BY MARK GODFREY
This week, while I am unavoidably detained in our nation’s capital, the funeral of an ex-footballing team mate of mine will take place in my home town. He was 38 years old, just like me, and died of a heart attack having had a history of heart-related problems.
I was lucky to have played with some very good footballers in my youth, but he was, quite simply, the best player I ever played with or against.
The turnout at his funeral is likely to be high and several members of the successful junior side we helped constitute have already mobilised themselves via Facebook and intend to pay their respects in person.
Hearing of his passing I took to Twitter and happened upon a tweet by David Preece – former goalkeeper with Aberdeen and Darlington amongst others and a fellow apprentice of my one-time colleague at Sunderland – that read:
“At 16…was the most talented player in England from our year, very much in the mould of Gazza. Really sad news”
Considering the era to which David eludes is contemporaneous with the ‘Class of 92’ and the ‘Golden Generation’ then you have some idea as to the regard in which that kid was held in not just locally, but nationally too.
Yet, unless you’re of a certain age and from a certain area, you’re unlikely ever to have heard of this prodigious teenage prospect. His name was Barry Carmichael.
Barry was from the often maligned former colliery town of Blyth in south east Northumberland – as working class and as defined by years of industrial decline and governmental neglect as it gets, with all the social and economic issues that inevitably comes with.
By the time he reached high school, if you didn’t know Barry personally then you certainly knew of him, such was the reputation he had already begun to earn himself on the football field.
The comparisons with fellow enigmatic Geordie Gazza – in his imperious pomp at the time of Barry’s emergence – were obvious; his high-octane, all-action trickery and slaloming forward bursts brought numerous clubs from around the country beating a well-worn path to his front door in the hope of securing his signature on those schoolboy forms.
I went to a different school to Barry but whenever we came up against his team, we knew exactly who posed the greatest threat – not that we were equipped to do anything about it. It was only when we played together for Ashington Welfare Juniors did I have the pleasure – and relief – of playing in tandem with the insanely gifted forward.
I like to flatter myself that I was a decent player – indeed Barry and I attended trials at Sunderland at the same time – and while I was a pacy, direct winger-cum-striker with an eye for goal – my technical ability was limited compared to his, which was effortless bordering on breathtaking for one so young. If I was the ‘Kanchelskis’ (if you’ll allow me the indulgence this once) then he was ‘Cantona’; the genius, the catalyst, the conductor and unequivocally, the star. Whether intentional or not, rarely would you see Barry’s shirt collar turned down either.
Barry’s game bristled with the arrogance befitting one so gifted, and in many instances he was as frustrating to play alongside as he was as an opponent and like so many redheads, he had the devil in him on occasion on the pitch. He knew how to handle himself – coming from one of the roughest parts of town, he had to.
Physically, he was very average in both size and stature and was blessed with just enough pace to trouble any opponent, but it was his desire to show off his blatant technical superiority that usually got him to the ball first or propelled both himself and the ball through desperate, scything challenges of countless defenders.
A right footer, Barry was excellent on his left too and surprisingly good in the air. His first touch was usually enough to nullify his marker before unleashing an unstoppable, unerring howitzer into the net or, for the likes of me in the supporting cast at Ashington, slotting a perfectly weighted pass to feet or into space to run onto. In the days before assists were quantified by creators of online Fantasy Football games, Barry was supreme.
At 16, when I failed to earn a place in the youth ranks at Roker Park, I felt a degree of jealousy because he deservedly did. Very quickly I realised that this envy was really because I didn’t come anywhere close to being that good rather than any personal animosity towards Barry. He belonged at that level and I tried periodically to keep abreast of his progress, eager to hear of his development at Sunderland.
It came as a huge surprise – and disappointment – when he failed to make the grade on Wearside. Expectancy of a glittering career at the very pinnacle of English football was high, although the statistics prove just how difficult it is even for the most talented to make it right to the top of the game. Football is littered with tales of childhood wonderkids who fell by the wayside in pursuit of superstardom.
The reasons for that failure to fulfill his immense potential are many and varied and this piece is not really the appropriate place to discuss them.
In the 20 years since those days at Ashington, I’ve occasionally bumped into Barry both on and off the field. Local footballing encounters usually saw his team defeat mine – thanks, singularly, to his brilliance – Sunday league being entirely unworthy of some of the performances I saw him produce.
Latterly, for example, upon meeting and exchanging pleasantries in the town or in a supermarket, I would remark to my then girlfriend, now wife, about the lad I would always describe as ‘the best’.
Of course, his recent passing is most heartbreaking for his family, who our thoughts go out to on such a sad occasion. Thirty eight is no age at all.
But, such a tragic and premature loss encourages us to selfishly mourn for ourselves too and brings home our own sense of vulnerability and mortality. Sadly, none of us can remain 16 years old forever, however much we’d like to. Back then, Barry Carmichael had the football world at his feet and that’s how I’ll always prefer to remember him; as the slightly dishevelled, flame-haired whirlwind with the cheeky, mischievous grin and sharp tongue who could, and should, have been someone all of you knew by name and by deed.
Rest in peace, Baz.