JOEY Barton, love him, loathe him, you just can't ignore him. The diminutive Scouser is never far from the limelight, whether it's making the headlines for the right or wrong reasons. I'm going to get this out of the way early and admit I'm a big fan and, as a Manchester United supporter, I would have loved nothing more than for Fergie to have punted for him in the summer.
I can tell you now - if he had come to Old Trafford, I'd have been straight down the club shop to get my 'Barton' shirt printed. He's had his ups and downs - mainly downs I'm sure most would say - but the fact remains, at least in my eyes, that there is something captivating and special about Barton. Apart from a ream of misdemeanors down the years - the cigar eye-stubbing incident with youth team player Jamie Tandy at a Man City Christmas party, the jail time for affray in 2007, the Ousmane Dabo training ground assault, the punch on Morten Gamst Pedersen last season and even the cowardly reaction that got Arsenal's Gervinho sent off in the very first game of the current season - there are amazingly additional reasons why I should dislike Barton, in fact none more so than the fact he's a Scouser and he also first made his name at one of our biggest rivals, across Manchester at Eastlands.
Apart from the football-related incidents, it's not as if Barton's off-field life has exactly created a parallel world of escapism for him either.
His parents split at 14 and in 2005 Barton was seen on an emotional television appeal asking his half-brother Michael to give himself up - he was on the run and a suspect in the racially-motivated murder of black teenager Anthony Walker, who had been hit in the head with an ice axe, and he was later convicted of Anthony's murder.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Barton is one of the most controversial characters that has appeared in British football in the Premier League era and, at 29, whatever he does with the rest of career, he'll always divide opinion. Like Robbie Savage, Roy Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo, he'll always attract a lot of negativity and be a figure of hate but, just like those players, he'll always be talked of as a fantastic footballer (OK, so perhaps not Sav!)
While even I, as a Barton fan, often struggle to count the number of good things against the mountain of bad things, Barton is an asset. On the pitch, he's a fighter, a leader, a grafter and above all else, he is a talented footballer. His work ethic is said to have been instilled in him by his industrious father, also called Joseph, who was a roofer by trade. It has hardly been blinked at that, despite only joining Queens Park Rangers in the summer transfer window, he was installed by manager Neil Warnock as captain, displacing last season's hero Adel Tarabbt - hardly the best way to pander to a man who had flirted openly with Paris St Germain over the summer, but it already seems to have galvanized the Rs and, say what you will, but the majority of players will always want to play with a man like that in their ranks. I can't help but think that Barton, apart from now at
QPR with Warnock, has never played under a manager that has known how to handle him. Yes he's played under Stuart Pearce, Kevin Keegan and, briefly, under Sam Allardyce - men who could hardly be described as shrinking violets and who are or have been some of the most popular figures in football management. Yet, at City, Pearce was just starting out and never really looked comfortable nor did he seem the club's first choice as manager, he was not far enough removed from his on-field persona; Keegan, while a great footballer such as Pearce and a hero in the North East, always seemed undermined ed by the powers that be at St James's Park and never fully got to grips with Barton while there was reportedly no love lost between his replacement Alan Shearer and Barton; while as I said, Allardyce was not in charge long enough at the Toon to have worked with Barton.
Before his opening day incident with Gervinho, Barton would have us believe that he was in line for a move to Arsenal, and as Warnock has already acknowledged since he acquired his services, Barton would not be with QPR were it not for his reputation, he'd be with a top 4 club. He would no doubt bring some steal to the Gunners' midfield but it is at Old Trafford, under Sir Alex, where I think he would finally find his feet. He's a big ego, Barton, but it doesn't really matter who you are at United, if you try to undermine Fergie, your time there is usually unpleasant and short. Barton may well have a run-in with Fergie, but I think his industrious nature and gritty upbringing would galvanize him with the Glaswegian. He's always thought of himself as a star (in Newcastle's relegation season from the Premiership, he was once left out of the squad by Shearer, which Barton questioned, claiming to be the best player at the club) and I think he's good enough to play at United, but the sheer stature of the club and the top players who are there would ensure Barton would fit in comfortably yet not feel he was superior to his colleagues.
The fact remains though that for every good thing you can tick next to Barton's name, there are double the amount of negative things. We've already mentioned most of them; there's been the red cards, the bad tackles, the petulance, the bum baring incident at Everton and all the things that have already been touched upon. All of these things, however, go into creating who Joey Barton is and, if truth be told, I think the controversy and misdemeanors convince me even more of his suitability to the Theatre of Dreams.
There's a third side to Barton, aside from the good and the bad, there's also the quirky too. Twitter has come into my life since May this year and social networking is a huge part of celebrity life these days and, increasingly, footballer's are chipping in. What it's woken me up to is a side I never knew Barton possessed. He's very intelligent. Whereas Manchester United's Nani usually tweets about Adidas sponsor days and Aaron Ramsey comes online to state basically after every game whether he's happy or sad, Barton is hugely absorbing, quoting Nietzsche and George Orwell, even Morrissey. Of course Barton wouldn't be Barton without a dash of controversy thrown in and he's also fallen out with people via the site and via television too. He and Wolves' Carl Henry first fell out on the pitch during Barton's Newcastle days, in a game where he was repeatedly fouled but no players were given a yellow card, yet upon his first innocuous challenge, he received a caution. It flared up again when Barton was fouled by Henry in Wolves' game against QPR this season and Barton reacted by calling Henry Calvin instead of Carl, even receiving a grilling from Chris Kamara and Ben Shepperd on Sky's Goals on Sunday. While the incident has opened him up to ridicule from yet another set of fans, and perhaps alienated him further, it's endeared him further to me. A lot of people have asked why can't he just keep out of the limelight, but the attributes that make him such a great player on the pitch are also the same attributes that fuel his personality too, he wouldn't shy out of a tackle on the field so why would he shy away from an argument or debate off it, particularly when he thinks he's right.
In recent weeks, he's also used Twitter to vent grievances with Dwight Yorke while he's even been linked to far right group the English Defence League (EDL) after he was pictured with its leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. Barton's whole professional career to date has been a rollercoaster and, at 29, he seems a little long in the tooth to change now, but like Wayne Rooney, he wouldn't be as effective if you tried to tame him. Have your opinion of Joey Barton by all means, but try and appreciate him for what he is, an enigma, a modern day Eric Cantona if you will.