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Exclusive: Q&A with Liverpool expert Tony Barrett

Chris Linnell

This week, The Boot Room had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Tony Barrett, Merseyside football writer at The Times newspaper. Tony is renowned across the industry for his inside expertise concerning the region’s top clubs, with particular emphasis on his knowledge of goings on at Anfield.

In the following Q&A, we talk football journalism, life after Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s Champions League hopes and much, much more. We hope you enjoy!

Why did football journalism appeal so much to you as a career path? And, what advice would you give to younger, aspiring writers looking to break into the industry?

I wanted to be a football journalist from the age of six or seven. My dad was a Guardian reader and I always liked David Lacey’s writing and I was also a big fan of Brian Reade’s, so they were my main influences in terms of wanting to do what they did. I was a football fanatic to a ridiculous degree as a kid, I’d walk my ball up the stairs going to bed and back down again after getting up and every spare minute was spent either watching, playing or reading about football and I knew very early on that I wanted to work in the game in some way. Like 99% of kids, I wasn’t good enough to be a professional footballer, the first division of the Liverpool Sunday League was as good as it got for me, so I focused on writing about the game which to me is the next best thing.

The best advice that was given to me as a young writer was to do speak to people. That seems basic, and in many ways it is, but the only chance you’ve got of informing others is if you’re informed yourself. Pretty much anyone can write, by that I mean most of us can put words down in an order that others can read and come up with arguments that put forward our point of view. But the difference between writing and informed writing is the knowledge you glean from contacts. The best journalists have the best and most wide ranging contacts and it’s that that makes their writing the most informative even if there are others who write with more flair.

Brendan Rodgers didn’t hold back during summer, signing no less than eight first-team players with the money received from Luis Suarez’s departure. But, of all the players brought to the club this season, who has impressed you the most?

I wouldn’t have said this at the start of the season but as the campaign wears on Emre Can is the one who stands out. He really does look a special player. When he first arrived he lacked the stamina to play in his preferred central midfield role but he’s worked on his fitness and Brendan Rodgers came up with a masterstroke by putting him in a back three and his talent is there for all to see. I’ve also been impressed by Alberto Moreno and I’m expecting Lazar Markovic to improve in the months and years to come.

Liverpool have clearly adopted a very different system since the sale of Suarez, with Rodgers now favouring a 3-5-2 set-up. Do you agree that they are now offering far more in their overall performances, with their defensive solidity proving paramount?

Their performances now speak for themselves. I honestly believe there’s a strong argument that this Liverpool side is already a more well rounded team than the one that came so close to winning the league title last season. It is more compact, more solid and has a much stronger mentality. Obviously, there is no Luis Suarez but as a group of eleven players I think this team has a lot more of the qualities that you need to flourish in English football on a long term basis.

Throughout this period of superb form, a number of individuals have upped their game with tremendous effect. We have had a stab at highlighting the club’s biggest improvers since before Christmas – – but for you, who has experienced the biggest surge of form?

Simon Mignolet. I’ve been one of his biggest critics, calling for him to be dropped in the autumn when his form slumped and generally being unimpressed by his overall game since he signed. But since coming back into the side on Boxing Day his entire approach has been transformed. He’s coming for crosses and getting them, taking responsibility for his own penalty area, knocking forwards (and sometimes his own defenders!) about and producing good, solid, all round performances in pretty much every game. His kicking could be better but given the overall improvement that’s just nit picking. Full credit to him for recognising his Liverpool career was on the line and doing something about it.

Considering Jordon Ibe’s rapid rise to first team prominence, and Raheem Sterling before hand, are there any relatively unknown youngsters who you could see making the same impact? Also, in terms of his potential development, how does Ibe compare to Sterling?

I watch a lot of Academy football and to be honest I thought Ibe was ready to become part of the Liverpool squad at the start of this season. Brendan Rodgers clearly knows infinitely more about player development than I do though and his decision to send Ibe out on loan to Derby County has paid dividends as he’s returned to Liverpool a better and more mature player than he left it. In terms of development, I see no reason why Ibe can’t replicate the impact that Sterling has had at Liverpool and with England.

There are quite a few quality young players emerging at Liverpool at the moment and you’ve probably heard of most of them but if I had to pick one I’d go for Adam Phillips. He won’t be next off the production line because the likes of Jordan Rossiter, Jerome Sinclair and Shey Ojo are ahead of him at the moment but he’s a midfielder with a lot of talent and a really good attitude and he’s already caught Rodgers’ eye.

At The Boot Room we have been mightily impressed with the performances of Emre Can, who has excelled despite being played in a less familiar centre-back role. How important will the German be for the Reds going forward, and in which position do you envisage him playing in the long-term?

