Gareth Barry, pivotal to the make-up of Martin O’Neill’s high-flying Aston Villa side, is proving to hold significant sway over events away from the football field.
Team-mates Stiliyan Petrov and Gabby Agbonlahor have both this week insisted their long term futures at the West Midlands club hang on whether Barry remains in claret and blue for a possible tilt at the Champions League next season.
Petrov has even made it clear he places a greater importance on the club keeping their best players than discussing his own contract extension ahead of a schedule which sees Villa face fourth-placed Chelsea and a tricky second leg Uefa Cup tie in Moscow in the space of the next week.
Despite a fluent display, Villa only managed to draw 1-1 in the first leg on Wednesday night.
The former Bulgaria national team captain, who rubbished suggestions he’s on the brink of agreeing a new £45,000-a-week deal, has blossomed in Villa’s midfield this season – after an indifferent beginning to his Premiership career when he rejoined O’Neill from Celtic in 2006.
But Petrov, 29, freely admits the peaks of his own Togel Hongkong individual form would have been far tougher to scale without Barry alongside him in Villa’s engine room.
Petrov considers his midfield partner England’s premier international player and even claimed the silky left-sided star has become the first name on manager Fabio Capello’s team sheet.
However, the tug-of-war transfer saga between Villa and Liverpool last summer means nothing is now certain for Barry’s team-mates when it comes to deciding their own futures.
What is certain, though, is that Barry remaining at Villa Park would have a major influence on which of O’Neill’s other leading lights might put pen to paper.
“He mentioned that if Villa show they can fight for the Champions League there would be no point moving. So far we’ve been showing that,” explained Petrov, whose current deal expires in 18 months time.
“We hope he will stay because he’s one of the best midfielders in the country and if you have him here you do your best to keep him.
“He’s one of the main men for Capello. Even with players like (Frank) Lampard and (Steven) Gerrard – very established names in the national team – I think Gareth is now the first name on the team sheet for Capello because of the way he’s been playing and the character he is.
“We try to make it hard for him to choose what he wants to do. We try to show we can challenge the big teams and give him what he wants.
“We will make the decision harder for him if we can stay in the top four. It’s up to us.
“The manager is trying to show everybody that he wants to build something big here. And one of the key things is keeping Gareth because he’s the most important player at this club.
“If you keep Gareth, the message is that we’re aiming for something big next year.”
In Japan, revolutions are run at a snail’s pace
If Ernesto “Che” Guevara was alive today, he would find Japan a maddening place to launch a revolution.
It’s not because he polarises opinion in The Land Of The Rising Sun. There’s no debate over whether he was a freedom fighter or blood-thirsty mercenary on the streets of Tokyo – most young Japanese are familiar with his face only because it adorns the tackiest of designer handbags in the capital’s upmarket boutiques.
No, old Che wouldn’t find a fervent hotbed of dissent threatening to tear apart the fabric of Japanese society. Conditions are not ripe for revolution here.
Instead what Che would find are tottering elected officials desperately clinging to power. A corrupt and lifeless Liberal Democratic Party guilty of the stilted thinking that sees the country creeping backwards while the rest of the world moves forward. And the occasional drunk finance minister.
It’s a bit like how the J. League is run. Plenty of posturing, lots of empty rhetoric, but in the end – no real change.
The “Asian berth” rule is a prime example. It caused a stir when it was announced, because it was supposed to revolutionise the Japanese game. Sceptics, however, wondered if the new rule was legislated solely to expand the J. League’s pipeline into the Korean Peninsula. So it has proved.
Far from opening doors to new talent, the Asian berth rule has simply seen the J. League pillage from their neighbours across the way. Clubs in both J1 and J2 have been busy adding to their collection of Korean stars. Omiya Ardija even plumped for a Korean coach – the widely respected Chang Woe-Ryong – while Gamba Osaka’s record-breaking deal for Jeonbuk striker Cho Jae-Jin was made under the auspices of the Asian berth rule.
But has anything really changed? Chang Woe-Ryong has already spent the vast majority of his coaching career in Japan. Cho Jae-Jin made his name at Shimizu S-Pulse. And before that, the likes of Hong Myung-Bo and Hwang Sun-Hong long ago proved to Japanese fans that Korean players are amongst the best in the region.
That’s scant consolation for the Iranian and Chinese stars hoping to test themselves in one of the toughest professional environments in Asian football – to say nothing of players from the less developed South-East Asian leagues. And what of Australia? Not one J. League club seems to have displayed a genuine interest in signing an Australian player.
If J. League clubs believe that they will have the last laugh thanks to such conservative recruitment policies, the joke is on them.
The Asian berth rule has revolutionised the Asian game. Leagues across the length and breadth of the vast Asian Football Confederation have decided to adopt the rule -and so has the AFC itself, with the rule set to take effect in the AFC Champions League this season. Moreover, the Asian berth rule has awoken two of the J. League’s direct rivals from a long, languid slumber.
Faced with the prospect of losing some of its stars, the K-League has reacted swiftly. In came the likes of Australian international Jade North and seasoned Japanese midfielder Masahiro Ohashi – signing on at Incheon United and Gangwon FC respectively. Similar signings appear on the horizon, with Asia’s oldest professional league set to replenish its stocks by luring personnel from its nearest neighbours.
After years of torment and turmoil, China’s Super League looks to be on the rise again – slowly, to be sure – but it’s gradually stirring.
The carrot of a revamped AFC Champions League and the pot of gold it heralds means that more Asian teams are determined to entice quality personnel to their shores. That has seen the likes of ex-Socceroo John Aloisi join Shanghai Shenhua on loan, while arguably the A-League’s most explosive talent in the form of Joel Griffiths has joined his brother Ryan at Beijing Guoan.
The danger for the J. League is that by the time it wakes up to the potential talent on its door-step, Korean and Chinese clubs will already have put the infrastructure and scouting networks into place to exploit it. Far from attracting the region’s best talent, the J. League could be stuck with making do with the same Brazilian and Korean imports it has always attracted.
The Asian berth rule hasn’t revolutionised Japanese football at all. Instead it has prompted more of the same. No lucrative TV deals have been signed, no exotic names have been enticed and no new relationships with foreign clubs have been arranged – as far as anyone in Japan can tell.
If Che Guevara visited Japan today, he would find the same suspicious conservatism and archaic bureaucracy in the J. League that blights the nation’s political landscape.
And he would discover that, in Japan, revolutions are run at a snail’s pace.