Houston? It's not a problem: Giles Barnes thrives in 'appealing' MLS

Midfielder once tipped to be a Premier League star is starring for the Dynamo and says the US game 'has the potential to blow up'

I had a great Friday night out with Giles Barnes.

We were in a west London pub, Giles and me. I was sitting at a table in a corner near the bar, thrusting chips and lager into my face – imagine dozens of logs floating down a torrid river straight into the path of a giant sawmill. Only louder.

Barnes was dancing across the screen above my head. A thin, cocky figure in the white and black of Derby County, taunting Colchester United through the cigarette vapour and the alcoholic haze that comes with starting your third pint before half-time.

Inevitably, I do not recall much about the evening of 2 March 2007. But I remember the result, a 5-1 Derby win, because there are few experiences as pleasurable as sitting with your best friend while the team he loves is demolished in front of a live television audience. Not since Boudicca razed the town in AD 61 had Colchester been so comprehensively destroyed.

And I remember Barnes, because he was new and brilliant. But don't take my ale-addled word for it. Here are highlights from the Guardian's non-alcoholic match report:

… emphatic victory masterminded by the outstanding Giles Barnes … had a part in four of the Rams' five goals … Barnes providing the impetus for everything that was good about Derby's opening 45 minutes … wonderful solo strike … spot of showboating.

The slayer of Colchester was 18 years old, and he was being watched by Premier League clubs and talked about as a future England international. The Next Big Thing narrative was set. He had made his Derby debut the previous season, three weeks after his 17th birthday. No need to switch clubs to reach the top-flight: Barnes scored eight times in 46 games as Billy Davies' team won promotion via the play-offs.

But as the club went up, everything collapsed. Barnes created the winning goal in the Wembley play-off victory over West Bromwich Albion, but he also aggravated an ankle problem. He missed the start of the next season, then suffered a bad knee ligament injury in February 2008, shortly before Derby were relegated with a points total so humble it had you scanning the fine-print in the standings and searching for an asterisk, on the assumption that the club must have suffered a hefty deduction.

The injury was serious enough, and Barnes talented enough, for Derby to send him to Vail, Colorado, for cartilage-repairing microfracture surgery by Dr Richard Steadman, the knee expert who has treated such celebrities as Michael Owen, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Alessandro Del Piero. Rehabilitation was long and dull and included nine hours a day on a continuous passive motion machine, which constantly flexed Barnes' knee through a controlled motion range, forward and back, forward and back.

Twelve months earlier, he'd had the pace to dissolve defences, the touch to put the ball wherever he wanted. Now he was on crutches, shuffling like a pensioner, learning to walk again.

In December 2008, after a 10-month absence, Barnes returned to Derby's first team. The following month, he did this at Old Trafford in the League Cup. Eleven days later, on 31 January 2009, Barnes ascended to the Premier League again: on loan to Fulham, with a view to a permanent move. Under Roy Hodgson's management, Fulham were about to finish seventh. But Barnes partially ruptured an Achilles tendon and did not make a first-team appearance.

Hodgson decided not to spend a reported £2m to buy him. Back at Derby, Barnes completely ruptured the tendon during a pre-season friendly. A year that began with him joining one of the Premier League's best teams ended with him being released by Derby, his contract cancelled by "mutual consent".

In February 2010, he signed for West Brom. He played occasionally as they won promotion. In 2010-11 he made one league start and 13 substitute appearances – none after the club appointed Hodgson as Roberto Di Matteo's successor in February 2011 and Hodgson decided that a roaming attacker such as Barnes was not ideally suited for a relegation battle. A day before his 23rd birthday, on 4 August 2011, Barnes joined Doncaster Rovers. He made 36 appearances, scoring once, as the underdogs lived down to expectations and were relegated from the Championship.

And this is where a frustratingly familiar tale of exceptional potential thwarted by misfortune takes a kooky turn. In August last year, Barnes signed for the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, after a short trial.

So here we are at the training ground, two Londoners transplanted to Texas by work and an urge to shift the trajectories of our lives – and we're moaning about the weather. Barnes says: "As soon as we go for that jog around the field, clear skies, 100 degrees, wow. There's no breeze, it's as humid as you can get. It's like right, hour and a half of this, go home, go in the pool and then sleep. That's pretty much my days.

