Back in the summer of 2009, SHAUN BARKER signed for Championship side Derby County. Meanwhile, Burton Albion were celebrating a promotion that saw them reach the Football League for the first time in their history. Fast forward to the present day and the two teams are competing with each other in England’s second tier. However, Barker is now representing the Brewers after a four-and-a-half year layoff.
During a game between Derby and fierce rivals Nottingham Forest in March 2012, the defender went to clear the ball inside his own six-yard box but things didn’t go to plan. Goalkeeper and teammate Frankie Fielding collided with Barker, leaving him writhing in pain and clutching his knee. It was soon discovered that he had ruptured every ligament and tendon possible, but that didn’t defeat the no nonsense centre-back.
Following five operations and countless rehabilitation sessions, Barker graced the field again on the 26th of August 2016. This was deemed as a miracle by many, but he was adamant that his perseverance would pay off. It did.
Reflecting on the moment his comeback was complete against former club Derby, he said: “Making a return was huge for me after such a difficult period.
“I always believed I would play football again, I just needed a manager who had faith in that too. It was only really when Nigel (Clough) got the job at Burton that things sparked back into life.
“My testimonial was coming up and he asked me to come in and see Nick Fenton, a physio who has been a massive influence in ensuring I got fit for that game and the summer.
“After the latest operation, my knee felt good so I signed for the Brewers to give the gaffer another option. I didn’t sign with the expectancy of playing every week, but to make my return against Derby was incredible.
“I had worked tirelessly during my time on the sidelines and it felt surreal to be back out there, albeit only for a few minutes. That night is the greatest of my career without a shadow of a doubt.”
Stepping onto the grass after such a lengthy spell away from the game would be an emotional time for anybody, but Barker admits the realisation of what happened that night didn’t hit initially.
He said: “Only afterwards did it sink in, the occasion and what I had gone through to reach that stage. It took a while to process, but when it did, the appreciation I received from both sets of support overwhelmed me – it was a special time, that’s for sure.
“I didn’t even know I was on the bench until I turned up so it was a surprise. Derby had just won a corner and the gaffer called me up to go on. He just told me to head the ball and from that point onwards I was fully focused on the game. I did clear the danger and we held on to record what was a famous win for Burton Albion.”
Although he recognises that many people deserve acknowledgement for assisting him in prolonging his career, Barker maintains that Clough has been a pivotal character in ensuring that he is still playing.
“I think I would have called time on things if he didn’t want me here at Burton,” he said.
“The only way I was going to lace up my boots again was if I was playing under Nigel and that speaks volumes of what I think of him as a manager and as a person.
“He’s an honest guy and I admire that. When I signed for Derby, he explained the situation the club was in and that he wanted me to play a key role. He has always been truthful and that’s one of the reasons why I have followed him around, I know what to expect from him and vice-versa.
“Loyalty isn’t always displayed in football, but he’s shown it to me continuously and I can only thank him for giving me the opportunity to play in the Championship again.”
When Barker first linked up with Clough at Derby, he was assured that he would don the captain’s armband one day.
“Robbie Savage was the skipper during my first couple of years there and I was vice-captain,” he said.
“I won Player of the Year after my first season and the second was quite unique in the fact that I didn’t train. However, I played every game until we were mathematically safe and then I had an operation.
“Them kind of things were already in place before I was given the club captaincy. You have to be a certain kind of person to get that honour under Nigel and I relished the responsibility.
“With the injury, it would have been quite easy for anyone to let me go but he wanted to make sure I was central to everything, helping the lads in any way I could.
“He valued my input and acknowledged that I still had something to give. I owe him and the football club for allowing me to see the best specialists and make strides towards recovery.
“Being able to live a normal life was my first aim and they helped me to do that. I still struggle on a daily basis as my knee isn’t usual – ice and special physiotherapy is needed just to get through but I’m grateful to everyone that’s helped me get to the stage I’m at today.”
At the time of writing, Barker has made five appearances for the Brewers. Despite that, his name has featured regularly in the matchday squad, something he wasn’t expecting when he made the move to the Pirelli Stadium.
He said: “I’ve been involved with the team more than I probably anticipated, being on the bench for the majority of games. My time on the pitch has been limited, but I savour any chance I get to pull on a Burton shirt.
“The manager has asked me to support the lads on and off the field. He believes in having the right characters and good human beings around the place, so it’s nice for me to know my presence is valued.”
With the club attempting to fight off relegation in the Championship, Barker’s experience could be called upon in the final stages of the season. He believes that it would be a positive, however, if the manager doesn’t need to utilise his services.
“In a strange way, I’d be delighted if I didn’t get any more minutes,” he said.
“It would mean that the players are performing and the club is heading in the right direction. Whether I feature or not really depends on the lads and how they are handling games.
