There are athletes whose careers become overshadowed by their bad behaviour, and there are frustrated athletes who become badly behaved people. But few boast an arc quite like Joey Barton, a man who has been a pumpjack of controversy since the earliest days of his football career.
Barton’s exploits have gone down in Premier League lore. He extinguished a cigar on a teammate’s eye, while dressed as Jimmy Savile; he brawled with a teenage Everton supporter in Thailand; he beat up teammate Ousmane Dabo; he ran over a pedestrian in Liverpool; he went to jail for assault and affray. When he tried to rebuild his career at Panama Papers-era QPR, he disgraced himself by trying to fight the entire Manchester City team during a crucial game on the last day of the 2011-12 season.
Even in an era where England internationals went on the lash before games and players regularly had tear-ups in the tunnel, Barton stood out. He was football’s Ty Cobb, the perpetual tearaway, the bridge-burner general, an emotional IED. He was, as fans and foes alike will say, a total nightmare.
But as his playing career began to dwindle, Barton segued into an unlikely second act, reinventing himself as a misunderstood savant; quoting George Orwell, posting Morrissey lyrics on Twitter, appearing on Question Time, speaking up against homophobia and austerity. For a moment “Barton the thug” became “Barton the flawed nearly-man of English football”. He had eyes on becoming something of a Championship Cantona, a violent footballing philosopher. One publication I worked for back then even flirted with giving him a column. But that time, when he was on the verge of acceptance to the liberal media-sphere, feels like an eternity ago now.
People lost interest. It’s hard to say what exactly did for Barton. Was it comparing British party politics to “four ugly” girls on that Question Time appearance? Or calling the Brazilian defender Thiago Silva an “overweight ladyboy” on Twitter? Ever since, he’s been slide-tackling into the abyss. A late career stint at Burnley ended when he was convicted of betting on matches and received a ban that ended his time as a player. As manager of Fleetwood Town he was charged (and cleared) of committing actual bodily harm against the Barnsley coach Daniel Stendel. Last year he had a domestic assault charge against him dropped.
Impressively, he has tanked his reputation even further over the past week. Barton has been waging an enraged and confused war against female pundits who cover the men’s game. The likes of Alex Scott and Eni Aluko have become fixtures in football media, but Barton believes this is all a case of tokenism, of affirmative action and “wokery”. He stated that “the British, white, middle aged men [sic] is under attack”.
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Instead of backtracking (as the footballer and Talksport presenter Jason Cundy did after saying similar), Barton has been taking on all-comers as Barton always did, calling people “eunuchs” and making bizarre allusions to being a kind of anti-woke Batman. It’s a far cry from the man who was lauded for his appearance on the 2017 BBC documentary Forbidden Games (about the footballer Justin Fashanu and homophobia in football) but Barton has always had a self-destruct button under his pea coat.
Barton remains a grimly relatable figure. His ranting will be instantly recognisable to anyone who still logs into Facebook from time to time. It recalls all the one-man campaigns fought by the divorced and disenfranchised blokes of Zucker-land, the men who happily air their dirty laundry in public, taking ever-more niche and anti-social stances about the licence fee, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, child services and every other figure of change or authority they can find – arguing with local liberals, alienating their nieces and nephews, and ruining Christmas, again.
It doesn’t take a doctorate of psychology to suppose that Barton is transferring the worst habit of his playing days online. He is lashing out at this total non-issue, just as he spent his playing career lashing out at referees, at teammates, opponents, fans, club owners, at the FA and “the football establishment”. It’s just that social media has replaced nightclub car parks and Loftus Road as the primary arena for his rage.
Barton is not an unintelligent man, but seems both keenly aware, and staggeringly oblivious, of what he’s doing. He flits between knowing and not knowing, across tongue-in-cheek and spitting bile. He appears on long, meandering podcasts atoning for all his sins, talking about becoming a better person, before suddenly flipping out and doing something bizarre and aggressive.
His personality is perfect for a certain section of the internet, with channels like Anything Goes with James English and Dapper Laughs’ Menace to Sobriety giving platforms to prominently “troubled” men who veer between detailed (and often glamourised) accounts of their misdeeds and hand-wringing redemption moments. Barton is a man with an increasingly common affliction.
His autobiography No Nonsense – which I read once in the doldrums period between Christmas and New Year – is the perfect summation of this, and a glimpse into an astonishing egotism. Barton is never quite sure whether he has to apologise for his actions, or if he’s done nothing wrong in the first place. He’s sorry for hurting people, but most of them deserved it anyway. The publication of this myopic and one-sided account also seemed to have coincided with the end of his media career, but it does seem strangely ahead of its time.
Barton is the perfect symbol of misplaced British male rage. A man who certainly wasn’t handed the best card in life, who made a lot of mistakes as a young footballer, but one who ultimately refuses to grow in any meaningful way, and instead exploits his notoriety while pulling off an act of cloying, half-hearted contrition.
But what’s most disappointing about his actions is that he is, essentially, defending people who never gave him the time of day. Barton, the child of a broken home on a Huyton estate on Merseyside, was always derided as a lout and an idiot by football’s blazer ’n’ badge men. He was banned by the FA, derided by the tabloids, condemned on Match of the Day, but now he’s defending the institutions to the hilt in embarrassing fashion. It works on the same logic as statue-defending or Farage-admiring. Barton is disgracing himself for an old world that never had a place for him in it.
Still, in the era of Piers Morgan Uncensored on TalkTV, GB News and the infinite genre of macho ex-sportsman podcasts, there is always a job for the angry and deluded British man. Barton wanted to be Cantona. Instead he’s become Richard Keys.