"The heat's always going to be something to try and get used to after living in England for 24 years of my life," he continues, "but I'm loving the experience and loving living over here. I just felt like I needed a change from everything and it was a close one whether to stay in Europe or come to America.

I had options in the Championship, League One, Italy. It was one of those things: what do I want to do? And at the time I came over, saw what we had here, spoke to [head coach Dominic Kinnear], spoke to [club president Chris Canetti] … the way they welcomed me it just felt right. Those were the key deciders in me coming over.

Along with trains, understatement and curry, football is one of the things Britain does better than America. Isn't Barnes worried that he will be forgotten by scouts and managers back home? That he's gone off the grid? After all, professional football is virtually the only context in which someone could move to the US and be accused of a lack of ambition.

"Not really," he says. "I don't think England's the be-all and end-all. I think some people, that's where they go wrong in their career because they don't want to experience new things. They don't want to challenge themselves in other places. I'm not one to preach but it was a good time for me to come out here and try something different and I'm enjoying it so far."

Barnes has the skill-set and mentality of one of those gnat-sized playmakers who flirt promiscuously across the final third of the field, but he is bigger, at 6ft, and bulkier than his younger self. "Things in your body change when you get injured," he says. "When you have the injuries that I had you have to learn to compensate with certain things.

"I was a lot quicker when I was younger, a lot, lot quicker. But I'm not slow now. You need to adapt your game. I feel fit, I feel strong, my knee feels good, ankle feels good. That's the main thing to me. As long as I can stay fit."

Mainly used as a second striker, he has started all but one of the Dynamo's MLS games so far this year, producing six goals – including a striking effort against Seattle at the weekend – and three assists. Off the field, he couldn't be nicer and seems genuinely happy. On it there are echoes of his teenage impudence and Premier League heritage, a self-assurance validated by the occasional spectacular goal and virtuoso pass.

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"There's a lot of things we like about Giles," says Steve Ralston, the Dynamo's assistant coach. "He's a guy who can score goals, set up things, he's good one-on one, he's a big strong guy, holds the ball pretty well."

This year, Houston added another 25-year-old who was once linked with leading Premier League clubs, until injuries struck: Andrew Driver, an Oldham-born former Heart of Midlothian winger. MLS is clearly still a seductive alternative to the English second tier for thirtysomethings – see Steven Caldwell, Kenny Miller, Robert Earnshaw and Andy O'Brien. But the presence of Driver and Barnes, especially at a medium-sized club in a blue-collar city, shows the progress of MLS: the league is catching up to the lifestyle. The pay is good enough, and the standard high enough, to persuade talented players in mid-career to cross the Atlantic.

Barnes and Driver are open to staying long term, but confident enough, given the league's reputation and profile, that they will be seen and offered the chance to return to Europe if their form merits it. MLS is a renaissance league, not a retirement league.

"In the scramble after the [English] season finished, boys haven't got clubs, my phone was ringing quite regularly," says Barnes. "I've even had agents ringing, [saying] 'Is there someone you can put me in touch with', blah blah blah. Some of them are profile, name players - there's Premier League guys. I had a phone call from one guy I'm not going to name who has played in the Premier League for six or seven years now. His contract is coming up, he wanted to come over to MLS and asked me what I thought.

It's very appealing to a lot of people. I think everyone realises what this league has got in potential, it's got the potential to blow up beyond what some people can even imagine. When it does, that's when the money will come.

Barnes and Driver scored fine goals against Stoke City in a charity match in Houston in July, Mark Hughes' first public game as Stoke manager. Barnes's late solo effort felt like ghostbusting: he ruptured his tendon against Stoke in that summer friendly four years earlier.

Asked about Barnes, Hughes trod delicately. "He was always viewed as a bright young prospect," said the former Manchester United striker and Manchester City manager. "It's a shame that he hasn't been able to, I think due to injuries more than anything, progress his career possibly as well as you probably would have hoped at times. He obviously has a good platform here to come again."

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But Barnes has already "come again". It does not matter where in the world or how many are watching, every game testifies to his determination to rebound from injuries that could have ended his career or poisoned his enthusiasm. "I'm just enjoying the opportunity of being able to play again and feel injury free and pain free," he says.

Whatever happened to Giles Barnes? He was one for the future, then he became defined by the unrealised promise of his past. Now, 5,000 miles from home, he finds himself in the best possible place, exactly where he needs to be: the present.

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