“The manager knows he can count on me, particularly in the latter stages of games, but we have a back four who have been doing exceptionally well. It will be difficult for me to work my way into the side.”
Football fans all over the globe have been interested in the meteoric rise of Burton Albion. Just eight years ago, the Pirelli Stadium was hosting Non-League fixtures as opposed to welcoming teams such as Newcastle United and Aston Villa.
Despite having a drastically smaller budget than most of their opponents, Albion are on course to retain their status in the second tier, something Barker says would be the “biggest achievement” the club has ever had.
He said: “Getting promoted from League One was remarkable in itself, so to stay up in this division would comfortably surpass all past honours, especially when you consider the stature and resources other clubs in the league have.
“The Chairman, Ben Robinson, deserves a huge amount of credit. He has built Burton Albion with a great deal of business sense and we are reaping the rewards. It’s quite a phenomenal story and we are desperate to add another chapter.”
Sitting in 19th place and three points above the bottom three, Barker remains confident that the Brewers can beat the drop.
He said: “We knew it was going to be tough at the start of the season, but the gaffer has been clever with who he has brought in – ones who are willing to roll their sleeves up and approach games head on.
“The smaller clubs tend to struggle due to squad size, and we have been down to the bare bones at times. January allowed us to bring in some more bodies and we look well equipped going into the final fixtures.
“Having a blend of youth and experience is important and I believe we have a perfect mix. Our performance levels, desire and attitude should be enough to get the points needed to get us across the line, but we’ve just got to remain focused.
“A lot will come down to mentality and how we deal with certain aspects, but hopefully everything falls into place.”
One club that Barker knows well having spent three years there, Blackpool, have endured a very contrasting recent history to that of Burton Albion. The Tangerines are now languishing in the fourth tier and supporters are choosing to boycott games due to off-field issues.
Looking at his former employers and their plight, Barker said: “It’s a crying shame to see them where they are. Having to witness the demise over the last few years is difficult as it’s a fantastic club with a real passion.
“Any player that ever pulled on a Blackpool shirt will be devastated because everyone I know loved their time there.
“Bloomfield Road only had two stands and the pitch was covered in sand when I played there, but we enjoyed some great times. It just goes to show that if clubs aren’t run efficiently, this sort of thing can happen.
“I’m just hoping that they can rise again soon, they deserve better.”
Barker’s decision to make the move from Blackpool to Derby County back in 2009 meant he missed out on being part of Ian Holloway’s promotion-winning team. Often asked about whether he has any regrets, Barker categorically says: “No, I’m not one for regrets at all.”
“I don’t regret putting my foot in for that challenge that kept me out for so long and I don’t regret leaving Blackpool.
“We had only just survived the season before and I had around a dozen clubs enquire about me. I felt that the opportunity to come back home to Derby and play for a club with such infrastructure was too good to turn down.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my three years on the coast, being on the top of my game and free of injury. Make no mistakes about it, it was a tough decision but the correct one at the time.
“Nobody would have guessed that they would get promoted to the Premier League, in fact they were tipped for relegation. I saw a lot of good friends play their part in that and I was delighted for them, but I didn’t have any second thoughts.”
Developing a very sensible approach to life was something Barker did at a young age, and he was always open-minded to challenges. As a child, he never intended to be a professional footballer.
Reminiscing about his ambitions, Barker said: “As a kid, I wanted to go to college or university and travel the world. Football was never my focus, I enjoyed having a kick about with my friends but that was it.
“My route into the game was strange really. I ended up signing for Rotherham Under 16s and I didn’t enjoy how professional you had to be, something which reduced the fun element.
“Although I never enjoyed it initially, I gave my all every day and that was enough to set me apart. I learned to defend quite quickly. Tackling was never something I feared and I loved an aerial challenge so it was natural for me to play there.
“It was only when I played a first team game that I began to understand the pressure and expectation – something I thrive under. That changed my thinking somewhat, and I got the opportunity to progress and make a career out of it because I performed.”
With regards to his future, Barker is undecided as to which road he wants to go down. His contract at Burton Albion expires in the summer, and much like his younger days, he is keeping his options open.
When asked if he would like to remain involved with the sport he has grown up playing, he said: “I have always thought that I would want to get out of football because there are definitely elements of it that I can’t wait to see the back of.
“However, there’s something about it that makes you consider sticking with it. I’ve never contemplated management or coaching, but I do have my UEFA B licence.
“If the chance arose then maybe I’d be interested, but it isn’t something I’m actively pursuing. Things just happen sometimes and I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ll never say never.”
You can follow Shaun Barker on Twitter @barks5 and you can find me @M_Roper96
If you enjoy my work, feel free to like my new facebook page: https://m.facebook.com/MattyRoperJournalism/