The part to be played by Ashley Barnes in City’s playoff push – because with 16 games to go, it feels safe to call it that – is as yet untold. So far, his season/City career has been a curious one.
He was David Wagner’s first signing of last summer and so was the first of the so-called Dad’s Army through the door – that small band of seasoned veterans brought in to help fortify the losing and lily-livered mentality of our Class of 2023.
Some were sceptical. The wisdom of signing someone on the downward curve of their career fitted neither the young-and-hungry profile nor that of someone of modest cost who would later have a resale value.
Barnes was clearly neither of those things, but he was someone who would take no prisoners and who would, hopefully, instill that same mentality in his new teammates.
And the very early signs were promising as Barnes found himself part of that two-pronged attack alongside (or just off the shoulder of) Josh Sargent.
As we know, it all started so well, with the ex-Burnley man front and centre of it all; leading the press, linking up well with Sargent, and, most importantly of all, being the everyone’s-favorite-uncle figure in the dressing room.
If an arm around the shoulder was needed, Barnes was the man. If some sage advice in the shell-like of a younger member of the squad was required, Big Ash was the go-to. If stern words were needed, Barnesy was the the boy. So too if some gentle cajoling was needed to coax the best out of a teammate.
He was all things to all people was Ashley Barnes. He even scored a couple of goals.
Four games into the season everything in the yellow and green garden appeared rosy, but disaster struck in the form of some torn ankle ligaments for Sargent in the away game at Huddersfield. He was to miss 20 games.
Without Sargent, Barnes’ effectiveness waned and he appeared a shadow of the player we saw in those opening weeks. And then three games after the American’s injury, our man of steel also picked up a (knee) ligament injury in the home defeat by Leicester.
Barnes would go on to miss nine league games during which time City won just twice.
The much-discussed ‘injury crisis’ was not a crisis as such – certainly not in terms of numbers – but it did deprive Wagner of two of his most influential players. Arguably the two most influential. And it wasn’t until the pair were finally reunited on the pitch that we started to look like a side capable of sustaining a playoff push. (Sometimes we still don’t.)
But minus the presence of Sargent, Barnes was (and is) largely ineffective and many questions were asked around the wisdom in accommodating someone in the side who was part player/part cheerleader/part referee but who wasn’t scoring goals.
I was one of those doubters. Barnes clearly had been a good player and had enjoyed a stellar career at the top level but at 34 years old did he still have the ability to influence games and those around him?
It didn’t look like it.
The fact the goals had dried up couldn’t have been lost on David Wagner but his faith in Barnes and his ability to influence those around him never wavered. Not once. Not even in his darkest hours when his job looked like it was on the line (even though we’ve since learned that it wasn’t).
Rarely did a starting XI not contain ‘A. Barnes’ but even if it did, his brief on the bench was rarely a watching one.
Still, the questions were asked but in the games where Sargent was either injured or having his recovery managed, Barnes was the go-to guy to lead the line. He did it at Anfield, so too at Portman Road, and several places in between.
And I still didn’t get it. The ball didn’t stick particularly well, he wasn’t especially effective in the air, he certainly wasn’t going to spin off his centre-back and run in behind, and still he didn’t score goals.
But roll the clock on to Saturday, February 3. About 4:20 pm.
Barnes gets the nod from Wagner and with City trailing 1-0 he comes on to replace Marcelino Nunez in a reshuffle that takes Gabriel Sara back to the double-pivot role alongside Kenny McLean.
Barnes is reunited with Sargent and resumes the role of a (kind of) 10 who plays in the space behind the American. His attacking instincts take him closer to Sargent than Sara had been.
And it worked. It clicked. Beautifully.
With his back to goal, Barnes’ touch was assured; he brought others into play; his first-time passes invariably found a yellow shirt, and, crucially, he was a nuisance in the Coventry box.
His involvement in both goals has been well documented but his layoff to Borja Sainz for the winning goal, where its perfect weight meant the Spaniard didn’t have to break stride, was a hidden gem. Only a 41-minute cameo it may have been, but it was by some way his finest contribution in the yellow shirt.
And in those 41 minutes, it became clear why.
He is not a long-term solution – Sydney van Hooijdonk carries that baton- and may not even play too many full 90s, but if Saturday is anything to go by, in the 16 cup finals to come, we may just see why Webber and Wagner were so keen to get him aboard.