‘The old me would have lamped someone’ – inside the intriguing world of Joey Barton
Bans, jail time and a thoughtful philosophy have all been part of the midfielder’s career
Joey Barton: “You can’t be honest in football. Honesty is seen as weakness because of the fickle, showbiz nature of the industry.” Photo: Getty Images
After a week in which he has been reported as missing, banished from his club and smeared all over the internet in another overheated football story, Joey Barton should look miserable. He has also just written a book in which he confronts his brutal past with an unflinching gaze. Over the years Barton has been imprisoned, banned, deported and mocked for his attempts to educate and improve himself.
The latest vortex unfurls in Glasgow where Barton, surprisingly, is calm and amiable. But he retains his old verbal swagger. “The tallest trees catch the most wind,” he says with a little smile. “That comes with the territory of being me.”
Ten days ago cackling Celtic fans had called the police to report a missing person. His name was Joseph Barton and the new Rangers signing had last been seen “in the pocket of Scott Brown” – the Celtic captain, who led the champions to a 5-1 thrashing of their bitter rivals in the first Old Firm league match in four years.
His future at Rangers has since been pushed to the brink. Last Tuesday Barton was involved in another “training ground bust-up”, a familiar routine in a turbulent career, after he and his team-mate Andy Halliday became embroiled in a heated disagreement over Rangers’ performance. Only Barton was disciplined by Rangers’ manager, Mark Warburton, who ordered him to stay away from the club for six days – so he could “re-evaluate” his behaviour before returning on Monday.
Barton issued a statement on Twitter, stressing that he would like to “apologise unreservedly” after “some of the things I said were inappropriate”. But he soon tweeted again: “Apologising doesn’t always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right.” He phoned TalkSport the following morning and said he did not feel he needed to apologise for anything – affirming his commitment to Rangers and conceding that “maybe I could communicate better”. The midfielder met Warburton and the Rangers hierarchy on Monday morning and accepted a three-week suspension from the club. Warbuton said that all parties “need time and space” and that neither Rangers nor Barton would comment further.
Amid such tumult Barton’s compelling autobiography is even more striking. In person he sounds polite when mentioning his “indiscretions” and “misdemeanours” – but the book, co-written with the authoritative Michael Calvin, probes the dark undertow of Barton’s past. It becomes easier to understand an intelligent footballer whose intense character has fluctuated so often between volatility and vulnerability and led him across terrain far more distressing than his current problems in Glasgow. As Barton says soon after we sat down together last week: “Someone with my character is a borderline kamikaze pilot.”
Ten years ago even the Celtic fans’ comic calls to the police would have wounded him terribly. “Of course,” Barton says, “if you’re emotionally vulnerable it would do. There are still days when stuff penetrates. I’m not a robot. But the way I communicate means I polarise people. I also accept there will be people who want to see me fall flat on my face. I don’t fear failure. I just say: ‘Make bold statements and work towards them. Say you are going to be the best player in the league and work towards it. Don’t come in and play it down. Be bold.’”
Barton explains how he was encouraged by his mentor, Peter Kay, to believe in his intelligence, and develop it, as a way of shaking off his low self-esteem. Kay, who co-founded with Tony Adams the charity Sporting Chance to help troubled sportsmen, had a profound impact on Barton. “Peter saw the good in me long before I did because, until I met him, I just thought: ‘Fuck the world.’ I had ‘Fuck off’ stamped on my forehead and thought: ‘Nah, I’m not going to take a backward step.’
“After we got pasted 5-1 the old me would have lamped someone. But I went round and shook everyone’s hand. It was important to look [Celtic]in the eye and say: ‘Well played.’ We got pumped 5-1 in the biggest game in this country but there are going to be days when you have to say: ‘You know what? He was better than me today.’”
Barton insists that his crisis at Rangers can be resolved. “I’ve been in tighter situations than this and turned it around. If it works out … fantastic. If it doesn’t, we’re all grown men. But we can sort it out. We can dust ourselves down and go again.”
Barton is a pantomime villain again in Glasgow. He is a driven character and his passion can resemble a kind of fury that, he says, stems from the fact “I care about the clubs I play for”.
He says: “I care about what I do. I’ve always cared about what I’ve contributed even if I’ve not been fully understood at the time. I care deeply. It’s probably my biggest curse. I care too much. Some of my issues at Rangers are because I care. I am trying to offer solutions to make things better and people are hit with the truth.”
