In physical stature, he appears too small, but he has sublime technique and understanding of the game. So how should we view Barry Bannan?
It’s an intriguing question, and one that has very much come to the forefront of the sport’s discussion forums in recent years. The inspiring, unanswered and indeed unanswerable domination of Barcelona and Spain at club and international levels respectively has demonstrated that the little guys can be, and apparently are, the best. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi to name but three of the world’s greatest, and most diminutive, players have shown that even in the incredibly fast-paced and physical modern game of football that skill and technique are those attributes most valuable to a professional.
On Tuesday night, Barry Bannan displayed his undoubted talent, pulling the strings in Scotland’s narrow 1-0 win in their Euro 2012 qualifying match against Lithuania. Interestingly, he was playing in instrumental fashion on the right-wing, delivering dangerous balls into the area at will, highlighting the ability he possesses with that marvelous left foot. More notable than that, though, was his capacity to make the right decision at key moments in the game, thus establishing himself as one of the outstanding figures for his country in crucial, high-pressure circumstances. He picked up man of the match award for his performance.
Scotland captain Darren Fletcher was full of praise for the young starlet after the game:
"He (Bannan) proved that last night and he is a fantastic player and he gives us something different. He's got a lot of arrogance on the ball, he looks for the killer pass and he plays some great passes over the defence and he makes things happen."
James Traynor of The Daily Record was also very impressed with Bannan and put my thoughts into one sentence with this analysis:
“Barry Bannan took the opportunity to stake a claim for a regular place because this little player had a big night... Looking at the diminutive Aston Villa player it was difficult to work out how such a slight figure could make any kind of impact.”
Some distance perhaps, in footballing terms, behind Xavi and Iniesta of Barcelona and Spain, but there can be few misgivings about the fact that Bannan is a gifted player. He does make things happen, he does play great passes and he does enjoy time on the ball. He’s a natural footballer.
There will, however, always be a question about his size – particularly in English football.
For Aston Villa, the midfielder has been impressive on a number of occasions when he has been given the opportunity to play. Showing a neat passing game, and of course, his aforementioned, soon to be famous delight of a left peg, it is no wonder that Gerard Houllier, and now Alex McLeish, have been willing to give him his chance in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, there are those who feel that Bannan is not effective enough for Villa because physically he is not up to the demands of this league.
Let me say this, before I continue. I love watching football played with style, to see neat, penetrative passes opening up defences – of which Bannan is capable. Bannan thrives on the passing game, and is a very good technical player, so I would be thoroughly delighted to be able to say that he could be the player that dictates play in the middle of the park for us. His style embodies a lot of what I enjoy about football and if he could bring this to the Premier League week in week out, all fans – Villa especially – would be treated to high quality play.
The truth is that I can’t say for certain that he will offer these things to Aston Villa, or the Premier League, because the mind-set surrounding his build may hinder him.
Please disagree with me and this ‘English mentality’ about the Premier League. I welcome your disagreement. The facts are quite unlike my views. The fact is that the Premier League is physical, and fast-paced. While there are benefits to this for some players, not to mention spectators, there is an attitude in English football that you need to be big, fast and strong to be worthy of our top-flight. These ideas are implemented in youth football from the very first time a child steps onto the pitch to play in this country. “The bigger you are, the better you are”, apparently.
These views don’t fly with me, and they are changing, largely because of the success achieved elsewhere by different approaches. However, every time Barry Bannan plays poorly – and even the very best in the world have their bad games – in England, it will be put down to his physical stature. Rightly or wrongly, Bannan would be better suited to playing football on the continent, in the current climate.
Recently, Joe Cole made the jump across the channel to go and play football in France’s rising Ligue 1 at champions Lille. Often labeled as ‘too skilful’ for the English game, Cole may well find his feet in a slightly less physically oriented league where excitement is bubbling, as there is talk of a new era of popularity for French football. While Villa were suitors of the tricky midfielder on deadline day, I must admit that I was rather pleased to see him choose the new experience that the project at Lille will offer him. Long has it been suggested that the English national team suffers as a result of our players not tasting the offerings of foreign leagues, and the Premier League thriving on foreigners coming here.
Like Cole, I might propose that Bannan could be of a similar mould. While a little smaller in terms of size, Bannan is the skilful type of player that could really benefit from a European adventure.
And so begs the question – should Bannan be given more of a chance at Villa before a definitive judgment is made about whether he is up to the challenge, or the pre-set attitudes, of the Premier League? Absolutely.
It could be the case that with changing ideas in the English game, which is seeing small-built players like Ashley Young and Adam Johnson flourish, Bannan will be part of a revolutionary generation for the Premier League. This is an opportunity for skilful players, of whatever bulk, to be given the chance to really shine and make the Premier League one that truly appreciates skill, alongside the physicality. There’s not enough admiration of this type of athlete in this nation, in my view.
Villa could be the start of the fight against the ideologies of Stoke City, among others, where big is best and muscle earns points. Bannan is one of the most technically able players I have seen in a Villa shirt for a long time, and that is not an exaggeration. His touch is phenomenal for such a young professional and it is important that he is given a real go at it. Dare I say that he could be an Iniesta in claret and blue? Perhaps best not to get carried away get carried away at this stage…
Still, there is undoubtedly a culture of physicality and to a large extent a belief that size matters in English football, and it needs to be addressed. As far as I’m concerned, it’s time that Bannan (and players like him) is given the chance to show his ever-improving technical ability.
Alex McLeish, it seems, would certainly be inclined to give his compatriot a breakthrough as he said this of the creative midfielder recently:
"It is hard to ignore a guy of his ability because he does want to play, he does want to make the passes. He has a clever mind and is creative. It is hard to keep everyone satisfied. But Barry has a contribution to make."
I truly hope that little Barry Bannan is able to prove his class and become a big, big player for Aston Villa and the Premier League.
He does have a contribution to make; Big Eck is making no mistake with that statement.
Up the Villa!