Over the course of his professional career, Joey Barton has been on a rollercoaster ride of news headlines, breakdowns, and ashes of brilliance on the football eld. The turbulence of his career seems to have culminated in a level headedness and reflective nature which adds another new twist to the Joey Barton story so far.
I don’t know Joey Barton and I’d imagine very few really do, but at school I must have met a hundred lads like him. Boys who survived the rough, tough estates that made up the suburbs of Liverpool.
They all had something in common; mad as snakes, always up for a laugh, not knowing where the line was drawn, but dripping in ability with a football at their feet. All dreaming of playing for one or other of the Merseyside giants, only a few made that final push to the top and success was (more often than not) defined by their mentality.
They were mad as snakes, always up for a laugh, dripping in ability with a football at their feet and with dreams in common – playing for one or other of the Merseyside giants.
Joey Barton and Steven Gerrard were both born in Huyton, Liverpool. Huyton has the reputation of being one of the toughest council estates in the country, where it was said the kids ‘played tag with hatchets’. Despite coming from the same area, these two future pros could not have been more different.
At the tender age of nine years old they were both picked up by the big local clubs. Barton was taken on by Everton, and Gerrard by the red half of the city. Both players were small in stature. Gerrard missed out on a place at the coveted Lillishall Academy because he was ‘too small’ at the time, but excelled through Liverpool’s youth system and eventually matured into a dominant athlete.
Joey is built more like a typical Spanish mid fielder: agile and small. As the eldest of four boys he dreamt of making it as a pro player and looking after his family. His Dad was a hardworking roofer, but Joey knew that things wouldn’t change in a hurry for the Bartons on a roofer’s wages. Joey had the drive to succeed, imaging he could do it for his Dad and the rest of the family. However, when he was 14 Everton decided he was always going to be too small and let him go. At the same time his parents split up. With not one, but two seismic changes in his life, things could have gone very badly for young Joey.
Moving in with his grandparents (who lived on the same estate) saved him from other, potentially risky paths. When it got dark at night, Grandma Barton roamed the streets in search of her grandson and dragged him home for his own safety. Her in uence kept him away from drugs and in school. Smart as a whip, Barton breezed through and picked up 10 GCSEs.
During this time, Joey had a trial with Nottingham Forest which also proved fruitless after the club decided he was still too small to be a professional footballer.
Rejection can go either way, and in Joey’s case it made him more determined to prove his detractors wrong. Clawing your way out of a ‘sinkhole council estate’ (Joey’s words) where aggression ensured survival requires a certain mindset that can stay with you. The more people told him something couldn’t be done, the more resolute he became.
On reflection, Barton (now something of a disciple of Immanuel Kant), refers to himself as someone who ‘dares to think’. But, with an inquisitive mind and no identifiable reference points things can and will go wrong. In Joey’s mind, it became him against the world. This mindset is something which has never left him – taking him to some dark places and serving him well, in equal measure.
Joey eventually joined Manchester City who recognised something in the young midfielder and he made his way through the ranks, making his first- team debut at the age of 20.
After five years at Manchester City and four years at Newcastle United, in 2011 Barton joined QPR. Originally a hard- tackling defensive midfielder, Joey’s career is sprinkled with unsavoury incidents, but on the field he has been perpetrated against almost as often as he has been the perpetrator. Perhaps Joey gets a ‘bad rap’ because his reputation goes before him – and it sells papers. In fact mentally, Joey Barton the professional footballer appears to be unique; they say there is no more than a hair’s breadth between madness and genius.
Barton is no angel, never being blessed with the athletic attributes of his near neighbour Steven Gerrard. Joey worked with what he knew, had a learned mistrust of human nature and was an employee in an industry not known for its encouragement of emotional growth. This resulted in him concluding that for many years he was emotionally ‘stunted’.
Problems at QPR resulted in a season- long loan to Marseille in the French Ligue 1. Disenchanted by his now waning career in England, he admits he went there for the money, but discovered he loved the place and the whole experience of living abroad. Away from the maelstrom that is the Premier League, Joey enjoyed the more cerebral attitude toward football that he found in France. He flogged himself in training to the amusement of his teammates, but quickly discovered that he needed to work smarter not necessarily harder.
