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Monday, 18 July 2011

The Empty Room #1 - Joey Barton

This Charming Man

There aren’t many footballers whose very mention polarises opinion as much as Joey Barton. Barton made his reputation at Manchester City, under the tutelage of manager Kevin Keegan, who brought him into the first team in the 2002-3 season. The following season, Barton established himself as a first team regular, playing 39 games and scoring one goal. He was voted fans’ Young Player of the Year in 2004. It was off the pitch that Barton really began to make a name for himself. The well documented incidents of ill-discipline including stubbing a cigar out in a youth player’s eye (To be fair, Jamie Tandy had been trying to set fire to Barton’s shirt) and then attacking a 15 year old fan in Thailand (To be fair, oh no – that’s inexcusable). Around this time, Joey Barton to his credit had a good hard look at himself. He’s been involved with Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic, and admitted that he’s an alcoholic. Heaven knows, he was miserable then. He resolved to turn himself around, and again started making the news in terms of being a footballer, rather than a thug. Sadly, it seems that Joey was having a hard time putting the behavioural tools learnt at the sporting Chance clinic into action. He believed that he was able to control himself, and in that regard he’s proven himself wrong time and time again.
Since his big money move to Newcastle, if anything Joey Barton’s off-field problems have escalated. A drunken assault in Liverpool town centre led to the talented midfielder serving some time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and during his time inside, he was charged by the FA for a training ground bust-up that led to Ousmane Dabo needing hospital treatment. He was banned for six games, with another six game suspended sentence. A suspended suspension, if you will (To be fair, Dabo had probably really really upset him, and he’s just got one of those faces, you know?).

Barton gave up the drink, and has been teetotal for a number of years now. However, his temper never went away, and during a game against Blackburn he was seen on television replays to punch Morten Gamst Pedersen in the chest. Another three game ban duly followed. Clearly alcohol had merely relaxed his inhibitions and allowed his true character to reveal itself. Even having stopped drinking, he couldn’t find a way to stop the violence. He found out that he’s still ill.

Modern footballers enjoy huge wages and high profile lives, Joey Barton realised that his talent at football gave him a responsibility to address his behaviour, and he has spoken candidly about the issue of anger management. It is hard to deny your own nature though, these things take time, and it’s to his credit that he’s stopped drinking and tried to sort out his behaviour. The high wages and profile also offer him opportunities to reform, but so far he’s had trouble making it stick. Perhaps because he is a successful footballer, not in terms of achievements-  his only medal to date being a Championship medal during Newcastle’s title winning promotion season back into the premiership, but in terms of money earned at least, he’s doing very well.

Never one to shy away from publicity, these days it’s Joey’s mouth which gets him noticed the most. His claim to be the best English midfielder isn’t shared by the national team coach, or many others in the game for that matter. He has since tried to back himself up on that claim, asking who performed better than him in his position last campaign. He plays in central midfield, or on the right side of midfield, but this isn’t an article on Scott Parker, or Ashley Young, or Stewart Downing, or Frank Lampard, or Steven Gerrard, or even James Milner – so there’s no need to mention any of those players.

He’s currently in a bit of contract wrangling with Newcastle, it seems that he’s not impressed with the sale of star players such as Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan. You can’t really blame the Newcastle board for accepting such an astronomical fee as that offered by Liverpool for Carroll, but the departure of club captain Nolan to a Championship side seems like a very poor decision.

So it’s fair to say that Joey’s certainly not short on self-importance, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a footballer – perhaps not so much a midfielder, but that’s being unfair – he is a remarkable football player. Perhaps it’s noteworthy to have earned a full England call up despite himself and the long list of misdemeanours he carries with him.

Recently, Joey has been busy making re-inventing himself on twitter. Who would’ve thought that such an impulsively violent alcoholic would’ve been a fan of The Smiths? It’s like hearing that Stalin wrote nursery rhymes. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration – it’s like hearing Stalin was quite a nice guy, perhaps.

One of the more remarkable transfer rumours was one that linked Barton with a move to Arsenal. People mocked, people scoffed - many Arsenal fans recoiled in terror. But would that be such a bad move? It would give Barton the chance to win a few more medals, and in truth it would probably give Arsenal a better chance of winning something too. One of the main criticisms of Arsenal is that they lack strength, lack a bit of bite in the midfield. However, Joey scotched these rumours himself, there's a fair bit of bad blood (Who would've thought?) between himself and a few Arsenal players, notably Diaby and Nasri. It would actually be a very good signing for the gooners. There's certainly a very strong shout for Barton to be involved in the England squad. The best English midfielder is perhaps pushing it, but if Capello had any balls he's dump Gerrard and Lampard and find a way to have Barton in the midfield alongside Wilshere.

There’s still the bravado, still the anger simmering just beneath the surface. But through the medium of social networking, Joey Barton has confounded critics who thought he was an uncultured thug, kicking his way from one controversy to the next. He’s done a bit of globe-trotting, he’s interested in fashion and music, and he’s managed to get through the whole summer without punching anyone in the face twenty times. Joey Barton is very much a sweet and tender hooligan these days.

But, and stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, he could still start a fight in an empty room.

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