Joey Barton is often portrayed as a misguided genius. Like Vincent van Gough, capable of creating a masterpiece, yet also capable of cutting off his own ear to settle an argument – or in Barton’s case, the ear of one of his unfortunate team-mates.
Certainly, there’s no question Barton’s marketed himself towards the beautiful game’s hipster audience, quoting philosophers on Twitter, hanging out with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, and even verbally duelling with Britain’s political elite on Question time. The BBC once described him as “a philosophical sportsman to rival Eric Cantona in his heyday.”
Yet the sheer mention of Cantona in the same sentence as Barton is the exact driving force behind my grievance. Barton may be a clever fellow, he may have a genuine interest in politics, society and so forth, and his controversial comments may make entertaining reading.
But it has created the illusion of a brilliant footballer held back by his own indiscretions, as if the same phenomena that produced Barton’s ability on the pitch also manifested the demons that possessed him to stub out a cigar on an academy player’s eye, to commit actual bodily harm on teammate Ousmane Dabo in a training session, to instigate a raucous punch-up on the final day of the 2011/12 season when his club’s Premier League survival still hang in the balance, and to leave pretty much every club he’s been employed by on sour terms – the latest being Rangers.
Following a training ground bust up with Mark Warburton, Rangers have terminated Barton’s contract – apparently by mutual consent – adding the club to a list of burned bridges also including Manchester City and Newcastle United.
But don’t be fooled by Barton’s latest crime, the full details of which are yet to be revealed. He may be misguided, but he’s never been a genius. Far from it.
Take a look over Barton’s career. Consecutive six-goal campaigns at Manchester City, back when they were still a lower-mid table outfit, a solid final season at Newcastle after they’d gained promotion from the second tier and Championship promotion bids with QPR and Burnley are the closest Barton’s form has ever come to Cantona-esque levels or anyone of that ilk – which isn’t very close at all.
Barton has often suggested he should have been a regular for England and should have plied his trade with some of the Premier League’s top clubs, most notably Liverpool, adding to the myth that off-pitch incidents and the beautiful game’s growing reluctance towards the kind of mavericks ever-present during the 1980s and 1990s has somehow stifled his career.
But even in football’s increasingly corporate age, the cream still rises to the top. Barcelona still shelled out £75million on Luis Suarez despite him receiving three separate bans for biting opponents, Liverpool and Manchester City still invested considerable money and time into Mario Balotelli because of his natural ability, and John Terry continues to captain Chelsea four years after being publicly deemed a racist.
The truth is that football is still an incredibly amoral business, where clubs continue to sacrifice honest principles in search of results. Yet, no big club has ever deemed Barton worth the payoff and that’s not because of his knack of causing trouble and controversy – it’s because, when push comes to shove, he’s never been that good.
So don’t think of Barton as some working class messiah, as a tortured soul in a similar vein to Gazza or Eric Cantona, as a great talent marginalised by English football’s change in culture. He was, is and always will be an average central midfielder with a short temper and a large mouth. If anything, Barton’s indiscretions haven’t held him back; they’ve created the illusion of the 34-year-old being better than he actually is.
Retirement can’t come too early – but something tells me Barton the pundit will still be on our TV screens for some time yet, hyping more Barton propaganda and continuing to reverberate the fallacy that poor personal decisions cost him a glistening career.