The past few days have seen the headlines, perhaps not dominated, but certainly bothered by two tackles. Both resulted in straight reds, both came when the game was already dead and buried, but neither bore any resemblance whatsoever to the other.
It is difficult to envisage two players with less in common than Joey Barton and Darren Fletcher. But football, the most inclusive of sports, does not discriminate, and both will miss the climax to their respective seasons.
It is a tragedy on two counts. Whilst some would argue that the Newcastle man shouldn’t even be playing in the Premiership any more, it would be hard to find any mature football fan who has a bad word to say about Fletcher.
Indeed, the nature of the two tackles almost perfectly reflected the personalities of the players in question. Joey Barton, a most infuriating character, threw himself into his tackle in a violent, reckless manner and with no regard for the well being of Xabi Alonso, simply to satisfy his urge for revenge, or perhaps to vent some frustration.
The most frustrating thing is that nobody doubts the talent the player has. He burst onto the scene under the tutelage of Kevin Keegan, and for 18 months under Stuart Pearce he was the driving force behind everything good Manchester City achieved. He often gave the impression that he was playing the opposition almost on his own, and was rewarded with an England debut against Spain.
This was just reward for apparently becoming a reformed character after the infamous Cigar incident almost exactly two years previously, yet he still found time to show his dark side by insulting England players for releasing autobiographies. A valid viewpoint perhaps, but the appropriate time and context in which to express it? Nonetheless, his honesty was hailed, and it was suggested he would become a future England regular.
Sure enough, only three months later he snapped once more, assaulting Ousmane Dabo in training. His many other crimes are well documented, so this is not the place to list them. Nor is it my point; that is merely point out that there was a time when he was far better behaved. And during that time he played for England.
Trying to find a single pieice of controversy to implicate Darren Fletcher in is almost as difficult as it is to list Barton’s crimes in one article. One of football’s quiet men, he is the epitome of the man who gets his head down and gets on with it. In October 2005, Fletcher was one of the victims of Roy Keane’s now infamous MUTV rant, the firebrand Irishman demanding to know why Scottish people raved about him. Did Darren sulk, hit back through the media or hand in a transfer request?
No. He scored the winner at Stamford Bridge less than a month later.
That alone should speak volumes for a man who has had to deal with criticism of his ability, talent and a long injury list to get to where he is today as a mainstay of United’s European first team.
His patience has also been richly rewarded. Many players would see the likes of Keane and Scholes before them in the first team, and decide their future lay elsewhere. Many more would see the signings of Veron, Kleberson and Djemba-Djemba as attempts to replace them, and throw in the towel. And there has never been any shortage of suitors for Fletcher, a real footballers footballer. Honest and successful against the odds, just like his tackle against Arsenal.
And having bided his time, the failure of the aforementioned trio to make any long-term impact has been Fletcher’s biggest gain. Being made the Scotland captain has been his making, and after finally given an extended run and key role in the team, his performances in the big games this season have been epic.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two situations due to their respective clubs stature. There is truth in the fact that Barton would never have been able to hit Fletcher’s heights had he stayed with City in the way Fletcher has by also staying put. Newcastle, however, are a big club, and Barton’s impact has been anything but positive. Fletcher’s has rarely been anything but.
Joey Barton, the far more naturally gifted of the pair, is running out of willing guardians, time, and expended the last of his goodwill long ago. But should he take a leaf or two out of Fletcher’s book, he might just realise the talent that is so, so close to being criminally wasted in the most repugnant of ways.
He may as well give it a go. He as absolutely nothing left to lose.
You can also read Ben Johnston at www.inbehind.com