7 APRIL 2013. Southend United’s first ever cup final at Wembley. The man leading out the team that day was left back Chris Barker, who had recovered from an achilles injury to take his place in the line-up selected by new manager Phil Brown.
Sheffield-born Chris was a solid and dependable defender, player of the year two years previously, who had arrived at Southend with the club in desperate need in the summer of 2010. He was a reassuring presence at a turbulent time, popular among fans despite counting Colchester among his former clubs, and respected enough among team mates to be named captain during Paul Sturrock’s reign.
On the 2nd of January 2020 it was announced that Chris Barker had died. He was 39.
He was described by those who knew him as a devoted family man, with a partner and a daughter of primary school age.
Chris arrived at Southend in that extraordinary summer. Initially playing on trial in a friendly at Eastbourne Borough, a deal was done to bring him in on loan from Plymouth ahead of the season opener against Stockport. He wore the iconic number 23 shirt and played initially at left back. The deal was made permanent on a free transfer later in the month, with Chris signing a two-year contract.
As the season wore on, Chris moved to centre half, and turned out to be the anchor in the back line which saw him partner Mark Phillips, Graham Coughlan or Bilel Mohsni. He made 47 appearances in that first season and was named the Shrimpers Trust Player of the Year.
The following season Chris again was a stalwart at the heart of the back four as Blues battled for promotion. Despite amassing 84 points, a late stutter cost Southend an automatic promotion place and the club had to settle for a place in the playoffs where they were defeated by Crewe Alexandra over two legs. Chris played 53 times in all competitions, heading what would turn out to be his only goal for the club in the second leg of that play-off clash at Roots Hall.
In his third season at Blues, the club’s league form was patchy but Chris remained a trustworthy presence in the back line, more often than not reverting to a left back role following the arrival of centre back Ryan Cresswell. His dogged attitude was typified by the JPT Area Final against Leyton Orient, where despite struggling with an injury that would keep him out for the whole of March he, alongside others in the depleted back line, helped Southend reach their first ever Wembley final.
Chris Barker made 142 appearances for Southend, and left the club in August 2013 at the age of 33. He played on for several years, surprising nobody by moving into coaching, initially at Aldershot Town, who he eventually took charge of in a player-manager capacity. He also had roles at Hereford and Weston Super Mare. His brother Richie Barker was a manager himself (currently assistant at Rotherham), and Chris always seemed intelligent and a good leader. In total, Chris made more than 500 professional appearances for Barnsley, Cardiff, QPR, Plymouth, Colchester, Southend and Aldershot.
At the time of his death he was working as an Academy coach for Forest Green and living in Cardiff, for whom he played more games than for any other club, impressing during the club’s spell in the Championship between 2002 and 2007. Tributes rang out from fans of all his clubs, all of whom respected his honesty, professionalism and consistency as a defender.
As recently as December, Chris gave an interview to Cardiff City’s matchday programme where he talked about his career and his time with the Bluebirds, and he returned to Southend earlier in the year when he took his Forest Green U18 side to Boots and Laces.
Chris Barker’s death is a harrowing reminder that nobody is immune to mental health issues. A stoic leader of men, the most dependable, consistent, reliable member of the playing squad on the pitch and a man who appeared thoughtful, rational and professional whenever he spoke off it. He will be missed by those that knew him and those that didn’t.
Rest in peace, Chris.
If you find yourself struggling with your own mental health, you are not weak and you are not alone. If you feel you can’t turn to a loved one for help then contact Mind ( https://www.mind.org.uk/ ) or The Samaritans on 116 123. Please be kind to yourself & don’t suffer in silence.