“I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve dealt with them. I’ll tell you one thing I am proud of; when I’m finished I’ll be able to look back at my career and know that I was never this media-hyped ponce who was manufactured. The thing people can relate to with me is I’ve always done it my way, even if it might have been the wrong way… I don’t regret a single thing because it’s made me the person I am.” Joey Barton, October 2008
The common perception is that Joey Barton is a thug, the worst example of Premiership excess. Stuart Pearce once said he was guilty of crossing the line from mischief to nastiness, a sentiment echoed by the cab driver, a Newcastle fan, who drives FourFourTwo to meet Barton at an industrial estate in Northumberland. The player himself has admitted: “They were right to call me a thug in the papers.”
But it’s hard to believe this is the same person sat here today, drinking a cup of tea. Whatever his misdemeanors, however they’ve influenced his standing as a footballer, this Joey Barton seems personable and unaffected, his words thoughtful and articulate. It’s classic Jekyll and Hyde stuff.
He leafs through the morning’s newspaper, which accurately quotes him as saying he isn’t bothered about playing for England again, but as we talk it becomes clear this isn’t the case at all. Impetuous he may be, but Barton’s directness and honesty are refreshing antidotes to the evasive blandness that infects so many of his peers. It’s reminiscent of a young Roy Keane.
Barton grew up in Huyton on the outskirts of Liverpool, which sits within the third most deprived area in Britain. Mostly built in the 1970s for those relocated by Liverpool’s slum clearance, it swiftly began to decay after with the closure of several factories.
While there remains a strong sense of community, a bleak disillusionment has taken root. Schools are failing, drugs and crime are omnipresent, one in four young men are unemployed. Knowsley, the borough which includes Huyton, has just been named in the top 10 worst areas to live in the country.
Barton’s family have not gone unaffected. When Barton was younger, his Uncle Joe his was murdered. Just two years ago another uncle, Edward Rogers, survived an attack that left him unconscious and in a pool of blood in a Huyton betting shop. His younger brother Michael, who he had grown up separately from since he was 14, is currently serving an 18-year sentence for murder, and in August this year two of his cousins were charged with stabbing a man to death in Huyton.
But despite the brooding sense of resentment and disenfranchisement around him, Barton used football to plot his way out.
How did growing up in Huyton shape you?
It’s a tough area, so you had to have a bit of aggression to survive. You can see that in the footballers it has produced, the likes of Peter Reid, Tony Hibbert and Stevie Gerrard. If you didn’t have that steeliness in your game any ability would have been bullied out of you. You had to stand up for yourself and fight. We played as often as we could, making goals out of wood or scaffolding, and our parents didn’t have to worry because we were always on that field.
What were the worst scrapes you got in to?
We got into a few, but it was mostly petty. The worst was throwing mud at buses, because we were always on fields playing football. The estate where I’m from was at the end of the bus route from Liverpool city centre, so over time, we got to know which bus drivers would give you the best chase.
How did you avoid crime?
I had a good upbringing. When I was 14 my mum and dad split up, which forced me to move off the St John’s estate. I went with my Dad, who I was close to, to live at my Nan’s, who was about a mile from there. It weaned me off life on the estate. When your parents first split up, your world crashes down around you, because they’re the centre of your life, but when I look back now it was a blessing in disguise. I know that sounds selfish, but if I’d stayed on the estate, I could have got caught up in more trouble. I left at 14, when your life is about football, but a few years later it becomes more about girls and drinking and hanging around the streets.
What influence did your grandmother have on you?
Before there was a gang of us, and we were like a bunch of stray dogs, and whenever there was a game, we were there. But when I moved in with me Nan, it was the first time in my life when I had to be in for my tea, and I wasn’t allowed to play football all day. She was a lot more disciplined. I had to tell her where I was going to be at all times.
What’s happened to the lads you left behind on the estate?
A lot of them have gone the other way; up to no good. I sometimes think I could have ended up like that. I know a lot of people who have got into serious trouble and gone to prison, sadly it’s an everyday thing where I’m from. I know lads whose lives spiralled out of control. I see some of them now, and it’s sad, they’re still doing the same things they were doing when they were 16. They don’t have much of a life. When I drive home, it shocks me that you never see kids playing football in the streets, it scares me to think what they’re up to now.
Could any of them have become footballers?
A couple were definitely better than me, one particularly, who is in jail now, for burglary I think. He was on Liverpool’s books as a kid. What a waste.
How did it feel to be rejected by Everton at 14?
It was really tough, horrible, but there was a scout at Everton, Barry Pointin, who had gone to City, and when Everton released me he phoned me that same night. I was gutted for about an hour and then I got the phone call. But I was still disappointed to be deemed a failure and rejected by the club I’d supported as a boy. I hated that feeling.
Driven by rejection, Barton made his way through the ranks at City before making his first-team debut aged 20. He was establishing himself as a promising player when he was involved in the first of several incidents that would scar his reputation.
