“Depending who you listen to Joey Barton is a footballer, ex-con, ranting anti-celebrity, “football’s philosopher king, loving dad and violent thug all rolled into one.” (joeybarton.com)
Barton has never been one to pull his punches – in every sense of the phrase – but his latest fracas at the Eithad Stadium on May 13 has perhaps threatened his career more so than ever before. The season begins on Saturday for everyone except the troubled midfielder whose 12-match ban may mean he never graces the Premier League again.
Barton is a lot like Marmite, he’s only used when all other options in your cupboard or rather squad are unavailable. Long gone are the days when he used to carve teams open for Manchester City, relishing in his role as both playmaker and midfield general. His transfers to Newcastle and Queens Park Rangers have been smeared with trials and tribulations and neither the tough love of Sam Allardyce or Neil Warnock have been able to improve his temperament.
During the summer it was announced that Barton would participate in pre-season training with Football League newcomers Fleetwood Town, a move that the player himself insisted would help “rediscover his love for game”. Whether this was indeed the case is entirely up for debate, I for one think it was further punishment for his Rambo approach to the last day of the season. Perhaps Mark Hughes was keen to give Barton a glimpse into his future should he continue to court with controversy.
Nevertheless the process was considered a success even though a proposed loan move never materialised. The League Two club praised his professionalism whilst Barton said he relished the “pure, old school, mortgage/livelihoods on the line, balls-out football.” There was even rumour of sessions with sports psychotherapist Steve Pope although I can’t see Barton lying on a coach unless he’s just tried to tackle it.
In the following days a loan move to Ian Holloway’s Blackpool spontaneously appeared in the tabloids but both parties labelled the story a complete fabrication. The Football League has since stepped in to announce that it would block any move to one of its clubs by refusing to register him whilst his ban remains. Officials are said to be unhappy with the attempts to reduce the impact of his FA punishment and believe it would bring the loan system into disrepute.
Many fans and personnel within the game have commended the Football League’s stance but I am confused as to why the ban wasn’t allocated a time period, similar to those given to Cantona and Ferdinand. In this instance there would have been no room for manoeuvre unless Barton was shipped to an area of the world that didn’t adhere to the Gregorian calendar. A loan stint abroad could now prove the only viable option but Barton is unlikely to want to distance himself from his young family.
With Barton due to celebrate his 30th birthday in September he is arguably entering into the prime period of his career. Surely his time in West London is the last chance to make a success of his career, especially having continued to alienate 99% of the footballing world with his impetuous, albeit refreshing outlook on the beautiful game. The introduction of tiki-taka and possession based tactics means that perhaps the Roy Keane’s and Patrick Vieira’s of this world no longer have the same inspiring impact. Barton will no doubt see himself in the same mould as the aforementioned midfield duo – he’s good enough to play for England after all – but I doubt his club share the same ‘us against the world’ mentality that he so easily adheres himself to.
QPR are in a fortunate position in that they can afford to support the financial burden regarding wages and his ongoing rehabilitation. However the flip side to this is that they can also afford to cancel his contract should the negative aspects of retaining Barton outweigh the positives. Therefore he must begin to prove himself useful off the pitch by working within the academy and ensuring his name is kept out of the headlines. I still don’t think he quite understands the level trust he has to regain, his actions after all could easily have cost QPR their place in the Premier League.
Ultimately Barton’s future will be decided by his manager Mark Hughes, a man who unsurprisingly has his own section on Barton’s official website that is littered with praise. Unless the Welshman oversees a vast clearout in the fortnight before the transfer window closes, the club will boast one of the most bulging and competitive squads in the league. If the new additions of Ji-Sung Park and Junior Hoilett ensure a promising start to the campaign then Barton will struggle to remain in contention for a first-team place come November.
There will always be managers, clubs and even chairman who are willing to gamble on a player like Joey Barton, which is perhaps why he’s always been picked up whilst drinking in the last-chance saloon. The mavericks and risk takers of this world will be convinced that they can liberate the talented footballer that’s locked deep inside. Whether we ever get to see that side of him again, remains to be seen.