the so-called ‘hole’ behind a front man or forward pairing, but as Royle’s time as Everton manager unravelled, so he found himself marginalised, a luxury player without the wherewithal to impose himself on games. The comparisons with Beardsley soon proved to be premature as he was patently never of the same calibre. He also lost his place in the England team.
Walter Smith reinvented Barmby as a left-sided midfielder in the 1999/2000 season, a campaign in which he was arguably the club’s best player. The highlight for Barmby was a hat trick in a 4-0 mauling of West Ham at Upton Park. Everton’s new owner, Bill Kenwright, led calls for Barmby’s England recall, which he earned, and at the season’s end he deservedly took his place in the squad for the European Championship Finals in Belgium and the Netherlands. Kenwright also promised a new contract, making Barmby the club’s best-paid player on his return.
Barmby’s response to Kenwright’s loyalty and Smith’s perseverance represented the avarice and twisted loyalties of modern football at its very worst. He demanded a transfer away from Goodison, so that he could complete a ‘dream move’ to Liverpool who, it suddenly emerged, were the player’s boyhood club.
Smith gave short shrift to such antics, quickly selling him for £6million and making Barmby the first player to leave Goodison for Anfield in some forty years. With retrospect, the anguish of Evertonians was premature for it represented a good price for a player with only a year left on his contract.
At Liverpool Barmby was a moderate success in his first year, winning a treble of cups, but thereafter he faded, once more the proverbial round peg in a square hole. He joined Leeds United in 2002 as the club stood on the precipice of financial ruin, but by the 2003/04 season was being loaned out to Nottingham Forest, now in the Championship. At the end of that season, still aged only 30, and to whoops of schadenfreude from Evertonians, he dropped down yet another division and joined his home-town club, Hull City.