Joey Barton comes of age and Gerard Houllier peers nervously at the drop zone as mid-table Newcastle United visit Aston Villa on Sunday.Barton, a controversial figure throughout his football career, will pull on the captain’s armband in place of the suspended Kevin Nolan for the Magpies’ trip to Villa Park.
The 28-year-old, as polarising a figure as there is in the English Premier League, seems a left-field choice to lead Newcastle, but manager Alan Pardew believes Barton has earned the opportunity.
“Everyone will be watching him to see how he handles it, but he deserves the chance to take on that responsibility – not just with his displays but also his behaviour,” Pardew told the Newcastle Journal.
“There is a maturity and a calmness about Joey and, apart from one mishap against Blackburn (when he punched Morten Gamst Pedersen), he has kept his control.”
While Barton-bashers may be keeping a close eye on how he deals with – or deals out – his added responsibility, Villa boss Houllier will be too busy watching the weekend’s results unfold.
Villa are 16th in the standings and two points above the bottom three, and could already be inside the drop zone by kickoff on Sunday depending on the results of fixtures involving fellow relegation battlers Wolverhampton, West Ham United and Blackpool.
Houllier was backed by the Villa board as early as this week, with chief executive Paul Faulkner declaring the Frenchman had ‘total support’ from the club.
But the same cannot be said of the supporters, who showered Houllier with vitriol after a 1-0 loss to Wolves in Villa’s last home match on March 19.
Houllier’s tenure is only going to come under increased scrutiny unless the club starts winning, and for that the manager will likely turn to Darren Bent.
The England striker became Villa’s record signing when he ditched Sunderland for a fee of 24 million pounds in January, and has scored five times in nine appearances for the Midlands club.
Should he score again on Sunday, he will become Villa’s joint top-scorer alongside Stewart Downing and Ashley Young.
Nolan shapes as Newcastle’s biggest absentee, but the Magpies could be boosted by the long-awaited debut of Stephen Ireland.
Jose Enrique and Leon Best are also a possibility to make Pardew’s squad after progressing well from hamstring and ankle injuries respectively.
Aston Villa have no fresh injury concerns.