Fleetwood Town’s Joey Barton – From cigars to head coach

The face doesn’t help. It’s a baby face, but also a hard face – a face not akin to backing down; the sharp nose, intense eyes and waxed hair divisive before a word has been uttered.

Joey Barton can be a charming man, a man that cares, a man that craves knowledge, but to many a wild, frenzied screwball or cuckoo.

The footage of him talking before the Cambridge Union Society a month ago is earnest but a little prim, unremarkable and mewling.

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He has a sodden history, a tendentious past – witness to drugs, car theft, a broken home at 14, the disappointment of being released by Everton at 16, nightclub brawls, jail for common assault and affray (Walton and Strangeways) in 2008, red cards, pitch confrontations – but during those 20 minutes we get sensible Joey, polished Joey, bespectacled Joey talking about “challenges” and “journeys” without the earthiness and foul-smelling, feculent detail.

There is the tragedy of his uncle being hit over the head and killed by a pool cue when Joey was eight, but not enough of this honest, forthright history.

‘I think you just mature, don’t you…that’s what we all do,’ he stated on Good Morning Britain a few weeks earlier.

But is this not the same Barton, at root, who referred to Gary Lineker as an “odious little toad” and Alan Shearer as “a prick…I honestly despise”? Is it not the same man who roughed up his own teammate Ousmane Dabo in training and assaulted a 15-year-old Everton fan? Is it not the same unstable hombre who kicked Sergio Aguero and stubbed out a lit cigar in the left eye of teammate Jamie Tandy?

Provocation. Context. Youth. Red mist. There are many half-defences to such action and behaviour.

Some would like to throw Barton to the dogs, however. Some would like to place Barton, without a weapon, in a Roman amphitheatre in front of 10 gladiators.

There is enough vitriol on-line in relation to Barton to make you wonder how he gets through each day. There is enough rage, bitterness and unforgiving malice to keep hell cranked up for years.

Some think of him as the narrator in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn: “I had no more need of God than He had of me, and if there were one, I often said to myself, I would meet Him calmly and spit in His face.”

Others think of him higher up the CONTEMPTIBLE PECKING ORDER than a simple, disrespectful, unyielding, blasphemous fellow.

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The Capricorn phlegm does succeed in laying out a blueprint of the supposedly old Barton though. It does seem to capture the Life of Brian “very naughty boy” (with Barton as “antichrist” rather than Messiah). It permits us to comb through Joey’s past and wonder how the world operates when a man can go from cigar darts to head coach of a prestigious League One setup.

But maybe this is Andy Pilley’s way of ‘giving back to the community’. Maybe his old mate Joey (or Joe), who played 45 minutes for Fleetwood against Kilmarnock six years ago, has displayed extraordinary humbleness, intuition and footballing acumen.

Maybe Barton has regaled Pilley with shrewd, authentic stories, Jack London tales, and the dirt and muster necessary to fire the fragile bones of the young Fleetwood Town squad he is set to inherit.

Perhaps the normally rash Virgo, in his brown, Cambridge get-up, has plunged into a parallel never-never land and wishes to make the most of his contacts in the game.

No one could blame Barton for wanting to progress, for jumping life’s queue like a nepotistic, well-promoted boxer. But does he have the wherewithal? Does he have the self-discipline and ingenuity required for such a role?

The rather droll Rodrigo Ribaldo wrote in The Guardian’s comments section on 18th April: “He couldn’t put on a coaching session to save his life. I’ve spoken to people about him and he can barely lay out cones.”

Now, either the bare-faced lie “I’ve spoken to people about him” gets you here or the visual humour “can barely lay out cones”. But underneath both is the serious question around suitability and competence.

Has Pilley hired a human wrecking ball intent on smashing up the impressive Highbury and Poolfoot Farm infrastructure? Has he handed over the head coach keys, complete with deluxe locker, to a truculent psychopath?

You want to believe in the 35-year-old child manager Barton. You want to think that standing in the technical area togged up in Italian threads may, ironically, help him focus and grow as a person (responsibility like a spring clean and telling harbinger).

André Villas-Boas he is not though; his ‘sophisticates’ membership unlikely to be rubber-stamped overnight (nor would he want it to be). He will remain the “reconstructed thug” to large parts of the public. He will find it hard to shake off the contorted image he has projected for over a decade.

Let’s not for a second compare him to Eric Cantona in terms of philosophical weight, presence or stature; the 5’ 9” Barton five inches shorter than his Marseille counterpart and five aeons from an ounce of the love that Cantona kindled.

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What if, though, Barton wins his first four matches of the 2018/19 season? What if the Fleetwood Town players develop a perverse attachment to the man? What if Barton’s post-match banter begins to take on a mythical dimension and becomes compulsory viewing?

The media and his detractors may, just may, for a full seven days regard him differently. They may start to examine his pitch-side body language and decide that people do change – indeed thrive.

Joey will never be a sensible man, but that does not preclude or disqualify him from being serious. Listening to and reading Barton in his different guises – the conformity he bemoans, the social tool kit he was never given by his otherwise loving father, the public appeal to his cousin and brother to turn themselves in following the 2005 murder of Anthony Walker – it is abundantly clear that he does have a conscience.

Perception can be everything though. And the Barton name – by association – in light of the tragic event in Huyton, Merseyside will reverberate in a negative sense for a long, long time.

Joey’s own scraps and altercations do not help either. He has been culpable of error after error since turning professional in 2002.

Something in the Henry Winter Telegraph article from September 2014 suggests he has finally grown up, however. Something hints that the “saboteur” inside him may finally have departed.

His manner will never be 100% sweet as evidenced by his subsequent, short-lived spell at Ibrox, but who wants a compliant drip of a man, an unquestioning automaton? There are enough of those in the office world. God help us if they start to infiltrate the last bastion of working-class honour as well.

Barton has a fluent, cutting grace at times – something shelved and not welcomed during these politically correct times. If this can be gilded with a little humour then who knows what he’s capable of?

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Football has never actively recruited exemplary, flawless individuals. It only acts that way in starchy, specious circles and in front of the mic. By its very nature it attracts wolves, desperados and the odd genius.

In managerial terms, Barton currently sits in the former camp. He is unproven, untested and has pretty much slipped the wallet from Pilley’s backpocket along with the chairman’s car keys on the sideboard in the form of a three-year contract.

What can he offer though? What does he offer? He is refreshingly outspoken. He is not a media-trained bore whose era never truly began and therefore never actually ended.

He is, to break with journalistic convention, not a pussy or sycophant or bootlicker. And if his unhackneyed ideas bear fruit, then other Barton-esque managers may follow, and maybe even the occasional, unequivocal and forthright BME manager.

How Fleetwood Town will cope with Barton though is another matter. Because they are notoriously decorous and restrained when it comes to their public image. Under their last long-term coach, Uwe Rosler it was a little too unweathered at times and dainty.

On 2nd June 2018 when the FTFC staff line up to greet the ‘antichrist’, some will be thinking that it might free up their own First Amendment concerns within the club, whereas others might simply think “Fuck, what have we done here?”

The Author

Jeff Weston

Author of Wagenknecht (ALL MEN crack up at 40) and Pitchside, Ringside and Down in the Table Tennis Dens.

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