“Convicted thug”, “Lout”, “Disgrace”, “Animal”, these are some of the words that have been used to describe Joey Barton over the last few years. From drunken assaults off the pitch, to fights on the training ground, Barton has frequented the headlines of the newspapers of the last 8 years for all the wrong reasons. However, today I want to say something good about Joey Barton. You might have already lost patience with him. You might think I am mad. But I think people get Joey Barton all wrong, he can still offer a lot to the Premier League.
Football fans love to hate a bad-boy footballer. However, in Barton’s case there is not so much a pantomime villain as the likes of Robby Savage, but a genuine hatred. The difference between a Savage and a Barton, is Barton’s history, making him more villain than pantomime. This allows the media to really get stuck into him and be incredibly harsh on him.
Given the fact that Barton has been in prison, hit a pedestrian with his car, fought fans and players, and I can see where people’s hatred is coming from. But I reserve the right to respect Joey Barton this season, and here is why….
I think Abou Diaby reacted the way he did up at St James’ Park because it was Barton who made the tackle. Diaby clearly shares a preconception that people have against Barton; that he is a thuggish idiot. But if you actually listen to what he says in interviews, I would argue that not only is he remarkably eloquent for a footballer, but he is also intelligent and brave enough to say what he thinks.
Upon his England call-up, attention was brought to Barton because in an interview he criticised Gerrard and Lampard for ‘cashing in’ on ‘bullsh*t autobiographies’ that exploited their failure in the World Cup. Barton, was presented as arrogant and fame hungry, criticising established players when he was still to make his England debut.
But Barton was right. Footballers all-too-often release money spinning books, written by ghost writers that are nothing more than a season-long diary and not a creditable autobiography. (Incidentally, Wayne Rooney has already released 5, he is only 25. Come on Wayne). Steve Gerrard even admitted that Barton was right after the incident, the fact that Frank Lampard continues to hold a grudge says more about Lampard than it does about Barton.
Another time Barton was in the spotlight was when he criticised Alan Shearer for being a ‘sh*t manager’ and using ‘sh*t tactics’. This came at a bad time for Barton who had been sent off for a tackle late into a dead game against Liverpool. Shearer then banned Barton indefinitely, and Newcastle looked into terminating Barton’s contract. However, you cannot argue with the fact that Barton was spot-on in his criticism, again. Shearer was a dreadful manager.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, he is definitely not innocent. But he is not as bad as he is made out to be. His mistakes come mostly off the pitch not on it. Abou Diaby was wrong to assume that Barton’s tackle was malicious, more it was over-zealous and an embodiment of the passion of the man.
Barton has been honest about his mistakes and makes interesting points about modern footballers. He said that he was earning more a week at 20 than his whole family put together. This shows he was of a child’s mentality, living on a man’s wages. The point that Barton makes is that he never had to grow up. Agents and associates took care of mortgages, car insurance and all the difficult things that being an adult entails. Because of this Barton did not engage with real life for a large part of his early twenties. His honesty here highlights a problem that most young footballers suffer from due to over protection.
I am not defending some of the things Barton has done when drunk and on a night out, and I am not saying I would make him the Godfather to my kids, but I am defending the assumption that he is stupid, and I am defending the assumption he is a dirty player. He is hardly the first person to fight people on a night out, and he has said himself that where he is from it is ‘quite normal to get drunk and get in a fight’ occasionally.
I admit, he has not fully amended his ways; he has been involved with the homophobic provocation of Torres and a ‘punch’ on Morten Gamst Pedersen. But, these incidents aside, he has shown willingness to reform both on and off the pitch. For example, he has been teetotal for two years. Yes, occasionally he does stupid things, but this is more a case of his passion boiling over and not petulant behaviour like in the past. This year he has shown good self-control in the face of players who try to get the ‘red mist’ to descend by taunting and fouling him.
Barton, it seemed, was down and out after his prison sentence, and after his ruck with Shearer it seemed his career might be over. But this year he is on top form, he has a better tackle success rate (81%) than Scott Parker (77%) and Gareth Barry (76%), while having made only 2 less key passes than Cesc Fabregas (48) and Charlie Adam (45). He also has 6 assists and 4 goals. The man keeps bouncing back.
Despite what his critics think, he can be a role model, both to kids who have committed crimes, and to kids from a similar background. He has shown that a change in attitude is possible, and he has never given up on himself and is definitely on his way to becoming a reformed character.
His is not a fairy tale story of reform, and for that reason may not get the positive attention he deserves. But he shows the realistic side of transformation, and sends a much more ‘real-life’ message to those who would see him as a role model. He shows it takes time, that it is difficult and that there will be setbacks. But if you work hard enough at it, it is achievable.
I’m not telling you to like Joey Barton. If you want to hate him, go for it. But don’t under-estimate his value in demonstrating to young people that change is possible, and don’t under-estimate how well he has played this year.
You can share your appreciating of, or aversion to, Joey Barton with me on twitter @joeaustin8