It's comforting to have something familiar to cling to as we head towards the great footballing unknown. Me? I'm clinging to Joey Barton...
The start of a new football season is an exciting time for sure, but also a tense and confusing one. As the haze of the summer's transfer activity clears, what's left is a reality arguably foggier still, with little more standing between elation and despair than a squad of players and a handful of hope. Whilst the undoubtedly stirring thoughts of Jeff Stelling's gymnastic phraseology and Paul Merson's wobbly dentures send me all giddy in the head, it’s the unwritten peculiarities of the coming months which really toss my mental balance into a tailspin. I can’t help but find all my optimism tempered by lingering fears.
The journey about to unfurl before our eager eyes contains so much mystery, so much doubt, that you can sense the blades of the unanswerable dangling above our heads. What if we don't qualify for Europe? What if our new centre forward turns out to be Carl Leaburn in disguise? What if our new manager actually is Graeme Souness? In short: what if it ALL GOES WRONG? As excitement and trepidation shuffle hand-in-hand towards the great unknown, it's comforting to have something familiar to cling to. Me? I'm clinging to Joey Barton.
Whilst his peers spent their summers getting hair transplants and sun tans and super-injunctions, Barton was focused on bringing to public attention the catalogue of contradictions and broken promises allegedly littering Newcastle United’s floor tiles. Barton gainfully set about forging a new public persona as a soldier of truth and virtue, the fist-biting pinnacle arriving the day he swapped his Twitter profile picture for an image of Che Guevara.
Having felt the need to position himself as a 21st century Wolfie Smith (ask your dad), quoting Nietzsche and Orwell and generally getting a bit highbrow, our Joey also began supporting in earnest calls for National Service to be reinstated for the young and disaffected, as well as ending his reactionary missives with a selection of questionable hashtags (#bringbackthebirch anyone?). Barton’s previous attempt at reinvention saw him grow a vaguely unsettling moustache. This was whole-new-level stuff.
With Barton's scattershot politics having taken the Twittersphere by, if not storm then certainly potent gust, my head was in even more of a late summer spin than usual. Questions suddenly begat more questions. Is Barton going to start a revolution? Will Fabricio Coloccini start addressing his team mates as 'comrade'? Is Shola Ameobi going to spend the warm-up handing out flyers to the crowd whilst Steven Taylor forgoes his place on the bench to instead walk the streets of Tyneside, absorbing the experiences of the common man? Will there be flags planted in the St James’ Park centre circle? Maybe Souness really is making a comeback.
Transfer-listed and at odds with those around him, Barton strode onto the pitch on Saturday evening with even more of a point to prove than usual. Self-cast as the harbinger of all things truthful, the most vital question of all now presented itself – would this rebel without an escape clause stay true to his own newly-minted identity?
Ninety minutes later we had our answer, and a predictable one it was too. The night finished with the familiar red mist descending, as Barton tussled with the inexplicably-foreheaded Gervinho following a rather hasty bit of deck-hitting from the Arsenal man. Dragging the fallen winger to his feet, Barton may have been attempting to restore some moral purity to our tainted game; a signal that cheats shouldn’t prosper. A nation held its breath. Alas, within seconds he’d blown it all as the most powder puff of swipes reduced our would-be hero to a crumpled, disenfranchised heap. If this was an act rebellion, its intended message was anybody's guess.
Ever the fly in the ointment, now tiptoeing the precarious line between class warrior and class clown, Barton’s undoubted sporting gifts are matched only by his unparalleled ability to cause friction in the smoothest of surroundings. His guiding mission statement of late has been to speak out against football's – and, for that matter, life's – wrongdoings, depicting himself as the tormented face upon which humanity’s cruel, studded boot relentlessly stomps.
Unfortunately for Barton, the vigour required to pursue such injustices will always feed off of the one thing which makes him such a divisive figure in the first place – namely that aggressive, volatile nature of his. For all the hand-wringing in the face of injustice, for all the personal rebirth and renewal, that crimson flicker behind the eyes apparently glows as fierce as ever; the eternally flammable polarity of his psyche never more than a flailing opposition limb away from ignition.
All evidence thus far points to Barton remaining a troubled soul, which comes as sweet relief indeed. In fact, the opening salvo of Premier League games provided ample comfort for my worrisome mind. Arsenal jousted and jabbed at St James' without ever throwing a killer punch, the Gunners shorn of guile as well as some wrought iron guts. How Wenger’s men could go a player with the motorik grind which Barton delivers in abundance.
The following day Manchester United departed the Hawthorns with three late-snatched points, while Stoke’s clash with Chelsea produced more of those tiresome old lines about the host’s overt physicality. In fairness, André Villas-Boas’ comments seemed born more from the realisation of the challenge he faces rather than from any genuine grievance, but so far, so familiar nonetheless.
Meanwhile, over in Spain, the Portuguese’s spiritual guru Jose Mourinho was once more leading his troops into warfare with those staunch autonomists Barcelona. Their two-legged Super Cup affair finished with a brawl, a couple of reds and a bizarre piece of ear-tweaking from The Special One – as blunt a physical metaphor as you’re likely to witness all season.
How reassuringly cosy all this feels. For now at least, the great truths of the league remain relatively intact. If it is truth Barton’s searching for, he could perhaps do with looking a little closer to home, as so far all his hollering into the abyss has produced is a mighty echo but no real response. To his credit, he has publicly acknowledged his flaws and probably knows that he will always be a tricky character for others to take into their hearts. To acknowledge one of Barton's literary heroes, it may be the case that he doesn’t want to be loved, so much as merely understood.