“The only reason I became really politicised and did Question Time was because people said I couldn’t do it,” ex-Man City and Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton remarked. “For them I was a footballer who couldn’t spell or read books and within eighteen months I went from being in jail to being on Question Time. It was testament to my reformation as a character.”
From a Liverpool council estate to Wembley, the Toon to Marseille, jail to the royal enclosure at Ascot, and now the Cambridge Union chamber, Joey Barton has had quite the roller-coaster life. His 17-year long career as a professional footballer has been punctuated by red cards, two-footed tackles and scandal, a man never afraid to call a spade a spade. “Neymar is the Justin Bieber of football,” he famously tweeted back in 2013 during his season-long loan at Marseille. “Brilliant on the old You Tube. Cat piss in reality.” More recently, he called Everton caretaker manager David Unsworth “a glorified PE teacher. “I watched him waddling on to the coach. How can you get players to exert themselves physically when you’re out of shape? He’s not a manager and doesn’t look like one.”
This is the Barton of The Sun’s back page – the straight-talking Scouser, the dirty tackler, the thuggish footballer-cum-philosopher, stalwart of the English game. “I stopped trying to control my caricature in the media a long time ago,” he admitted. “When you’re trying to tell somebody this is who I am, I always get sceptical about that. Whenever I’ve tried to do that it hasn’t been genuine.”
At the Union on Tuesday night, who knows if we really came close to getting the ‘real’, more likeable Joey Barton. His combativeness treads a fine line between endearingly unapologetic honesty, and staggering self-delusion. “A plain-sailing career,” he sighed. “That was never going to be my way. I’ve grown to accept that. I’m not a very good liar… I didn’t sign up to be a role model. What can I do about it?” An hour later, he reportedly asked Varsity sport editor Lawrence Hopkins if he was a virgin after questions regarding a recent sex tape involving Dele Alli.
In some ways, it’s a shame that this will be our prevailing memory of Barton’s visit. Because for all the bravado, the unsavoury sound-bites, there is nonetheless the kind of Jamie Vardy-esque, journeyman narrative that makes football special.
Barton grew up in a poverty-stricken area of Liverpool in the 1980s – hardly a hotbed of social mobility. “At the end of senior school there’s no sixth form,” Barton emphasised. “Unless you can play football… what are your options? That could’ve easily been me, I was very fortunate that I could play football.”
“At the age of nine they [Everton] selected me as someone who has a chance,” he said. “By fourteen, I’m told I’m too small, I’m not going to make it. When you support a club and you get that phone call … my parents were going through a divorce at the time. It was earthshattering.”
24 hours later though, Barton was signed onto then League One side Manchester City’s academy after his old Everton youth team coach had been recruited there.
He was still a “runt”, as he put it, and continued to struggle at the Manchester minnows – just another YTS footballer, slumming it out on £72.50 a week with a daily commute in from Liverpool.
“I remember speaking to my careers advisor,” he remarked. “I said I wanted to be a footballer and she starts laughing. ‘No one becomes a footballer’.
“They [Man City] said we’re going to keep you on, but we’re going to give you six months to prove yourself. I was hanging on by my fingertips. It was love that kept me going. I just wanted to play.”
Barton’s position in the academy remained precarious until finally, when he was 18, he got his opportunity in the reserves. Six months later he broke into the first team, and never looked back. From seventy quid a week, to thousands. “I thought this is it, life’s done,” he recalls.
Barton quickly felt the burden of the irrepressible English media. “Every mistake I made was highlighted,” he said, shaking his head as if with fresh disbelief. “I wasn’t used to being a public figure. I was a kid off a council estate in Liverpool where we couldn’t even afford a new pair of trainers.” Needless to say Barton didn’t exactly help his cause – stubbing a lit cigarette in a youth player’s eye at City’s Christmas party in 2004, baring his backside to Everton fans after a last minute equaliser at Goodison, and sentenced to a four-month suspended prison sentence after assaulting teammate Ousmane Dabo in May 2007. That same year, he was sentenced to six months in prison for assault in Liverpool city centre.
For the ebullient Barton, these are just bumps in the road, inextricable parts of the human “journey”. Each setback strengthened his resilience, hardened his will to prove people wrong. His favourite football memory, he insists, was his debut because that was the day he silenced his detractors. “To go on and have a 15-year-career after being told you’re not big enough, you’re not good enough,” he said with relish. “I’d love to speak to that careers advisor now and just say, told you.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it. Playing for England was beyond my wildest expectations. You can sit back and think if I’d been a bit more disciplined I could’ve got more [caps]. But I’m like don’t be too greedy, you have to be happy with what you get. Everything after my debut was a bonus.” As much as it is his footballing lifeblood, you wonder whether Barton’s underdog disposition has prevented him from cutting it at the very highest level. He’s never seemed the most self-deprecating of sorts. “I think I’m the I think I’m the best [English midfielder],” he boldly claimed in 2011. “Jack Wilshere isn’t bad, but Frank Lampard’s on the way down and Steven Gerrard’s been injured a lot.” But, astonishing as it may sound, Barton might ultimately have been constrained by too much humility.
“It scares me that if I’d been of a lesser constitution, if I’d listened to the experts, who knows what would’ve happened. I probably would have been a drug dealer, or a criminal, or working on a building site, not known.”
“One in 10,000 kids in academies end up having a professional football career,” he says, proudly and yet a little incredulously. “You have more chance of being hit by a meteorite than becoming a Premier League footballer.
“I just do my own thing, I’m just a normal working-class kid. Nothing special, just good at kicking a ball about.”