Going forward, Can will be a central midfielder and a top class one at that. Rodgers described him as “a Rolls Royce” of a footballer and it’s easy to see why. He just glides past players and his composure, for a player of his age, is ridiculous. He looks every inch a future Liverpool captain.

Considering the number of young players already standing out for the Reds (the likes of Coutinho, Sterling, Can), do the club have a realistic chance of competing for the league in the next few years? Or, do they lack that ‘winning mentality’, much like Arsenal this past decade?

I think we’re seeing a winning mentality develop at Liverpool. They are now finding ways to win, be it through the kind of individual brilliance showed by Coutinho against Man City and Bolton Wanderers, or a collective belligerence and refusal to yield that allowed them to beat Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton. The next step is to take it a step further and win a trophy. Should they do that this season, obviously the FA Cup is their only remaining chance, then I expect Liverpool to grow still further next season.

Perhaps the biggest talking point of the season so far has been Steven Gerrard’s decision to leave the club upon expiry of his contract at the end of the season. In your opinion, have the club handled this is the correct manner, or would it have been better to retain his services – even as a squad player – to support the club in an off-field capacity?

For me, both Gerrard and the club have handled his departure as well as they possibly could. The old adage about no one being bigger than the club remains as true now as it ever was but Gerrard is one of those figures of such rare significance that the moment when he decided to leave was always going to be massive. I think it’s right that he’s going at the end of this season, primarily because that’s the way he sees it. Steven Gerrard knows himself better than anyone else and he knows exactly what he wants from the final years of his career so if he believes playing regular football for LA Galaxy is best for him, who are we to argue?

His influence will be missed, though, there is no question about that. I don’t think people outside the club realise the esteem that he’s held in within the club. Almost without exception, players past and present love him. Finding a like for like replacement is impossible. Liverpool may sign a top class footballer who performs brilliantly but I honestly don’t think it’s possible, not in the short term anyway, to find another player who means as much to the club, the players and the supporters as Gerrard does.

With Stevie G’s departure imminent, Jordan Henderson, who has experienced a huge turn around at Anfield, looks set to become the club’s permanent captain from next season onwards. Is the 24-year-old guaranteed this role, or could he still be overlooked by Rodgers for someone more experienced? Furthermore, can you envisage him captaining England one day?

I think Henderson will get the captaincy. Ideally, there would be another more senior player ready to take over from Gerrard but Liverpool are a very young team and Henderson is the outstanding candidate in the current squad. It’s not that I don’t think Henderson will make a good captain because he’s shown enough already to suggest that he will, it’s more that I believe he’s still a developing footballer and the best thing for everyone would be if he was able to focus on himself and his own game for the next couple of years. But as it is, he’s probably the best man for the job and on that basis he should be promoted. As for captaining England, that could follow if he does well in the role for Liverpool.

Does the whole ‘Balotelli penalty debate’ perhaps show a division in the camp between the Italian and Liverpool’s senior players? And, what did you make of the situation? Did Balotelli have the right to take the spot kick considering his incredible record?

I hated the whole Balotelli penalty debate. For me, it should only have become a major issue in the event of him missing. As it was, he took responsibility at a big moment and scored a crucial goal. Obviously, the internal politics and dressing room etiquette added a different dimension to the situation but I think if you would have asked the entire Anfield crowd to vote on who they wanted to take the penalty, Balotelli would have won by a landslide.

On the subject of Balotelli, do you think Daniel Sturridge’s return to action will kick-start his career on Merseyside? We have certainly seen improvements in recent weeks, but Rodgers seems somewhat reluctant to trust him in the starting line-up. Do you think this is the case?

It’s hard to see Balotelli having a future at Liverpool beyond this season. If Liverpool can find a buyer willing to pay a decent price during the summer they will let him go. I don’t buy into the idea that Balotelli is such a bad influence that he can’t be incorporated into a team but he’s yet to really fit in at Liverpool for various reasons and there’s no point keeping him if he isn’t going to play.

Do you believe renovating Anfield is the right step for Liverpool to take, or should Liverpool have built a new stadium like Arsenal did with the Emirates?

To be honest, I couldn’t cope with the idea of leaving Anfield. For me, it’s the only place that should ever be Liverpool’s home ground. I understand the reasons why people would argue for a new ground but I don’t think you give up something as special as Anfield unless you absolutely have to.

Finally, fast-forward to the 1st June. Liverpool’s domestic season is over. Both the FA Cup and Europa League finals are done and dusted. How has Brendan Rodgers’ side fared? Will we be seeing Champions League football at Anfield again next season?

Yes. I’ll be very surprised if Liverpool don’t finish in the top four. With the exception of Chelsea, they have been the best team in the league in this calendar year and although Manchester United and Arsenal both have a slight advantage on them points-wise, I think Liverpool are playing better, more effective football and expect them to qualify for the Champions League again.

We would like to say a huge thank you again to Tony for taking the time out to speak to us.

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