Joey Barton – How do you defend the indefensible?

This must be a first. A story comes out of Newcastle United that ISN’T a shock. Joey Barton suspended by the club “until further notice”, in addition to his three game FA ban, and unlikely to play for the club again — regardless of whether Alan Shearer runs back into the arms of Gary Lineker at the end of the current season.

In all honesty, the tackle Barton was sent off for at Liverpool was not the worst he has committed. Another player could probably have just about convinced the world that it was born out of frustration, and ill-judged at worst. But not this player. Shearer’s refreshingly honest post-match assessment of his midfielder’s aberration summed it all up pretty perfectly:

“I wasn’t happy, I was bitterly disappointed at the way that happened,” said the Newcastle manager, “I asked him to stay calm in the heat of the battle but it was a stupid tackle and he deserved to be sent off. It’s about 90 minutes, not about 75 or 80 minutes, it’s about keeping calm for 90.”

Shearer was spot on, Barton was needed by Newcastle. It is likely that Shearer would rather not have had to hang any of his hopes on the short-fused scouser’s hatstand, but circumstances dictated otherwise. The Geordies’ midfield of Nicky Butt, Kevin Nolan & Alan Smith would have been useful in about 2003, but six years on is bereft of composure, creativity and a goal-threat. Barton, when on song, can provide all three.

Indeed, he did at Anfield for about quarter of an hour. His passing was crisp, his movement intelligent and his constant demand for possession gave team-mates an out-ball on more than one occasion. He even produced a deft clip in behind Jamie Carragher for Peter Lovenkrands to exploit- albeit fruitlessly in the end.

But as Shearer says, it is not about 15 minutes, or 75, or 80. It is about 90. His lunge at Xabi Alonso was not only reckless- Liverpool are still awaiting the results of a scan to determine the full extent of the Spaniard’s injury- but also utterly foolish. Had it been a last-ditch challenge to deny a goalscoring opportunity, or even a reaction to an earlier injustice, then perhaps Barton would have some sort of defence. The fact is Alonso was struggling like mad just to keep the ball in play, both of Barton’s feet were off the floor, both sets of studs made contact with his opponent, the ball’s trajectory is academic in the argument.

It is unusual for me to struggle with my opinion of a footballer, particularly a rival footballer. A boyhood Evertonian no less. But there was always something about Barton that I empathized with. Maybe it was because he sort of looks like me (current haircut notwithstanding). Maybe it was because he reminded me of an (admittedly inferior) Steven Gerrard with his surging runs, long range shooting and firefighting tendencies. Maybe it was just because he was from the same city. But I found myself willing to defend Barton far more times than was necessary. What do they say about leopards and spots?

About eighteen months ago I listened intently to a BBC Radio 5 Live interview with Barton, during which he spoke candidly about the various controversies that have blighted his career. This was before the Ousmane Dabo court case, and prior to his imprisonment for an assault outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Liverpool by the way.

In the interview, with Mike Ingham, Barton speaks at length about his indiscretions, putting over his side of each story pretty convincingly. The James Tandy incident- Barton stubbed a lit cigar out in the Manchester City youth team player’s eye after a row at the club’s Christmas party- is covered, and as crazy as it sounds, it wasn’t hard to buy Barton’s defence. Ok, I wouldn’t have reacted quite like he did, but you could almost understand him.

The Everton fan incident — Barton was involved in an altercation with a 15 year-old Everton fan and his father at a hotel in Thailand during a pre-season trip, and ended up brawling with another team-mate, Richard Dunne — is also explained. Barton suggests the youngster began the altercation with a kick to the leg and some insults aimed at Barton’s friend Robbie Fowler, and that he was unaware of his assailant’s age or motives. Again, the defence might not be perfect, but it gave leeway to the notion that the media may well have exaggerated this lad’s personality somewhat.

Ok that might be a slight against my own character, but there you have it. Barton might just be misunderstood after all, a bit of a hot-head but justifiable. His staying at the Sporting Chance clinic indicated an acknowledgement of his faults, and a willingness to change his ways. He seemingly understood his obligations to represent and respect not just himself, but his club, his team-mates and his fans.

How wrong I was there.

His assault on Dabo, in which the Frenchman was beaten unconscious during a training session, was described by witnesses- including current Celtic striker Georgios Samaras- as “frenzied” and “completely unprovoked”, and earnt him a four months suspended prison sentence, as well as curtailing his six-year stint at City. Dabo told reporters how Barton had attacked him from behind, and continued to punch him even though he had been knocked unconscious. These facts gained further significance six months later when the midfielder responded to being dropped by his new club- Newcastle- for a Boxing Day fixture with Wigan by going on what is commonly known as “a mad one” in his hometown.

Ten pints and five bottles of lager may be small fry if you ask certain ex-players, but coupled with Barton’s temper, and the fact that festive revellers in Liverpool are not over-enamoured with him- especially in light of some pretty unsavoury headlines surrounding his half brother, Michael, jailed for a racially motivated murder in 2005- it was an explosive mix. His assault landed him a six-month jail-term, of which he served seventy-seven days. CCTV footage of the incident was released and showed an eerily similar story to the one Dabo relayed to reporters following his own attack. One of a man out of control. Alcohol was blamed during his court case, but the Dabo attack indicates that this is only an accelerator for the violence, rather than a reason.

There were calls for Newcastle to sack their £5.8m signing but, with Kevin Keegan’s emotive streak at the forefront, they stuck by their “asset”. By the time he was released from prison, Keegan had gone, and it was the old-school Joe Kinnear who was waxing lyrical about Barton’s “right kind of attitude”. A goal on his home comeback against West Brom was just the start of his repayment to Newcastle, said Barton, whilst even his biggest critics were able to give him the benefit of the doubt after a clash with Aston Villa’s Gabriel Agbonlahor, after which the dreaded “R” word was dredged up. No complaint was filed by Villa or Agbonlahor, and Barton moved forwards.

And then to this. Not many Newcastle fans would admit to this I’m sure, but Joey Barton on form would have made a massive difference to their side’s survival hopes in their final three games. Ok he isn’t Gerrard, despite his ambitions (and lets not forget Gerrard successfully curbed an anger issue of his own earlier in his career), but he is the most dynamic, complete, midfielder that Newcastle have on their books, and surely under Shearer you would expect a bit of respect? Especially considering the club had paid his pretty-impressive wages (most) weeks, despite just 32 appearances in two years. But not a bit of it.

It looks like Barton will stick at 32 for Newcastle, with both his goals coming from the penalty spot, and they must face their final three “do or die” fixtures this season without him. No wonder Shearer had no defence for him. You can’t defend the indefensible.

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