Barton is currently serving a 13-month ban from football after being charged with breaking FA rules for placing 1,260 bets on matches across a ten year period. “I used to bet when I was 18,” he admits. “I was using gambling as a means to alleviate the pressure on me in my professional life.” Life without football has proved more trying; poignantly, the brash, loud-mouthed Barton disappears.
“You’re so institutionalised,” he explains. “I grow up dreaming about being a Premier League footballer. I go to junior school, you’re told where to be [and] what time to be there. Same in senior school. Leave school, go into a football club on a YTS and eventually become a professional.
“All my life I’ve been told where to be, what time to be there, what to eat. You dream about this freedom. When I stop playing football I’m going to climb Everest, walk down the Amazon, sail across oceans. And then you think, I don’t want to do that, I want to go back and play football.
“I’ve realised in the last six months that I need discipline, I need a structure, I need to have a purpose I’m working towards. It’s given me an insight into what life would be like after football. Players go off that cliff.
“So many people live in the past. I think that’s the big issue with footballers. They still think they’re 24, 25. The train’s still moving and you’re left on the platform. It’s terrible. I’m lucky that people follow me, maybe because of controversy and my outspokenness.”
“But that [football] was everything I’d ever known. I didn’t know the world outside of that. It was petrifying. The most painful thing for me was waking up in the morning and not being able to get myself out of bed because I had nothing to do. The kids had gone to school. I had no purpose.”
With a touch of the George Orwell, he concludes: “Discipline is freedom.”
Barton is a fountainhead of such philosophical maxims. “My life journey just becomes more and more Epicurean,” he said, pensively. “The key to life is finding balance.”
In 2014, he took up a part-time degree in Philosophy at Roehampton University following the death of his close friend and behavioural management mentor from the ‘Sporting Chance Clinic’, Peter Kay. “He showed me a different way to live my life,” he said. “I lost someone so influential, so important to me.” Philosophy professor Raj Seghal, a QPR fan and in the stands when Barton was sent off for violent conduct against Man City, had written to the midfielder after the game encouraging him to contact him, noting his prolific quoting of Nietzsche on Twitter. “Weirdly I decided to phone him and go to Roehampton,” Barton smiled. “We crashed a couple of philosophy seminars and before you know it I’m in the first year of a degree. I loved it.”
“It’s mainly about argument," he went on. "And I just loved arguing with people.”
Barton’s interest in philosophy is met with the wonderment of a group of tourists watching a dolphin balancing a volleyball on its nose at Sea World. A working class footballer and intellectual?! When he visited the Oxford Union back in 2014, he was hailed as a “genius” by students. This kind of praise is just another form of class snobbery. Barton’s marked self-reflectiveness, though, is something to be respected in an environment of masculine internalisation.
“The society where I’m from you don’t show any vulnerability,” he said. “You put that in an alpha-male environment of a football dressing-room… You don’t tell anyone if you’re feeling a bit nervous or you don’t feel that confident today because you’re getting a bit of stick from the crowd. You can’t do that. You do that, it’s the end of you. It’s an environment where men were men. The strongest men in the room communicate, but at the time I didn’t know that.
“Roy [Keane] would never reach out to me and say ‘Are you feeling a bit down? Are you feeling a bit lonely?’ That was just not the world we lived in.
“Everybody who looked at me at 23, 24 thought ‘How can you be unhappy?’ But I didn’t like myself, I didn’t like the person I’d become to get where I was.”
So, where does Barton’s journey take him to next? “Coaches usually end up being slow midfielders who don’t really have any skills,” he smiled mischievously. “I fit that profile, Guardiola fits it, Conte and Pochettino fit it. Because we’re so athletically ungifted we have to think about the game deeply.”
Barton is a lot of things – confrontational, aggressive, a “genius”, or “stupid” according to former teammate Yossi Benayoun. He is a hard-working athlete through and through; one with one final comeback up his sleeve. “I’m going to try and go back and play football,” he said. “I think I can do it. I can mope about [my ban]. But the resilient personality in me goes this is a great challenge. To overcome this is another ticking the box for me inside to say I can cut it at the highest level.
“Everybody says you can’t go back, you can’t get back into the Premier League. When you tell me I can’t do something, that’s when I’m at my best.”
Best of the rest…
On football and parenthood: “You get so caught up in what you’re doing you forget to be a good parent. You’re sitting there with your kids and I’m thinking about facing up against Paul Pogba on Saturday. They want me to watch the Dora the Explorer and I’m there like I’ve got a few problems right now, I’ve got to think about what to do with Pogba.”
When asked about England women’s manager Phil Neville’s recent unsavoury tweets: “I don’t really care. It’s nothing to do with me.”
On Newcastle’s takeover troubles: “I still think that deal may happen. I think it’s still 60/40 of happening.” And survival prospects: “They’re in a dogfight. There’s still 10 sides in with a shout of going down. It’s going to make for great TV.”
The lectern vs. Wembley’s centre-circle: “I’d much prefer to play at Wembley in front of 80,000 in a playoff final game than stand here and talk to you. I was so nervous standing there. Give me a ball and tell me the whole world’s watching you, Sky’s watching you and I’m okay… Who wants to listen to me talk?”
Responding to the Union’s Jonas Dein’s suggestion of son Cassius’ footballing potential: “He’s six.”
On rumours of a foray into politics: “I look at people who have served the public in that way and think tip of the hat to you. I wouldn’t want to do it.”
And finally, his message for Cambridge students: “You’ve got an incredible responsibility. Embrace that pressure.”