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Ross Barkley exclusive: I fell in love with football again at Luton – and still want to play in Europe

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This time last year Ross Barkley was spending his time watching his Nice team-mates from the substitutes’ bench.

Barkley, who made his Premier League debut for Everton aged 17 and had earned an England call-up before he turned 20, had featured just nine times for the French side he’d joined having been released early from his Chelsea contract.

It wasn’t the first time in his career he’d found himself here. The midfielder was falling off the footballing radar. But one phone call late last summer changed all that.

Less than 12 months on, Barkley has become the heartbeat of Rob Edwards’ Luton team – the driving force. It’s not too far to suggest Luton may have saved him.

That is why he is so intent on doing everything he can to repay the Hatters and keep them up this season, with the next test the small matter of Manchester City this weekend.

It must have been some call from Rob Edwards to get him to join, I suggest. “I’ve never really spoken to a manager the way he spoke to me,” he tells Sky Sports. “I knew straight away. He was just so positive. He said, ‘Just come, I want you to show how good you are, get back to your Everton days and help us stay in the league.’

“The club hadn’t spent that much, so he said he wanted to bring in a player of my quality. I could hear in the tone of the way he was speaking, he was so excited. I said I wanted to join straight away.”

Throughout his time in France following that unceremonious exit at Chelsea, a loan spell at Aston Villa before that and an injury-plagued final season at Everton, Barkley never doubted he would be back where he wanted to be – in the Premier League, running the show from the middle of the park.

He just needed someone else to believe him. That was Edwards.

Barkley has played 27 games already this season – the last time he did that was in his heydays at Everton eight years ago. From a deeper midfield role, he is thriving for the Hatters; he has completed the most take-ons of any central midfielder in the Premier League, and has been the fifth most-prolific at winning the ball back in the middle third.

The stats are impressive, but are of no real interest to him. Instead, it is the opportunity he has been given to go out and play which he cares more deeply about.

“I knew I was good enough, but I just wondered whether I would ever be able to enjoy my football the way I did when I was at Everton,” he says. “Now, playing the games, I’m over the moon, and match day means more to me.

“It’s more than the frustration I would get on game day, being on the bench, warming up and not coming on, or making it on for 10 minutes. Training well and then getting one start in a cup game, doing well and then being on the bench again afterwards. It’s testing mentally.

“I feel like I’ve coped really well with it. Maybe my head was up and down at times, but I love the game and I feel like that’s really been key for me. I’ve had a few difficult years where I could have easily just dropped my standards but for me, it’s always important to maintain them.”

With so many of the Luton squad lacking in Premier League experience, Barkley has flourished in a new leadership role, and now is focused on adding to his own game – in particular, a few more goals.

“I feel like I’m at my most confident when I’m on the pitch, I believe that I can take the ball in any position,” he says. “Whether we get beaten or I give one ball away, it doesn’t affect my game. I feel like now I’ve got a clear mind.

“I know I’m playing game after game now, I’m setting good standards for myself. I feel like now as a player, I’ve hit different levels through maturing over the years.”

After his dominant displays this season there was a clamour for Barkley, who won the last of his 33 England caps in 2019, to earn an international recall for Gareth Southgate’s last squad. It never came, but hope remains.

Ross Barkley in action for England during the European Qualifier against Czech Republic
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Barkley scored twice on his last England appearance, a 6-0 win in Bulgaria in October 2019, but has not featured since

He says: “I feel like now my standards have maintained consistent levels this season. I’m hoping that I do get a call-up, whether that’s in the summer or next season.

“It’s a goal of mine to get back in the squad. In the position I’m playing now, I feel confident that I can bring something to the squad.

“The way I play now is a lot different from the way I played before in a more attacking role. So I’m confident, and hopefully a call-up does come.”

Barkley is now 30 and while many players are beginning to think about what might lie beyond professional football those thoughts are very much on hold, even 13 years after making his Premier League debut.

“I feel like for the next three years maybe I’ll still be in my prime years,” he insists. “I’m enjoying all the moments because I know over the last few years there’s been ups and downs, frustrations and great moments.

“And now I feel ready to be at my best, consistent, in a great place in my head as well. I haven’t had a lot of mileage over the last few years in my legs, so I feel fresh. I know it’s the last games of the season coming up – but I feel like it’s the start of the season.”

As the club heads into the home straight of the Premier League season, a second chance has presented itself – much as it has for Barkley at Kenilworth Road.

The late victory against Bournemouth last weekend thanks to Carlton Morris, and the emotional scenes of celebration which followed, gave a real sense of how big the opportunity to keep the club in the top flight feels.

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Watch free highlights of Luton’s dramatic last-minute win over Bournemouth last weekend

“The result was key,” says Barkley. “We needed the win. Ten games without a win is difficult to take. We had a players’ meeting, explaining how key this game was and how we are all together.

“It’s a great group, we all bought into the manager’s approach, but as players we knew we needed to win the game.

“Everyone spoke in the meeting and it turned out as we planned. It was a massive relief in the changing room – you saw the images of Carlton, and the manager was over the moon.

“It gave us confidence and belief and the players have been in better spirits this week.”

The next challenge, of Man City this weekend, may seem a daunting one. But having been on the footballing journey that Barkley has over the last 13 years, he is relishing the chance to take on the Premier League champions and in particular, their own midfield talisman Rodri.

“I believe I can compete with the top players at Man City and Arsenal,” he says. “I feel like I’m confident enough to know what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are.

“I feel like I can exploit certain things but when we play Man City, they will have most of the possession so it’s about what you do out of possession. We need to be in the right positions and stick together going forward. Hopefully, I can make some things happen.”

Rodri celebrates after equalising for Man City against Chelsea
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Man City are yet to lose a Premier League game this season where Rodri features

Barkley has learnt, maybe the hard way, not to look too far ahead. Avoiding relegation is his only focus. The midfielder won’t comment on what might happen beyond this season, though his performances have seen him linked with a host of clubs.

Some reports have suggested a reunion with Sir Dave Brailsford and Sir Jim Ratcliffe at Manchester United, the men who brought him to Nice in the first place.

Barkley won’t entertain the rumours though he does admit, as our interview draws to a close, to a burning ambition to return to the very top.

“I want to play in the Premier League,” he asserts. “I want to play in Europe again but I’m not really focused on that now.

“I want to help the club stay in the league. I love the club. It’s helped me so much and I owe them a lot. So I’m focused on that and thinking about nothing other than helping them do that.”

Barkely’s footballing story is already a fascinating one. One full of, in his own words, ups and downs.

But having been rescued by Luton – and still desperate to rescue them too – you get the sense there may still be plenty of intriguing plot lines to come.

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