In December 2004, at City’s Christmas party, Barton was involved in a fight with an 18-year-old youth player, James Tandy. Barton, who was dressed as Jimmy Saville, had been burning some of his team-mates on the arm with a cigar. Tandy responded by trying to burn Barton’s shirt with a cigarette lighter, before Barton jabbed the cigar in his face. A fight broke out and Barton was struck with a bottle. After an internal investigation, Barton was fined a record six weeks’ wages and warned by Kevin Keegan about his future behaviour.
Barton’s antics didn’t help his already uneasy relationship with the manager. “It was definitely a rocky ride,” admits Barton, “but the older I get the more I appreciate him. When I was younger, managers felt like teachers, it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship. I was just very headstrong, very stubborn, I thought he didn’t really believe in me. It was Arthur Cox and Asa Harford who pushed my case. I got the feeling that Keegan was only playing me because he valued their opinions. I thought he was waiting for me to fail, so he could say he was right.”
Though a poor run of results eventually prompted Keegan’s resignation in March 2005, Barton continued to excel, his form inspiring City to an eighth-place finish under new manager Stuart Pearce.
But more controversy was just around the corner. On City’s pre-season tour to Thailand, his temper betrayed him again. He was having an amicable conversation with a 15-year-old Everton fan, who then goaded and kicked him in the shin, provoking Barton to hit out. Club captain Richard Dunne attempted to separate the pair, and became involved in a fight with Barton himself. When they were eventually separated, witnesses recall Dunne, with tears in his eyes, kicking the wall in anger and shouting, “Why is this happening, Joey, why?” It was a question Barton had to answer quickly.
How do you reflect upon the incidents at the Christmas party and in Thailand?
With disappointment. I let myself down, it was just plain stupidity.
So why did they happen?
People say I’ve got this temper, and I suppose I have, but if you think about what happened in Thailand, I had a bit of a scrap in a bar, what kid hasn’t done that? It happens all the time, you go out for a drink with your mates or colleagues and act stupid. I was 22, and didn’t know any better. I was playing in the Premier League, I had money in my pocket, people recognised me wherever I went, I could pull birds a lot easier than ever before… it went to my head, I got carried away. You think you’re invincible and can do what you want.
Why the rage, though?
It was just the drink. I thought I could handle my alcohol, but I had one too many and quickly realised I couldn’t. Drink was the common denominator on both those occasions, apart from me. I didn’t have a leg to stand on, so I had to address why they happened. When I look back, they shaped me more as a person than when things have gone well.
Are you teetotal now?
No, but after the incident in Thailand I stopped drinking for 18 months. As a young lad, I had bad examples to look up to, great lads, but not the best professionals. You can’t go to the pub after the game on Saturday, you have to be an athlete. There’s a time and a place for drinking, and I like nothing better than going away on holiday with my partner and having a couple of glasses of wine.
Barton was sent home from Thailand in disgrace. Back in Manchester, he was trying to sleep off his jetlag when he received a call to say his brother Michael had been involved in “something horrific”: he was on the run for the murder of Anthony Walker. Still fearful for his own future, Barton went on television to make an appeal for his brother to return. He slowly shakes his head at the memory.
At this point, Barton asked for help. For the first time, he wanted to talk openly about his problems, so he booked himself into the Sporting Chance clinic that Tony Adams had helped to set up in Hampshire. Barton was reluctant at first, fearful of being delivered into a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The first time he spoke to Sporting Chance on the phone, he told them: “I’m not mad, you know.” But three days there would ultimately save his career.
How would you describe this period of your life?
With everything that had happened, it felt like rock bottom. It was the worst I had ever felt, I was so low. It was a very scary time. For some reason though, I managed to play really good football during it, and that gives you an inner strength.
And at this time Stuart Pearce advised you to seek counselling…
No, it wasn’ t him, everyone thinks that, but it wasn’t. It was City’s chairman at the time, John Wardle, a great man. He’s the reason I stayed at City a season longer than I wanted to. But the truth is if I wasn’t good at my job, they wouldn’t have helped me. I’ve seen young kids get caught up in stupid things, and the club use it as an excuse to release them. City were trying to make out they did me a favour, but if it wasn’t for the money I was worth, they would have sacked me. To be fair to John, he said as much. You don’t want bullshit. The truth might hurt, but it’s only thing that gets you through it.
How did your time at Sporting Chance help you?
It was a life-changing experience. I learned that asking for help doesn’t make you weak and walking away from trouble doesn’t make you a coward. That was the best thing I’ve ever done. It has given me a totally different outlook on why things happen. That doesn’t mean I won’t make mistakes, because since then I have. But I have a different thought process and way of handling things now. I still can be hot-headed, that makes me the person and the player I am, but it’s more under control now. I know how to get myself out of tricky situations, which before I didn’t see coming, I would just be in the middle of it. Now I can see a difficult situation because of my past mistakes, I know that I’ve been here before and I got in trouble because of it, so I back away.
