As recently as 18 months ago, new Hibs loan signing Brandon Barker sat on the Manchester City substitutes’ bench alongside stellar names like Alex Kolarov, Raheem Sterling, Pablo Zabaleta and Fernando for a Premier League game away to Sunderland. The young winger was the only Mancunian and one of only three Englishmen – full internationalists Joe Hart and Sterling were the others – in Manuel Pellegrini’s matchday squad that night.
Earlier in the 2015/16 season, Barker, fresh from signing a bumper five-year contract at the start of the campaign, was on the bench for three of City’s Champions League group stage games – away to Borussia Moenchengladbach and both home and away to Sevilla. Although his only taste of first-team action thus far for his parent club came in a 33-minute substitute outing in a 5-1 FA Cup defeat away to Chelsea in February last year, the 20-year-old has already got closer than most of the talented youngsters in City’s academy to making the increasingly-formidable leap into the first-team fold.
“There are a lot of good players at Man City but he was definitely seen as the standout in the academy,” said James Horsfield, who came through the ranks with Barker at City and then spent part of last season on loan at Dutch club NAC Breda with him last season. “City gave him a five-year contract and he was on the bench about 12 or 13 times under Pellegrini, which is very rare for an academy boy at City. I really thought he was going to be the one to push through to the first team. He was flying at the time, probably the best prospect in the whole academy. He was very highly regarded.
“A lot of people were recognising him and he was becoming well known around Manchester. A young Manchester lad getting on the bench quite a lot – people had seen videos of him on Youtube and stuff like that and were excited for him. He was doing really well on the left wing and scoring a lot of goals in the reserves under Patrick Vieira. If he got a proper chance in the first team, I think he’d have done really well, but it just didn’t quite happen for him, in terms of bad luck and bad timing.”
Pellegrini’s departure last summer didn’t help Barker in his quest to make the breakthrough, particularly as his replacement, Pep Guardiola, subsequently declared a reluctance to turn to City’s academy players because he felt the development leagues in which they were playing did not adequately prepare them for the demands of being in the first team at one of the country’s elite clubs. The England Under-19 internationalist was duly farmed out to NAC Breda last season, along with Horsfield and current Hearts loanee Ashley Smith-Brown. Barker scored twice in 23 appearances – 16 from the start – as Breda secured promotion to Eredivisie, although his quality only shone through in glimpses.
“He had a few little injury problems in Holland and just couldn’t quite find his rhythm over here, but the fans could still see he had quality,” explained Horsfield, who has just signed permanently for Breda after leaving City this summer. “I remember sitting with Brandon in Holland, and a Breda fan came up to him and said ‘if you get yourself fit, you could be the next Arjen Robben’, so that gives you an idea of the standard of player we’re talking about.
“He’s technically very good, very skilful and very quick. If you asked him, he’d probably like to play in the No. 10 position, but he’s very effective on the wing. He’s right-footed but he tends to play on the left and cut in. He’s absolutely rapid, so he’s pretty hard to defend against. If he gets a run of games, he’ll get a lot of assists and a lot of goals. He just needs to play regular first-team football. He’s a very good player.”
Hibs today confirmed Barker’s arrival on a season-long loan. Horsfield is in no doubt that his boyhood friend – who is contracted to City until 2020 – can take the Scottish Premiership by storm if he is able to get a run of games under Neil Lennon. Barker will encounter some familiar faces from City’s academy during his time in Scotland, with Ellis Plummer (Motherwell), Smith-Brown (Hearts), Olivier Ntcham and, possibly, Patrick Roberts (both Celtic) heading north in search of regular game time.
“I think he’ll do very well in Scotland,” said the 21-year-old, also from Manchester. “I don’t see why he can’t go there and be regarded as one of the best players in the league because he’s definitely got it in his locker. If he can do well up there, it could open a lot of doors for him.
“When you’re at a club like Man City and you get to a certain age, you need to get out and get regular game time. You find that a lot of 18/19-year-olds are getting game time at League One and League Two clubs and they end up getting the big moves when they’re about 22/23, so the boys at City can end up falling behind them even though they’ve got loads of talent.
“At City, you find you’re having to go to places like Scotland and Holland to get top-level experience because in England, it’s only really League One and lower where they’re taking a chance on young lads. When you get to 20/21, it’s all about playing regular football, getting experience under your belt and getting noticed. Brandon’s 20 years old and he’s had a couple of loan spells at Rotherham and Breda, so it’ll be good for him to get up to Scotland and get more game time. If he gets a full injury-free season, you’ll see the best of him.
“He wants to prove to everyone how good a player he is. Once it clicks, people will be like ‘wow’. There’s a lot to come from him. I don’t think we’ve even seen half of what he can do yet. If it clicks for him at Hibs, I’m pretty confident that you’ll look back on this conversation and think, ‘yeah, that guy was right about him’.”