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Keith Barker reflects on swapping sports before becoming a devastating bowler

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Keith Barker reflects on swapping sports before becoming a devastating bowler

In the end, Keith Barker never made it to the top of either of the two sports he played professionally.

Instead, as he contemplates his status as a County Championship player of 2022, Hampshire’s veteran all-rounder can enjoy being recognized as the best of the rest.

The international recognition that came at England age group levels as a teenage footballer may have eluded him but over the past 15 seasons, his consistency on the domestic scene has left him at the top of the dual first-class milestones: three wickets shy of 500 and eight of 5000 runs.

Keith Barker was a key player for Hampshire CCC but was once a professional footballer

Keith Barker was a key player for Hampshire CCC but was once a professional footballer

‘Maybe they are not looking for someone who is just steady. They want X-Factor,’ says the 36-year-old, throwing up the names of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood when considering why his cricketing numbers don’t merit an international call-up.

Talking Sportsmail with a sporting life that began as an aspiring striker at Blackburn Rovers, he revealed that the bumps he took in football fueled a cricket journey that began in 2008.

His natural footballing ability saw him feature for England Under-19s against Belgium in the 2004-05 season where he was a Premier League U-18 champion.

But he was a consistent performer rather than an exceptional one, and despite continuing until the age of 21, was managed by Graeme Souness and Mark Hughes, trained with Champions League winners and held up against the likes of Gareth Bale , Barker refers to an experience in a reserve team game at Aston Villa as his sliding door moment.

Given the opportunity by an errant back pass, the bobble forced Barker to take an unwanted extra touch before shooting. More importantly, the delay allowed a defender to make a last-ditch tackle and deflect the ball for a corner.

‘I was playing well that season, until then, and Alan Murray, the reserve team manager, said to me as we got on the bus home: ‘Oh, Keith. If you score that goal, your life will change forever. It doesn’t matter, make me some coffee.’ I was 17 and I thought I had missed my chance to do it.’

He never regained his trust. His first senior manager was Souness, one of the game’s notorious hard men.

‘I’m afraid of him. There’s only two players I know who don’t and that’s Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke because they’ve had such a great career, been at a great club in Manchester United and won the Champions League together,’ he said.

But when Hughes took over at Ewood Park it became clear there was no chance of breaking through. He did not make a first-team appearance at Rovers, farmed out to Rochdale, Cercle Brugge and Ireland’s St Patrick’s Athletic and eventually gave up when Northwich Victoria, where he had signed a short-term deal, effectively offered a fee – as-you-play renewal.

‘In football, you can be at one of the best clubs in the country, playing in the Premier League and then you get released and you might have to start all over again in the Conference or League Two,’ said Barker.

‘Eventually, I really felt I’d had a few too many kicks in the teeth, and I didn’t want to go on, so I went into cricket.’

When Mark Hughes took over at Blackburn - it became clear that Barker wasn't going to get through

When Mark Hughes took over at Blackburn – it became clear that Barker wasn’t going to get through

SportsmailDavid ‘Bumble’ Lloyd’s own recommended him to Warwickshire on the back of strong performances for Enfield in the Lancashire League. Afterwards, former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd – Barker’s godfather due to his friendship with his late father Keith senior – took over contract negotiations. Lancashire were unhappy with a player lured in 2009 by Warwickshire but their counter offer came too late.

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Bumble was contacted again in October when Barker picked up the Professional Cricketers’ Association MVP award as well as the Cricket Writers’ Club county player of the year.

He said congratulations and my family will be proud. I told him I appreciated it and that I’ve never said it before but thank you for giving me the opportunity,’ said Barker.

‘I’m lucky I got it because I’m not going anywhere. I work for ex-boyfriend’s dad, driving a van and putting up headboards in Malmaison hotels. There is literally nothing going on for me.’

Barker thanked Sportsmail's David 'Bumble' Lloyd for helping him get noticed in county cricket

Barker thanked Sportsmailof David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd for helping him get noticed in county cricket

Barker has maintained his ties to football, scouting for Aston Villa for several seasons until a few winters ago but is looking to his future beyond the two-year extension he recently signed at the Ageas Bowl in cricket.

A level-three coach, she does her own private work at Winchester College and supports Graeme Welch, her career mentor, in coaching some of England’s top women’s cricketers.

Arriving at Edgbaston as a bowling batsman, it was then bowling coach Welch who re-modelled his action to devastating effect.

The first of his 50-wicket first-class seasons came in 2012 when Warwickshire won the title. Ten years later, meeting ‘Pop’ Welch again in Hampshire, he still went strong, with 52 victims at 22.38 runs each.

‘I was licking my wounds from football but’ if I knew then what I know now,’ is something I’ve heard so many coaches say and so when Pop said it, I thought ‘why don’t I try to use his brain in my younger body?’ Younger men think they know it all or are just hard to hear sometimes, don’t they? I’m glad I listened.’

Now a father-of-two, Barker also reflects on his own father’s influence.

‘One of the things that was said in my assessment this year is how despite being a tail-ender I bat like a batsman, and that’s because I’ve always been brought up to think like that, and there’s a consequence that if i go out , I was in s***,’ he chuckles.

‘The rules are: when you hit, you get 50. Then, when you get 50, you get a hundred. And when you get a hundred, you don’t get out. At 10, I scored 122 and I thought the last ball of the innings was for a six. Crunch! The ball came off the toe of the bat and I was caught at mid-off.

‘As I walked, the children brought out the bats and gave me a bow. I was as happy as Larry, the parents were clapping but out of the corner of my eye I could see this huge black man, even though he was 60 years old, storming towards us, shouting: ‘What did I say to you?’ I stood up, bowed, everyone was surprised. But his lessons have helped me in my real life work.’

Credit for his accolades, he says, must be shared with fellow members of the Hampshire attack Kyle Abbott, Mohammad Abbas and James Fuller: ‘It’s always nice to get recognition but obviously you can’t do it in yourself.’

Barker said the credit should be shared with his bowling colleagues - including Mohammad Abbas

Barker said the credit should be shared with his bowling colleagues – including Mohammad Abbas