The turmoil in Barton’s life has blurred the fact that he is a fine midfielder. Energetic, industrious and talismanic, with an eye for a pass, a goal and a tackle – the latter earning him several bookings and the odd red card – Barton’s club performances won him an England cap, awarded to him as a sub against Spain in February by Steve McClaren, who once tried to buy him for Middlesbrough.
Despite Barton’s form, though, City were lurking dangerously close to the relegation zone, prompting Barton to hit out at “substandard” signings. This, in turn, prompted Pearce to ban Barton from talking to the press. With survival secured, City then suspended Barton for the last two games of the Premiership season after a training ground incident in which he was accused of assaulting team-mate Ousmane Dabo (he’s due to stand trial at Manchester Crown Court on November 22).
Barton’s future clearly lay elsewhere and in July he joined Sam Allardyce’s Newcastle revolution for £5.8m. Within days, Thaksin Shinawatra had arrived at City and with him Sven-Göran Eriksson and a host of top-quality players.
Why did you leave Manchester City?
I’d been there nine years and thought I was going stale. I wasn’t enjoying training any more. I would get up in the morning and think, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go in there again.’ I felt like I was banging my head against the wall. There were a lot of committed players there, but not everyone was doing it week in week out. I spoke to [City chief executive] Alistair Mackintosh and he wanted me to see who became the manager, but my mind was made up.
How do you look back at your relationship with Stuart Pearce?
There were a few things I disagreed with him over, but I don’t want to get into a war of words because I have a lot of respect for him. Eventually it went a bit sour, but that doesn’t take away from the person that he is. I wish him all the best, he did a lot for me. I couldn’t sit here and have a go at him. He’s got the England Under-21 job, which suits him, because he is passionate, and he can breed the next batch of England players.
Do you have any regrets at missing being a part of City’s revival?
Everyone says I must be gutted now City are doing well, but I really am not. You don’t spend nine years somewhere and all of a sudden hate them with a passion and want them to fail.
What appealed to you about joining Newcastle?
I wanted to work with Sam Allardyce. He’s a good man-manager, he deals with you as a man first and a footballer second. He’s on your side and treats you with respect and like an adult. He knows you know the difference between right and wrong, so he isn’t a school teacher. I’ve come to work with him because he can take me from being on the edge of the England squad to being an England regular.
And yet you’ve said you’re not bothered if you play for England again?
No one is more patriotic than me and I would love to play for England all the time. And if I play to the level I think I’m capable of then they can’t ignore me. You haven’t seen the last of me in an England shirt. I‘ve got a lot to offer, but if that isn’t used I will remain an England international and I have got one cap to cherish. Sometimes I look at it and think ‘How did I get this? A snotty-nosed kid from a council estate in Liverpool…’ It makes me proud to think I won that, and I want some more to put alongside it.
How do you see your future with England?
I want to be part of the squad that goes to Euro 2008. If I can get to the level I know I’m capable of, then there aren’t many midfielders in the country, barring Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Stevie Gerrard, who can compete with me. There will be opportunities, because players get injuries. Look at Gareth, he’s really taken his chance. All I need is a chance as well. I felt that I did more than enough in that 12 minutes against Spain to show I can play international football. I more than held my own against Xavi, Iniesta and Albelda, who play regularly in the Champions League. If I can do that, and they are the so-called best footballers in the world, then I want to do it again and again.
How did you find the experience of being an international player?
The night before the first training session I remember sitting in my hotel room at the Lowry in Manchester and I was so nervous. I was thinking, “Can I handle this? Am I going to get found out?” I was absolutely shitting myself. But I felt I did more in 12 minutes against Spain than some others did in a longer period of time.
How were you welcomed in to the England camp so soon after criticising several players for publishing books after the World Cup?
It was turned into a big deal that I had said something about Frank and Stevie when I’d never actually mentioned them. If anything I was pointing the finger at other people, who are in positions where I’m thinking, ‘How can you talk about football?’ When I joined the camp, Stevie was brilliant with me. I made a point of going up to both of them and explaining exactly what I’d said and, to my face, both of them understood and were different class. Obviously, a couple of weeks later I read an article that said Lampard had gone to Steve McClaren and said something about me, which I doubt very much, because of the professional [Frank] is. But if it was the case, it is quite sad because if he had anything about him as a man, which I think he has, he would have said something to me at the time, and he never did. He told me his opinion, I explained my situation, and we got on fine from there. Looking back, the press wanted to have a go at Lamps, and I gave them a bit of ammunition, and they put words in places where they weren’t.
A year ago you said: “I'm still a million miles from where I want to be as a player and as a person, but I'm trying to improve every day.” How close are you now?
Probably about 999,000 miles away from where I want to be! You always get to a level and want to push on. I want to achieve in life. It’s an exciting time for me, I’m at a new club with a manager I believe can get a lot more out of me. The future’s bright for Joey Barton.