A permanent home? Joey Barton and Olympique Marseille

by Ciaran Kelly

13 May, 2012 will be a date forever synonymous with that Sergio Agüero goal and Manchester City claiming their first top-level title since 1968. However, it was also the latest nadir in a career dogged by self-implosion for Joey Barton.

Perhaps, though – even more so than jabbing James Tandy’s face with a lit cigar in 2004, detaching Ousmane Dabo’s retina in 2007 or serving six months in Strangeways for a vicious assault in 2008 – this event was the most telling.

Struggling with form and QPR fans’ criticism after an impressive start to the season, it was to be the then QPR captain’s only red card of the season – but it very nearly relegated the club.

With Djibril Cisse having just equalised to make it 1-1, Barton got himself sent-off six minutes later on 54’ and QPR only went on to survive the eventual 3-2 defeat due to Stoke securing a 2-2 draw at home to Bolton.

However, the controversy was not just in Barton’s elbow on Carlos Tévez. Rather it was in Barton’s subsequent reaction to the red card in kneeing Agüero in the kidneys; in nearly clashing with Mario Balotelli on the sideline; and in pushing goalkeeping coach Kevin Hitchcock away from him as he walked down the tunnel of the Etihad.

It was Barton’s primal scream: a cry for help that had been simmering for months as he desperately clutched his brilliantine-doused Mozza fringe in leaving the Etihad field, knowing that this latest outburst was likely to be his last in English football.

Sure, in hindsight of his previous misdemeanors, the above-mentioned were of little surprise but Barton had painstakingly spent the previous eleven months using Twitter to reveal Joseph Barton: an all-seeing, articulate observer.

To great effect, for a footballer at least, Barton educated and commented on the British public without resorting to clichés or simplistic arguments. Basically, Barton had turned media dynamics’ on their head: manipulating his own stories without journalists needing much invitation and, as a result, achieving fairly good press.

Take his fall-out with Mike Ashley over the details of his contract extension with Newcastle in June, 2011. The access and details Barton provided – from training in isolation to being allowed to leave on a free transfer – were refreshingly revealing and Barton knew he did not have to overly-dramatise the events.

140 characters were perfect and despite his unsavoury nature, journalists and the general public sympathised – particularly given Barton’s generally good behaviour and impressive performances in 2010/2011.

Still, though, it led to something of a misconception that Barton, crucially, did not address: he was, near-overnight, a seemingly reformed character. Sure, the Englishman was now a teetotaller, a newly-established father and a liberal frequenter of the National Gallery, but that was when calm off the field.

Barton, even since undergoing anger management therapy in 2008, will never to be able to fully shake off that niggle-igniting temperament that will inevitably serve as his footballing epitaph.

Marseille’s fans led a Smiths’ tribute to the then newly-signed Barton before the 3-1 victory over Rennes on 2 September

The beauty and warmth of Cassis and Marseille, though, may provide the perfect sanctuary and in fairness to Barton, he is far from a footballing nomad in this quest, with the reasonable record of having played for ‘only’ four different teams in the space of an eleven-year senior career.

Also, for a cultural connoisseur like Barton, Marseille provides the beauty of the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde and the Calanque de Morgiou, and the opportunity to fulfill a simple life’s ambition: learn a foreign language.

Of course, Barton was well-aware of his parody status in his self-lampooning Gallic shrug in his press conference for Marseille on 26 November, but there was a greater significance to it.

Never once, unlike some other figures in the public sphere, has Barton curbed his raw – for some, grating – accent and it has served as a constant reminder for him of his journey from the notorious St John’s estate in Huyton, Knowsley to a capped England international.

Obviously, on a practical level to anyone familiar with speaking at pace in a foreign country, few Anglo-inclined Frenchmen would have understood Barton so in slowing down his speech with a twang, he was already well aware of the cult following he is generating with Marseille’s fanatical support.

However, this concealed two major points Barton made in the press conference: “all everyone speaks about is the tackle, no one talks about the fifty yard pass” and “the English media concentrate on stupid little incidents.”

These two quotations encapsulated why Barton wanted to move away from England: to reform himself on the pitch and, from a distance, enjoy the English media coverage that is in the palm of his hands due to the Englishman not playing in the Premier League week in, week out.

After all, Barton sees himself as something of a regista – idolising Luka Modrić, who he described as the best player in the Premier League – and his determination to sever the nationality ties with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in the past has crystallised in the move to France.

Here, Barton believed he would have the extra nanosecond and managerial backing to showcase his creative abilities – even with only decent passing range Barton commands.

While undeniably naive, Barton did not disappoint in a deep-lying mediano-like position alongside Benoit Cheyrou in a 4-2-3-1 against Brest on 2 December: performing an all-action role, playing an influential part in both goals and displaying renewed on the field discipline.

This impressive display was accentuated by the fact that Barton has had little match fitness, due to a twelve-match ban for the Agüero/Tévez incidents carrying across the Channel, but any fears that Barton would struggle to break into Élie Baup’s first XI have, surely, been banished.

With Harry Redknapp fairly uninterested in Barton’s progress and the QPR fans unlikely to welcome him back too warmly, Barton, near-inadvertently, may well have found the perfect environment at the Stade Vélodrome to not only cocoon himself, but, also, win the first silverware of his career.

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