Arsene Wenger was days away from winning the Premier League for the first time as Arsenal manager. Michael Owen was English soccer’s latest player of the season.
The original Ronaldo had a couple of months left as the world’s most expensive player.
It was May 2, 1998, and in a fairly non-descript occasion at Hillsborough, Gareth Barry—a 17-year-old defender with floppy dark hair and already a cultured left foot—came on as a 49th-minute substitute for Aston Villa in its 3-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday.
A remarkable, if understated, career was born.
More than 19 years later, Barry is still playing in England’s top division and, on Monday, will break the Premier League’s appearance record if selected by West Bromwich Albion for its away match at Arsenal.
It will be Barry’s 633rd appearance in the most-watched league in the world, surpassing the record he held jointly with Manchester United great Ryan Giggs. Of his current tally of 632, he has started 600 of them. It is a testament to Barry’s longevity, adaptability and quality that he has lasted so long in the fast-paced, blood-and-thunder world of English soccer.
“It’s a huge number when you think about it,” Barry said ahead of his potentially record-breaking game. “It’s gone so quickly.”
Barry played 365 league games for Villa, 132 league games for Manchester City, 131 league games for Everton and has featured in four league games for West Brom.
Having started out as a center back equally comfortable at left back, he is now an out-and-out holding midfielder—perhaps the best position on a soccer field for someone his age, as it involves a player using his head as much as his legs.
Barry credits his longevity to avoiding serious injury and to support from some now-retired former teammates.
“No one has said, ‘What are you doing still playing?’” the 36-year-old Barry said. “Everyone said, ‘Play as long as possible.’ You stop when you stop enjoying it and I’ll know when I’ve had enough and can’t keep up with the boys.”
That’s still not the case for Barry. Only last year, he was being hailed as “one of the best English players ever” by his then-coach at Everton, Roberto Martinez, who is admittedly prone to hyperbole, after a man-of-the-match performance against Man City in the League Cup semifinals.
He was a much-cherished member of City’s Premier League title-winning team in 2011-12, shoring up the midfield to allow Yaya Toure to rampage forward. He had turned down a move to Liverpool to join City.
Barry has slotted seamlessly into his new surroundings at West Brom, where he has replaced another veteran midfielder in Darren Fletcher.
“They’re bastions of this sport,” West Brom manager Tony Pulis said. “The young players at our football club, I hope they realize how lucky they are to see someone of that quality and that ilk.”
Barry has worn the captain’s armband for England on several occasions among his 53 caps for his country. Globally, however, the most vivid image of Barry in an England jersey was in 2010 when he trailed in the wake of Mesut Ozil in the build-up to Germany’s final goal in its 4-1 win in the round of 16 at the World Cup.
Outside of the Premier League era that started in 1992, goalkeeper Peter Shilton holds the appearance record for England’s top flight with 849 games. Former Chelsea defender/midfielder John Hollins has made more outfield appearances in the top flight than any other player, with 714.