Diplomacy and self-effacement have not featured much since he turned up in Glasgow two months ago. “I’ve come up making a bold statement about the champions of Scotland – saying we can overthrow them. I’ve said that the retired captain of Scotland [Brown]is not actually that good. I don’t think he’s in the same league as me. People have gone bang [Barton smacks his fist into his palm]. They are waiting for me to fall. I had to hit the ground playing like Lionel Messi to stand any chance.”
Barton smiles ruefully. “I’ve never played like Messi in my career. So we’ve got the introspection of the media up here – and on the other side you’ve got someone as strong-headed as me, someone who knows their profession deeply. Football is my art form and I’ve gone: ‘OK. This is not the worst painting I’ve ever done. It’s not vintage but it’s not the worst.’ I’ve got people who I don’t think have seen any decent art in I don’t know however many years critiquing me. Now everything in me wants to go: ‘What the fuck do you know?’
“But, after Celtic, I’m having to sit here and take it on the chin – however unjust I feel that is. It’s difficult when I’m playing at a level which, clearly, I’ve not played at before. It’s a much lower level and I’m trying to help people get to a higher level. They think me helping is me trying to say: ‘You’re not good enough.’ It’s difficult.”
Away from the hothouse, amid banishment from Rangers, there is renewed introspection in Barton. “I find myself walking around and looking down, trying to avoid eye contact with people. I keep a journal and I’ve been reflecting on that. The difficulty is that if someone is looking for conflict I won’t shy away from it – ever. So I’m avoiding giving anyone the opportunity.”
Barton was Burnley’s player of the year last season, when he helped them to win the Championship and promotion to the Premier League under a manager, Sean Dyche, whom he likes and respects. He was offered a two-year contract at Turf Moor that was far more lucrative than the offer from Rangers – but Barton thinks differently to the archetypal modern footballer.
“I felt it had run its course,” he says of his time at Burnley. “I needed another challenge, another experience, even though there have been days since then when I’ve thought: ‘Why? Why did I do that?’ But I’ve got to believe in Rangers even if it’s been much harder than I expected.”
Barton takes a bite out of a mid-afternoon sandwich in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Bearsden, six miles from the centre of Glasgow, and thinks about his move. “Knowing what I know now?” he says, chewing thoughtfully. “Reflecting on it, would I have made the same decision? Probably not. I’ve even been honest with people about that. There is an honesty that I am operating which means some people think I’m critiquing them. But I know that in time it will turn out to be the right decision. As tough as it is, adversity brings out the best in you.
“This is a country of five million people and pretty much all anyone cares about is Rangers and Celtic. Of course there is a small periphery who don’t. In England that’s diluted by 20 clubs. I’ve come up and I’m the Englishman – and there is the England-Scotland rivalry.”
Barton laughs, with a touch of self-mockery. “If everyone just listened to me it would be fine. Look, everyone is really emotional about Rangers and Celtic up here. But when you’re tasked with being a leader, if you make emotional decisions you tend to make the wrong decisions. This is the way it is and, listen, if you don’t like it there is always the option to say: ‘Hey, I’ve had enough. It’s not as if someone is holding a sword to my throat and I’ve got no way out. Fucking hell, this is tiddlywinks compared to what I’ve been through in life.”
The list of problems in Barton’s career is long. He covers each in his book from stubbing out a cigar in Jamie Tandy’s eye after the youth player attempted to set fire to Barton’s shirt at Manchester City’s Christmas party in 2004 to being jailed for six months in 2008 after he assaulted a teenager in a drunken brawl in Liverpool. Barton was also fined £100,000 for punching his City team-mate Ousmane Dabo in 2007 and two years earlier was sent home from a tour in Thailand after he assaulted a young Everton fan who had kicked him. That incident was followed, the next day, by his horrified discovery that his brother, Michael, was on the run after the murder of an innocent young black man called Anthony Walker.
Michael Barton was eventually sentenced to 17 years in prison. Their cousin, Paul, received a 23-year sentence for a racially motivated killing. In his book, Barton’s shame is profound. “There were times when I was crying because there is stuff that someone like me tries to compartmentalise,” Barton says.
“Even getting through the process of my brother’s murder trial, I had to face emotions I had boxed away, even stuff to do with my own indiscretions. These are like childhood memories which, good or bad, made you who you are. The experiences of the place where you grew up, good or bad, have made you the person you are today.
“The way I am now is because of everything that has gone before. I know I’ve fucked up, I know I’ve been public enemy No1. I can’t change that but I have long wanted to make a positive contribution.”
His own time in jail initially terrified him but, then, Barton realised he was imprisoned even more by the constraints of his muddled mind. “I never thought I would end up in prison, even at the peak of my misdemeanours. I thought: ‘I’m not a criminal. All I’ve been doing is going out drinking, having a scrap. It’s what lads do.’ There was shock at first: ‘Oh shit, you are going in there.’ But I am also capable of being very analytical and I prepared myself for prison. I used my time positively.”
