Joey Barton: Just How Far Could the Troubled QPR Man Have Gone with a Level Head
Most football fans in England have heard of him; everybody who has will have a view.
You can't change how and where you're born. Some have better opportunities than others, and we all have to carve our destiny for ourselves.
By EPL standards, Barton has made himself into an able footballer. Not world class, but he has enough ability to influence a game and has an England call-up.
He was on City's books for 10 years after his Merseyside up-bringing. He had started with Everton's youth system, but he actually played for Liverpool when he was 14. Hard to believe that Notts Forest had also rejected him for being too small, as he is now almost 6' tall.
He's a bright lad as his famous literary Tweets indicate. He left school with 10 GCSEs, despite the tough challenges of his childhood. When he keeps his head, you can see that intelligence in his on-field play.
It is far too glib to say he should have been smarter in his life and in his football. For those who believe nurture is more powerful than nature and environment is critical, some lads like Barton would never have made anything of themselves and blamed their circumstances.
There is no excuse for violence on or off the pitch, but in much the same way that abused children sometimes grow up to be abusive adults, it can be very hard fighting innate anger when you've seen or experienced so much yourself growing up.
Barton wants to be heard and seen, but occasionally he ends up being felt—physically. He has twice been convicted of violence by courts and three times charged with violent conduct by the FA. The most recent was in that epic final match of the 2011/12 season against City.
For those who have a genuine wish that talented and troubled athletes in any sport ccould reform and make something of themselves, it has been disappointing to see Barton apparently unravel.
He had become a full-time professional for City in 2002. By early 2007, his club form had been impressive enough to earn him a full England call-up, despite public criticism of certain England players for releasing autobiographies after a failed World Cup campaign.
Then he criticised fellow City players only a couple of months later, for which he was fined by the club. Shock was to follow when, only days later, he assaulted teammate Ousmane Dabo. He ended up by being convicted both in court and by the FA.
Not surprisingly, City were prepared to let him go, but many were amazed when Newcastle paid £5.8 million to pick up his contract. Sam Allardyce and Barton clearly had a mutual admiration.
Joey spent four and a half seasons at Newcastle. It was, to say the least, a chequered period. Apart from the fact that he was eventually convicted of the Dabo assault, he had an unfortunate series of episodes on the field.
There is no doubt that he was rash at times, but opposition players sometimes seemed intent on winding him up. During his period at the club amid the furore over another assault charge, he admitted to being an alcoholic. Nevertheless, in a character reference, his former manager at City, Kevin Keegan was confident Barton could exhibit reform.
It is unlikely that Newcastle manager Alan Shearer would have agreed with this, nor many of his fellow professionals.
Given his record on and off the field of physical offences and verbal attacks, it is a testament to his footballing ability that so many managers have persevered with him. Yet again, despite Newcastle's willingness to let him go on a free, QPR not only picked him up, but made him captain.
We all know what happened after that. Barton's leadership culminated in what the FA regarded as three acts of violent conduct in that last City match. It seems clear that QPR explored the possibility of cancelling his contract, but they ended up in stripping him of the captaincy and fining him six weeks wages.
He was also warned that a future serious disciplinary breach would lead to his contract being cancelled.
Barton apologised but was excluded from the club's Asian tour. It is uncertain how much, if at all, he will feature in the coming season. He could be too much of a liability based on past behaviour, the catalogue of which we have by no means completely covered here.
How good could he have been?
Who knows? Originally a defensive player, he was converted into an attacking midfield while at City and scored 17 goals in just over 150 matches. He is intelligent, reads the game well and is an excellent passer, but he appears in conflict with his innate nature.
In 2004/05 based on Opta stats, he was the 10th best tackler in the Premier League, but during his time at City, he also received 39 yellow and three red cards.
Many players have been accused of being the dirtiest players in the game; at times Barton would have come close.
Sadly, it is academic to "if, but and whatever." Barton earned his England cap on merit. Despite his personal challenges and unacceptable behaviour on and off the pitch, he held down a contract at City for five years and at Newcastle for four.
He has been a match-winner and a match-saver; he can lead by example—sometimes for the benefit of his team, but too often to their detriment.
My opinion is that he is a better player than Lee Bowyer, also capped for England and who had trouble off the pitch and a poor disciplinary record on it.
There are few similar players to compare him with. Duncan Ferguson was a striker with four convictions for assault and a poor disciplinary record on the pitch. But Big Dunc was a fans' favourite, especially at Everton and Newcastle, and he was capped seven times for Scotland.
It would be somewhat sanctimonious to suggest that if Barton had applied his undoubted intelligence and creative mind appropriately on the pitch and in his personal life, he "could have been a contender."
Many of us have no idea what it's like to have a childhood like Barton's. Of course, some other people have similar challenges and make something of themselves.
The fact is that Barton hasn't fulfilled his potential. But in truth, that potential would have been mostly based on a work ethic, dedication and commitment.
Nobby Stiles had those similar characteristics and made himself into a World Cup-winning footballer and a fans' favourite at Old Trafford. Nobody would ever describe him as gifted and nor would they of Barton.
Wayne Rooney had a tough upbringing in Croxteth. He has had his occasional personal challenges but has become arguably the greatest English footballer of his generation. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher also made themselves into Liverpool and England stalwarts.
Who knows whether Barton might have fared better if David Moyes had pursued his initial interest in Barton while he was at City? He and Sir Alex Ferguson seem to be able to "make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
The jury is out, but sadly there are too many signs that Joey Barton was actually a fairly average footballer who made something of himself out of sheer hard work and dedication.
However, he has never seemed able rid himself of the demons that have, to varying degrees, plagued him both on and off the field.
The conclusion must therefore be that, while he might have become a good one-club man if a good manager had been able to tame him, he would never have raised himself to the highest class of either club or country.
Which all rather leaves his occasional criticism of fellow professionals as somewhat sanctimonious.
"Physician heal thyself."
Footnote: Joey Barton seems to fancy himself as something of a literary talent (and not just on Twitter!)
So did Muhammad Ali...but Ali had class...
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