Once again, two events in quick succession resulted in profound changes in Barton’s life. He returned to England and discovered a mentor in his dying Grandfather. Joey was astounded by the warmth felt for his Grandfather by so many people whose lives he had affected. The other event was the birth of his own son.
The unconditional love for his young son and a desire to follow in his Grandfather’s footsteps and affect people in a positive way prompted Joey Barton’s evolution. Football was no longer all that mattered. He identified that the game and what it provided could now be a means to an end rather than the be all and end all.
Back at QPR, he stopped drinking and is now a recovering alcoholic. His weakness for alcohol fuelled his anger, and the angrier he got the more he drank. He has cut ties to people who’d socialised with him more for what he was rather than who he is, and he addressed his character flaws. Barton started working with Steve Black, a motivational speaker and coach who had worked with Jonny Wilkinson.
Barton says: “Working with Blackie, it is almost impossible for me not to be successful. He’s had such an impact on my life. I visualise stuff now. When I get out of the car on a match-day, I walk into this ‘bubble of no reaction’ that no one gets in, nobody. I don’t waste energy arguing with refs or other players. The analogy Blackie uses with me is like somebody’s knocking on your door with muddy boots on and you’ve got a nice, new cream carpet and I go ‘you’re not coming in mate’, and close the door in their face. I’m in control now. I’m empowered.”
Whilst the love of his parents, and his Dad in particular, remain undiminished, on reflection he never felt he was equipped with the tools to deal with life. The managers he came across never instilled suffcient confldence to allow him to relax and develop. The fear of failure sits with the manager too, and only a few have the patience to give their players the time required or even consider addressing social and emotional problems.
Barton has now enrolled in a Philosophy course at Roehampton University, but acknowledges that he still ‘gets up peoples noses’ and now riles the fellow students rather than the opposition. His constant questioning can turn an hour-long tutorial into two.
Although Joey’s mental exercise lends itself to reading the likes of Plato and Socrates, it’s doubtful they’ll feature in Harry Redknapp’s team talks anytime soon – not that Joey is a man to be deterred.
Joey Barton is 32 years old, at least that’s what his body tells him, and he believes he has three more years of top level football in him. In a typically disparaging, self-deprecating manner that is a Liverpudlian trait he acknowledges that losing a ‘yard of his pace’ won’t affect him as he never had any in the first place! He acknowledges that he is deceptively slow. His game is cleverly thought out, and his head has to make up for his lesser physical attributes.
It’s been a long journey from dysfunctional adolescent behaviour to Yoda of the English Premier League. From a fracas in McDonalds to wooing the Oxford University Union, it’s not a journey that he’d swap with any of his peers. Whilst the Gerrards and Michael Owens are role models for the majority on Merseyside, Barton considers himself a role model for the disaffected youth who he feels can relate to him.
Whilst the Gerrards and Michael Owens are role models for the majority on Merseyside, Barton considers himself a role model for the disaffected youth who he feels can relate to him.
He has strong opinions and is not averse to sharing them on social media but we shouldn’t chastise Joey for this. He genuinely enjoys engaging with the public and does this probably more so than any other footballer, although Rio Ferdinand would be a close second.
But what we all love about Joey Barton is his candour and that he tells it straight. Reputations mean nothing to him and he feels no need to maintain a pretence either in thought or deed and is not afraid to rattle a few cages.
You can smooth o the edges but you can’t take the ‘Liverpool out of the boy’. Put into context, where we both come from: ‘sticks and stones can break your bones but words will never hurt you’ and the insult (or ‘skit’ as we call it) is almost a term of endearment. It is certainly preferable to total indifference, which is the ultimate ‘put down’.
I grew up in an era when the antics of tennis player John McEnroe were considered outrageous and ever since he retired they’ve bemoaned the lack of genuine characters in the sport.
Joey Barton, like Rio Ferdinand has achieved his UEFA A Licence and wants to remain in the game and eventually manage rather than take the comfort of the TV pundit pathway.
Maybe it’s because we’re ‘cut from the same cloth’ but in Joey Barton, there is a vulnerability and openness that makes him easy to like. There is no doubt that he isn’t perfect, he will continue to be challenged – but he is loved, unconditionally, by those closest to him.
For now, enjoy him whilst you can, because you’ll miss him when he’s gone.