Football is full of acutely dislikeable gents. There are biters, adulterers, racists, sexists, homophobes, thugs, cheats and rapists. Joey Barton, modestly talented a footballer that he is, couldn’t truthfully be placed in any of the above categories (well, thug maybe). No, his recent crimes are mostly social in nature, a litany of obnoxious annoyances rather than anything too grievous or taboo. While on loan at Marseilles, Barton once told Zlatan Ibrahimovic just exactly what he thought of the size of his facial appendages. “…For weeks after, all the kids in Marseille were coming up to me doing the nose gesture! I was like, “Whoa, everyone saw!” Barton commented after the fact. “It was quite funny. As for that moment, Zlatan was surprised, because he’s Zlatan and no one ever says anything to him. But at the end of the day, I just told him the truth: Zlatan is a great player, and he has a huge nose.” Whether Zlatan had even heard of Joey Barton before Nose-Gate, well, that’s another matter.
Still at Marseilles, Barton also called Thiago Silva an ‘overweight ladyboy’, in a post on Twitter. The jibe was broadcast to more than two million followers, and earned Barton a two-match ban. He was also seen speaking his native language English in what appeared to be a French accent. Endearing or not, Barton’s strange Gallic impression sent a ripple of harsh chuckles through Britain.
His French escapades were very much true to typical Barton form. Never shy about thrusting forward his own two-cents worth, Barton has chimed in on a number of topics; Ryan Gigg’s personal life, the value of Brazil star Neymar, the standard of Adrian Chiles’s punditry, and the state of Tottenham’s recruiting policy, just to name a few. Whether or not you agree with Barton is neither here nor there, a fair amount of people probably do, and take his nuggets of sage wisdom as gospel. What you can be sure of is that Barton’s behaviour irritates a hell of a lot of people.
Of course, Barton is perfectly free to say and do what he wants, within the legal bounds that govern us all. He is at times a stunningly articulate, reflective, arresting speaker. These moments, regrettably, seem to get drowned out by his less pleasant episodes. When you stand back and squint a little, a portrait of an oxymoron emerges – though some would argue for the removal of the “oxy” part. How can a person who made that rather hateful ladyboy sneer, also win the G3 Straight Ally of the Year Award, an award given out to a prominent heterosexual person who has proven themselves an ally of the LGBT communities? How can a player who, at times, appears to rival Donald Trump for egomania, also have these – admittedly rare – moments of quiet, self-deprecating insight? This is a man for whom a death threat served as handy fodder for a humorous Twitter post, refusing to cower in the face of real, seething aggression. To attempt to pigeonhole Barton, it seems, is to accept an impossible task.
So, with this is mind, we lurch forward into the present. Joey Barton was released by Queens Park Rangers after their relegation at the end of last season, and is still without a club. This week it was reported that he and West Ham United were close to finalising a deal, perhaps a pay-as-you-play style contract, but a contract nonetheless. As soon as word broke, a backlash swept forth from the Hammers supporters. Apparently the torrent of protest proved too much, as the club promptly ended their negotiations with Barton. The son of one of the owners even sent out this emphatic tweet, just to make sure all the frayed nerves were soothed. As soon as the deal was officially in the can, countless heads turned to Barton, lips licked in preparation for his response. As Gutman says to Philip Marlowe in The Maltese Falcon: ” By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.”
But the response wasn’t as caustic as many might have hoped it would be. No, the video that Barton released was calm, almost crestfallen. He thanked the West Ham fans who had sent him kind messages, and saved a wry smile for the fans whose messages were less than kind. He expressed his admiration for the club, and their most recent result. He, in earnest, spoke of how he hoped he could have contributed something of worth to the club, and how exciting this next stage that West Ham are striding into is shaping up to be. “No hard feelings”, he ended it with.
The last time a club pulled out of signing a player after a fan outcry, convicted rapist Ched Evans was involved. A cynic would view Barton’s video as nothing more than a public relations manoeuvre, simply a hollow display intended to communicate to his next prospective employer that Barton might have softened a little. But perhaps Barton is simply realising, unemployed as he is, that having a slightly septic reputation is hurting him, and badly now. The self-indulgent goading on Twitter, the outspokenness that has made him a social media must-watch, the silly red cards and public spats; he’s dragging it all behind him like an anchor. Like it or not – and one must assume Barton doesn’t – being likeable is important for prominent athletes, especially when your talent levels only just reach the middle of the pack. Luis Suarez, as much as it hurts to say, can bite all he wants, he’ll still have clubs clambering for his signature. At the moment, people are only clambering to get away from Joey Barton.