Gareth Barry may not have amassed the sheer weight of personal honours collected by the other members of the Premier League’s 600 club – Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard – but his role in Everton’s fifth consecutive victory suggests his career is far from over, even at the age of 35.
The England midfielder scored the equalising goal – every bit as controversial as the Middlesbrough opener that preceded it three minutes earlier – and turned in an influential performance, breaking up repeated Middlesbrough attacks and generally stamping his imprint on proceedings.
“He is very crucial to us,” said Everton manager Ronald Koeman of Barry after his 600th league appearance. “He’s not the big talker in the dressing room but his quality on the pitch, his cleverness on the pitch is there.
“If a team is paying compact and he doesn’t need to run a lot of distance, he’s still one of the best midfield players around.”
There was no faint praise in Koeman’s comments and Barry epitomises the new enthusiasm and optimism the Dutchman has brought to the club in a matter of weeks in charge.
“It’s been a fantastic start to the season, four wins in a row,” said Barry. “And getting a goal made today even more memorable.
“But we’ve got to have the attitude why can’t we win something. We had a new owner, a new manager over the summer, and it’s been a bright start for everyone. We need to set our sights high.”
An entertaining first half opened with two highly controversial goals inside the opening 23 minutes.
On 20 minutes, Alvaro Negredo rose to meet a George Friend cross, heading the ball out of the hands of Everton goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg although television replays clearly showed that he made contact only with his opponent’s arm and not the ball.
Everton supporters were still complaining about that injustice when referee Lee Mason gave the visiting fans cause for complaint of their own from a Kevin Mirallas corner which saw Boro keeper Victor Valdes fail to clear under pressure from a blatantly high challenge from Ashley Williams.
Perhaps predictably, Mason allowed play to continue and Barry, at a tight angle on the corner of the six-yard box, finished superbly for the 52nd goal of his distinguished career.
Barry’s 600th game leaves him behind only Giggs’ 632 appearances and Lampard’s 609 in the all-time Premier League standings and in this, the 20th season of his professional career, there is little sign as yet of the midfielder’s talents dulling.
Koeman certainly thought that way, replacing the veteran in injury-time in order for him to enjoy a standing ovation from an appreciative Goodison crowd.
By that stage, the outcome had long since been decided and, after a bright and breezy opening to the game, Aitor Karanka’s visitors must have been bemused as to how they trailed 3-1 at the interval.
The answer lay in uncertain defending and marking. On 41 minutes, Yannick Bolasie’s short, sharp pass was laid off by Romelu Lukaku, allowing full-back Seamus Coleman to surge square into the area and deposit a low shot into the bottom corner.
Just four minutes later, Everton’s fifth consecutive victory, and their best ever start to a Premier League campaign, was assured.
Bolasie showed great strength, and refusal to be knocked off the ball, outside the area and chipped in a perfect cross which Lukaku managed to convert with the faintest of touches past Valdes.
Everton showed the tactical acumen to kill off the game after the restart, Barry particularly influential in that role, and although Lukaku was forced off with a slight injury, there was also the consolation of Ross Barkley, having been openly criticised in midweek by Koeman, turning in a solid display.
“He’s not a young player any more,” said Koeman. “It’s his fourth or fifth season in the Premier League and he needs to take more responsibility. But when he shows the qualities he showed today, he is a very good player.”