Barton, the second footballer to have appeared on Question Time, has thought deeply about the flaws in the prison system but he acknowledges he also began to change for the better once he had been made to confront the severity of his mistakes. He also learned not to blame his tough past in Liverpool – on the St John’s council estate in Huyton.
Bleak incidents of violence and drug-taking surrounded him as a boy. When he was bitten by an alsatian his dad, Joseph, hunted down the dog. In front of the animal’s owner, he drove over the dog, twice, to ensure its death. It was “the St John’s way”. One of the few lessons his father handed down to him centred on the technique, in a street fight, of holding a man’s neck while punching him to ensure victory.
“Without wanting to critique his parental skills, he was preparing me for the world he thought I’d face,” Barton says of his father. “It was his world. It’s a world where you need a skillset that isn’t the same if you’re going to Eton and becoming an MP. At 24 I felt he’d let me down. But now, through more mature eyes, I can see he did the best he could.
“And if I had been given a more well-rounded approach I wouldn’t have ended up in the Premier League. If you look at the socio-economic backgrounds of most footballers they come from certain parts of town. But I’m not going to bastardise the place I come from. It’s made me who I am. Good and bad. It’s given me some character flaws but it’s also made a great part of my character.”
Barton argues: “You can’t be honest in football. Honesty is seen as weakness because of the fickle, showbiz nature of the industry. Whether it’s to do with mental illness or just being human the thinking is: ‘You’re a footballer – how can you be sad or vulnerable? You’re on X thousand pounds a week. How dare you feel like a human being?’”
Barton is even more scathing towards those who run the modern game. “Football is immoral. It’s an immoral industry. The way it treats young people is immoral. The way it deals with players as commodities is immoral. The way it dismisses people who have been in a job so long is immoral. The argument goes: ‘Oh, they’ve been compensated. That’s the nature of the industry.’ But it’s horrible and immoral.
“We’re on a collision course for something disastrous. Football is now a bull market. The last TV deal, the next TV deal … at some point that’s going to go and what’s left? We’ve seen it with football clubs in Scotland. There has been an Armageddon. Rangers had decades of overspending. What’s left afterwards? Who picks up the pieces? The fans, people in the community. Football clubs represent the community and just look at how much money is going away from the grassroots. It’s wrong. It’s immoral.”
Barton skewers Mike Ashley, Newcastle United’s owner, with a simple story. When Barton was released from prison on bail he was placed in the care of Peter Kay in Southampton – and only allowed out between 7am and 7pm. Kay had convinced the judge that, while he would counsel Barton, the footballer would be more balanced if he played the game he loved.
“Ashley offered me his helicopter,” Barton remembers, “as my curfew meant Pete and I needed to fly to and from training in Newcastle. It seemed really generous until I got an eye-boggling invoice. It was business after all.”
Barton might be repeating his old mistakes at Rangers. But, as his book reveals, few people know that Celtic tried to entice him away once they knew Rangers were close to signing him. “I was never going to change my mind and let down Rangers,” Barton says now. “So I wonder how that will play out when people hear about it.”
The situation at Ibrox appears dire and Barton’s future in Glasgow will be tested again during his suspension. But last week he sounded optimistic despite the storm. He sounded hopeful of a resolution. “I’ve seen it happen in scenarios way worse than this. I know that I can turn it round. I’m looking at it and thinking: ‘OK, I’ve got to take this kick in the balls because they want to put this flash English bastard in his place.’ I’ve got to take the kinks and the bumps. It’s the grind that makes it worthwhile. It might not actually be successful but it’s the process. Not everybody is always aligned with that. People’s positions can be compromised. But you have to try make it work.
“Up here there have been loads of words. It’s going to take time before my actions give me credibility. But I always thought coming to Rangers would be an amazing learning experience. Very few clubs in the world have this introspection or political and cultural history. I loved Burnley but I wanted to challenge myself. I am now massively out of my comfort zone. I’ve got work to do and there are certain parts of my character I need to improve but I’m also learning every day. It’s not always great learning – because people are fighting against you. They don’t want to see you do well. But all the time I am refreshing and upgrading myself for whatever comes next.
“I left Burnley on a high and here I am now, in a low. But if you set a course through life where you don’t have any tough times how can you develop? If it’s easy, what the fuck do you learn? The tough times shape you. They make you better. And I believe I’m going to come out of this latest tough spell a better person.”